Navigating the College Admissions Process: A Comprehensive Guide for Parents

Attention parents of future college students! Prep Expert has put together your complete college admissions process guide, carefully designed to help you understand and navigate every step of your student’s journey to college acceptance. Join us as we explain how to create a strategic application timeline and offer resources to support both you and your college-bound child.

Discuss Your Child’s Goals

The first step in any parent’s college admissions plan should be to talk to their child and learn about their goals for the future. Ask them questions like:

  • Which schools have you been looking at?
  • What are you interested in studying or pursuing?
  • What are your biggest strengths?
  • What is your dream career?
  • What can I do to help you reach your goals?

Being involved in the admissions process and showing support is important, but remember that you should allow your child to take the lead as this is an important step toward independence for them. Be careful not to take control or start doing everything for them. Instead, offer to help by researching colleges with them, setting up campus visits, scheduling test dates, reminding them of deadlines, etc. This is a great moment for them to learn what it’s like to be independent while they still have you as their safety net.

Research Together

Once you’ve learned more about what your child is interested in studying and which schools have drawn their attention, you can help them research further. Visit university websites to find information about how and when to apply, financial aid options, campus life, extracurricular activities, scholarships, programs of study, and more. This information will allow you and your child to weigh the pros and cons of each school and locate other options that may not have already been on your radar.

As you research, help your child pick out schools that fit into the following categories: safety schools, target schools, and reach schools. Safety schools are those to which your child is practically guaranteed acceptance. Target schools are those that have expectations a little above safety schools but are still in line with your child’s grades and test scores. Reach schools are those that may be slightly out of reach, whether due to low acceptance rates or high average grades and test scores. Encourage your child to submit an application to at least one school from each category if not more.

Set Up Campus Visits

Campus visits can be a great way to help your child narrow down their choices after they’ve created their preliminary list of schools. After all, you can’t get the full experience of a campus just from visiting the school’s website and doing research. Your child may discover that their dream school on paper isn’t actually what they thought it would be when they visit the campus. 

You can choose to call ahead to schedule a formal tour with the school’s admissions office or opt for a more casual visit where you and your child explore on your own. Either way, we recommend starting to visit campuses during your child’s junior year of high school. This will give them plenty of time to fit in all the schools they want to see and make a decision before admissions deadlines roll around.

Create an Application Timeline

When your child has settled on a list of schools to which they want to apply, you can then help them create an application timeline. This timeline will keep them on track and ensure that they meet admissions deadlines while allowing them enough time to put proper effort into each element of their applications.

What’s in a College Application?

College applications are made up of several parts:

  • High school transcript.
  • SAT/ACT score reports.
  • Letters of recommendation.
  • Personal statement or application essay.
  • FAFSA information.

In most cases, your child will need to request that their official transcript be sent directly from their high school to their colleges of choice. In rare cases, they may be asked to mail in the transcript in a sealed envelope along with other application materials. Remember that your child’s high school is mailing out transcripts for most of the senior class, so you should try to get your request in as early as possible.

Not all schools require students to submit their SAT or ACT scores as part of the application process, but high scores can help your child’s chances of being accepted, especially at competitive schools. Talk to your child about upcoming test dates and help them select one that will give them enough time to submit their scores before application deadlines. With the new digital SAT, students will receive their scores in just a few days as opposed to several weeks, which should make the application process easier. ACT scores, however, will still take a few weeks to arrive, so be sure to plan ahead. Students can request to have their scores sent directly to their schools of choice when they sign up for the test.

Most schools require students to submit 2 to 3 letters of recommendation. These letters should come from teachers, counselors, coaches, or other adults outside the family who know your child well and can vouch for their strengths. Talk to your child about who they feel may be a good person to ask for a letter and encourage them to make their request early in order to give each person enough time to write a high quality letter. We recommend asking at least 2 months prior to the application deadline and providing all the necessary materials.

Students will also be tasked with writing a personal statement or essay as part of their application. This is one aspect of the application process that you definitely don’t want to leave until the last minute. Help your child set up a timeline to complete their essay in advance of their deadlines so they have enough time to ask for feedback from teachers or counselors and revise their work. Encourage them to write about what makes them unique!

To apply for financial aid, your child will need to submit your FAFSA information. We will touch on financial aid in greater detail later, but make sure to complete your FAFSA as early as possible to give your child enough time to submit the correct information. It’s important to note that some schools may require additional forms.

With all these pieces in mind, you and your child can work together to create an application timeline that allows them enough time to craft an excellent application without overwhelming them. Remember that they will have to continue completing normal schoolwork and navigating extracurricular obligations at the same time, so try to help them start early and stay on track with regular reminders and progress check-ins. Try creating a family calendar that incorporates all their test dates and deadlines in one easy place.

Talk to Counselors and Teachers

Counselors and teachers can be a great resource throughout the admissions process. Helping students prepare for college is part of their job, so they can offer specialized advice unique to your child and point you in the direction of extra resources. They may also be able to provide feedback on various parts of your child’s applications, especially the essay or personal statement.

Have a Conversation About Finances and Financial Aid

Paying for college is difficult. It’s important that you have a discussion with your child early in the application process about how much the family can reasonably contribute to their education. Many students will hopefully find that a strategic combination of scholarships, financial aid, and student loans can cover the rest of the cost.

Understanding Financial Aid Options

Most colleges practice either need-blind or need-aware acceptance. A need-blind school accepts applicants regardless of their ability to pay the cost of attendance, while a need-aware school may deny applicants who will not be able to pay. You can find out which categories your child’s choices fall into by visiting the financial aid pages of their websites.

Schools will break down the cost of attendance into 2 categories: direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include billed expenses like tuition, housing, food, etc. Indirect costs, on the other hand, represent unbilled expenses such as travel and books. These costs often vary from student to student, especially for those who choose to live off-campus or with family.

Students will almost never be asked to pay the full sticker price when attending college. Most schools offer financial aid packages based on both need and academic achievement. Even the most expensive schools (including the Ivy League) will often meet full demonstrated need for all admitted students without requiring them to take out loans. Some may provide work opportunities that help cover costs as well.

You can receive an estimate of your child’s financial aid package by using the financial aid calculator available on the school’s website.


Encourage your child to seek out scholarship opportunities outside of those offered by their schools of choice. They may be able to earn extra scholarships for things like:

  • Their chosen field of study.
  • Their standardized test scores.
  • Their athletic performance.
  • Their artistic abilities.
  • Their contributions to the local community.

Keep in mind that most scholarships will have their own application processes, often including an essay. Incorporate scholarship deadlines into your child’s overall application timeline to help them complete and submit all of their applications on time.

Help Your Child Prepare for the SAT and ACT

High standardized test scores are an excellent asset to your child’s college application. Not only do they give them a competitive edge in the pool of applicants, but they also provide extra scholarship opportunities that could lessen the financial burden of attending college.

Empower your child to perform their best on the SAT and ACT by enrolling them in online courses with Prep Expert! Our certified instructors will answer all their burning questions, review important concepts, and teach valuable test-taking strategies they can use throughout the rest of their academic career. 

Browse our course catalog with your child today or check out the Digital SAT Playbook written by Prep Expert CEO and perfect scorer Dr. Shaan Patel for more information.