“Parents need to be aware of how drastically the process has changed since we were applying to colleges.” says Christy Schmidt, mother of three college-aged students. For over a decade I have worked with families navigating the admissions gauntlet and agree completely. It has changed and here are a few tips that can help this process go smoothly for everyone involved.

Pick good matching colleges
Picking a good college match is both an art and a science: The art part of picking a match has to do with the school’s personality, character, and academic offerings. Kim Cullen, mother of six children shares, “we read a lot of college websites and The Fiske Guide to Colleges together, then we drove all over the country to make in-person visits to the schools they thought they were interested in. That part really is a lot of fun, especially if it’s one-on-one and you have the opportunity for some great conversations about colleges (and other topics, too). Most of all, I remind them often that they’ll end up where they belong, that the process is about finding a good match, not about going to the”best” school.” Adds Christy, “I used a fabulous website, collegeconfidential.com, very extensively and found it absolutely invaluable. It’s a huge database of info for tons of schools, where you can search for general info (location, enrollment, tuition, etc.), or go into depth about specific majors and programs, either generally or at specific schools. It includes these vast message boards in which current/former students, parents, faculty, admissions reps, etc., all ask and answer each other’s questions — again, both generally and down to super-specific questions.”

The science part is evaluating how competitive your child is for a particular school. You can do this by doing a web search for the school’s Common Data Set. This information is the equivalent of looking in a college’s underwear drawer. Nothing is hidden. You get to see the actual data of previous classes so you can compare it to your child’s. For example, if your child wants to go to Duke from looking at their common data set, you will learn that 90% of Duke’s incoming class are in the top 10% of their graduating class and 97% of their incoming class are in the top 25%. So if your student’s class rank is 26 out of 100, Duke is going to be a reach. The common data set include ranks, GPA, and test scores among other things. You can also find a school’s graduation rate which is always interesting and occasionally surprising.

Get Organized
Your young adult is going to handle the college application process the same way they have handled all academic assignments in the past. If they habitually procrastinate and wait until the last minute to do things, they will do the same during this time. You can help them by providing organizational tools such as a wall calendar with deadlines so they know when to do things like: request transcripts, take the SAT, request recommendations, attend meetings, etc. Kim advises to “keep a notebook with a page for each college they’re applying to that has all the contact information for that college.”

Have an angle and a plan
It’s no secret that well known colleges are quite competitive though many lesser known schools are also quite good. The competitive colleges look for a well-rounded student body but not necessary a well-rounded student. Decide ahead of time which aspect of your child you want to highlight for admissions. For example, academics, music, sports, passion for classical languages, etc can all pique the interest of an admissions officer. If you go with a general theme like “leadership,” be prepared to provide numerous examples in the essay as to how your student was a leader.

Set restrictions up front
If you have certain financial or geographical restrictions, let your child know so they don’t waste their time researching schools that are off-limits. “Research through websites or by contacting the college’s financial aid office or specific departments, what scholarships may be available” says Christy. However, be aware that financial aid is available for most schools and scholarships are often given to students who exceed a school’s admission requirements. Financial aid in the form of loans should be carefully evaluated because loans can be seductive, cost more than a mortgage, and take years to pay off. There is little to no research on the earnings differences between school specific graduates over time.

Don’t take over. The college application process should be spearheaded by your young adult and supported by you. “Through the application process, I would help with brainstorming essay topics and proof-read them.” says Kim. In an ideal world, your young adult will be the one arranging college visits, tours, and interviews. In an ideal world, he or she should also be the one in contact with the colleges. There are many reasons for having your young adult spearhead this process but among the most important is that it gives your child a chance to create a relationship with the admissions representative. Encourage your child to seek your help and see you as a resource.

Reflective listening is a technique taught in every mental health facility, mediation program, and sales training. When you listen reflectively you seek to understand another by repeating back what that person has said minus any judgment or personal input. Parenting a college bound senior means listening to your children vent but not letting them off the hook. Venting allows for a student to dump their emotions, regroup mentally and move on.

Pick a day a week to talk about college
It is easy to let the process get overwhelming. Constant nagging has never resulted in a happy relationship for anyone. Setting aside one day a week to talk about with your student about applications can keep everyone happy and focused.

Call in outside help if necessary
Your relationship with your young adult is one of the most important possessions you have in life. While it is completely possible to breeze through this process, and many families do, it is also not unusual for both student and parent to experience stress during this time. If the stress turns to anger and hostility than it is time to seek outside help.

Refrain from writing the essay
You won’t think that this would be have be said because no one in their right mind would ever think of writing their essay child’s application essay but…college admissions can bring out the worst in us. “Remind the parents that this is NOT about THEM!” was one high school counselor’s piece of advice. What happens is that a typical 17-year-old writes a typical 17-year-old essay and then gives it to mom or dad to proof read. Mom or dad is an executive and freaks out when they see what their child has written. They quickly ‘fix’ the essay so that it sounds ‘better’ and unwittingly turn it into a 50-year-old executive’s briefing of accomplishments. What they fail to take into account is that the person on the receiving end is likely in their early 20’s and is quickly bored by a list of accomplishments. They want something fun written by a 17-year-old.

Enjoy it. In the end, this is a year to be celebrated by both of you so schedule sometime to just enjoy it with each other.