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What To Expect When Your Teen Is Applying To College

If you’re the parent of a teenager who is or will be applying to four year colleges, then you are in the right place/ this is the blog for you!  Parents, if you went to college right out of high school, sooo much has changed in the application and acceptance processes since that time. I’ll let you in on some differences to expect, and then talk about how to navigate this process with your teen.


1.  Online applications and online notifications of acceptance or rejection to the schools. Gone are the days of paper applications and waiting for the mail to arrive, fingers crossed for the ‘thicker packet’ denoting acceptance to the school.

– it’s all online and deadlines are online with submissions due by 12 midnight and some horror stories of things gone array for folks too close to the deadline (think internet connectivity or unexpected things to fill out taking more time than available before the deadline)

2.  The school communicates with your student ONLY.  Unless you decide to make your email address the contact and the portal login, which I don’t recommend though can see its appeal and practicality, your teen is going to have to check and manage emails and make and keep track of web addresses, portal login, and password information for each college they apply to.

–  Your teen will be the only one to see what the ‘checklist items’ are to constitute a completed application packet to each school.  Your teen would do well to keep track of these ‘to dos’ and then watch email closely, as I know students who have run out of time to be considered at a school due to an incomplete application packet. Some schools require some things that others do not and also may not seem intuitive. For example, a report from your student’s high school that shows it’s ratings on various measures, or a guidance counselor recommendation. What a bummer to be out the application fee but not be able to be considered because the application was incomplete. 

– Your teen will be the only one to get the notices of when things are due such as tuition deposits and housing deposits which, if missed, can and do jeopardize these items.

– Your teen will be getting a lot of email which, unlike adults, high schoolers are not generally used to and so the tasks of checking email regularly and filtering through what email is important versus what email is promotional. Think about it, if your student applies to let’s say 10 schools, they will be likely be getting email from each school multiple times a week and most of it is non-urgent mail, therefore making the priority emails hard to spot at times.

3.  Parents receive NO information directly from the colleges.  Similar to the point above but stated differently to drive the point home that you as the parent(s)/guardian(s) will likely get zero information from the college(s), even after your teen has accepted admission. No letter of welcome, no list of ‘to do’ or ‘next steps’ items, no bills in the mail. All this is generally done online and through your student and their portal or email. (*edit: some parents I talked to DID get email from college but not all did, so it may vary by college and/or vary on how your teenager fills in the forms and emergency contact information)

– Although very few 12th graders will be independently financing their college education,  they are the ones who will be getting these notices of when deposits are due / bills for admissions and housing, so it will be important to find ways to regularly navigate this with your teen. Also, you will pay these bills online through your student’s portal rather than a direct link to you.

4.  California schools are harder than ever to get accepted in to. I’m no expert on the statistics of it or reasons for it, but the California state – and especially UC system – continues to baffle me with the students with near perfect SAT scores and GPAs not being admitted into a UC school.  Now, this varies by major, which college, and multiple other factors but all that to say I advise that students apply to some private and out-of-state schools, and more than one or two “safety school” choices.

– some schools outside of the California state system have what’s called “rolling admissions” until May 1st and so there may be some time to act fast and apply to other schools if students don’t get admitted in to their preferred CSU or UC schools in April. (or, of course, to apply at any time to these out of state schools)

– Some colleges in the Western states have reciprocity agreements with each other and with California state schools, therefore making making tuition to an out-of-state school somewhere between the rate of the in-state and the out-of-state rates, which does reduce the cost. Some majors and some schools qualify for this and your student’s application will be automatically considered for this if you it’s a qualifying school or major (ie, you do not have to do a separate application, yay!)


1. Open communication.

– Come up with – preferably collaboratively – a plan for regularly checking in on these types of items together. “How are you doing on your applications?”  “What are you tackling this week?” 

– Encourage them to plan ahead.  Just because the drop dead due date is at midnight, what if the site is slow, our internet is slow, the power goes out (insert sarcastic shout out to PG&E here), or there are unexpected items for the student to complete.

– Try to be encouraging overall. This is a time with big decisions, new responsibilities, and dealing with rejection.  Your teen needs a safe haven from the stress – at least sometimes – and for you to continue to take interest in aspects of their life other than just grades and college applications

2.  Look at this as a gradual process of them taking over responsibilities for their life and their future.  Try not to just ‘take over’. You are not going to be able to go to college with them and manage the day to day of their studies and life, so this is the time for them to be gradually exposed to these ‘real world responsibilities’ while still at home for your guidance and encouragement.

3.  Consider encouraging them to apply to some out-of-state and/or private schools (find schools and ratings at https://www.niche.com/ and https://www.collegevine.com/admissions-calculator )

4.  Get involved on your own.  It can be a helpful way to manage some of your own anxiety and energy around this process.

– attend college night events at your teen’s high school and/or neighboring events

– ask questions at the college open houses; talk to admissions people at the open houses. (here’s an idea of some questions to ask admissions officers: https://www.collegecovered.com/getting-into-college/questions-to-ask-college-admissions-officers/ )

– Sign up to get the college info emails on their websites. It won’t tell you if they got in or not or when payment is due but it may give you some other helpful information and it can also give you info to prompt your student on.

-if your teen’s high school has them, sign up for Remind apps from the college and career counselor.  The high schools often have things going on such as visits from colleges and there can be other helpful reminders for you and your teen to get and discuss.  You signing up for the Remind apps can be a way for you to stay involved and check-in on things but also while under the umbrella of it not being you over-managing but more of a discussion starter you can either screenshot to your student or bring it up with them a la “looks like a UC Davis representative is going to be at your guidance office tomorrow, Might that be worth checking out?”


When they do get accepted and decide which college they want to go to, then will come the important emails and portal items such as tuition deposit deadlines, signing up for orientation, and housing sign up and deposits to secure housing.  Sometimes they have to check the portals, sometimes they receive email. These items are very important for them to stay on top of but can sometimes fall through the cracks because they usually coincide with your teen’s high school graduation plans, finals, and Summer break. Just because they’ve been accepted and accepted the offer doesn’t mean the process is over, so it’s important they stay attuned for those to do list items.


I love seeing teens and adults in my psychotherapy practice!  If you are a California resident and would like to work with me or to have me counsel your teen, please contact me, I’d love to hear from you. I have an office in midtown Sacramento, an office in El Dorado Hills, or I can provide tele-health through a secured platform.

Sue Goetz, LCSW www.hopeintherapy.com (916) 764-8360