10 Ways to Support Your Child in their University Applications: Dos and Don’ts

Being the parent of a teenager who’s going through the process of applying to university is hard work.

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You’re trying to encourage them to achieve their dreams while also supporting them in making choices that will prove sensible in future. You’re trying to be helpful, while not doing everything for them. You’re trying to be involved in the process, while not being a helicopter parent or pushing them into something that they don’t want to do. They’re stressed, you’re stressed; it’s certainly not easy.
We’ve written a great deal about the university application process in the past, but in this article, we take a look at it from the parent’s perspective: how you can best support your child so that they end up at the university that’s right for them.

1. Do be a taxi driver

It’s not as thankless a task as you might think!

Not everyone has the resources – whether in time or in petrol money – to ferry their child around to all the open days and events that they might wish to go to. But if you do, then this is one of the most significant things you can do to help your child. If they want to be more independent, it might be a case of buying their train tickets, or if they’re prefer your company, it could be about driving to open days with them.
Either way, firstly visiting university fairs and then visiting individual open days is invaluable for your child to figure out which university is right for them. There may well be places that sound perfect on paper, but that have disadvantages that are only evident when you’re there in person – for instance, there are people who have chosen Oxford over Cambridge on the basis that Cambridge can be really windy sometimes. If you come along, your opinions may also be useful; while you should avoid finding fault, you might spot advantages or disadvantages that are not so readily obvious to your child.

2. Don’t impose your own ambitions on them

Be careful to give your child enough freedom for them to flourish.

This is a perennial piece of advice, but it’s repeated for a good reason. For one thing, it’s very easy for a parent to impose their ambitions on their child – especially if your ambition is for them to follow in your footsteps – even if you’re not actually intending to influence them. In all likelihood, your child already has a good idea of the kind of things you would prefer for them to do, and the things you would prefer them not to. In many cases, this will align with what they want to do themselves; after all, it’s likely that what you want above all is for them to be happy.
When your ambitions conflict with theirs is when you need to be particularly careful. It’s not just that any pressure coming from you will make an already stressful time more stressful for your child; it’s that you won’t be doing them any favours if you push them into something they don’t want to do. For one, many students who end up concluding that they picked the wrong degree chose their original course as a result of parental pressure. But that’s if they even get in. Admissions tutors don’t just look for ability – they look for enthusiasm, particularly in more demanding and competitive subjects. If your child ends up applying for a course or university that they’re not keen on deep down, it will significantly increase their chances of being rejected.

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3. Do remember that the world has changed

Today’s student is a far harder worker than you might expect.

Let’s say you went to university in the late 80s. That was a time when, in the UK, less than half of 16-18 year olds were still in education; when there were no tuition fees, and a good range of grants and loans to support university students; when more men went to university than women; and when universities such as Derby, Lincoln and Oxford Brookes – all of which are in the top 60 in the UK according to current league tables – did not yet exist. It’s easy to see, then, why your experiences of university life might not reflect what your children can expect.
For one, much of the traditional hedonism of student life has gone by the wayside; students paying good money for their degrees are less inclined to spend their time at university partying. They’re more conscious of their job prospects than they used to be. Some universities that were once near the top of league tables are now more middle-of-the-road; by contrast, as the Times’ 1996 league table shows, Loughborough used to be unremarkable, and is now a top pick for many students. So it’s important to remember that what you think you know may well be out of date.

4. Do encourage them to consider a range of options

Try not to close down options preemptively.

A UCAS form allows room for your child to pick five universities, and that should include a healthy mix of the universities they’d prefer to go to, with one or two backup options in case they’re less successful than they’d hoped. It’s important to include backup options and you should encourage your child to do so; it’s tempting to say that they should aim solely for the best, but that could leave them in the difficult and disheartening situation of having no offers at all.
Instead, try to keep an open mind about the university they might go to – or the possibility of taking a year out and trying again with grades in hand – and don’t talk down the less competitive universities that they might end up choosing for that crucial backup slot. It’s best to be open-minded in other areas; for instance, even if you’re pretty sure they’d be happier in a more urban university, don’t encourage them to rule out more rural universities altogether.

5. Do help them make connections

We’re talking friendly advice rather than old-school nepotism.

This isn’t about using the power of the old school tie to get your children into top universities; aside from anything else, most admissions processes are now robust enough that this doesn’t work. But what you can do is help your child learn more about the options they’re considering at university by seeing if you can put them in touch with helpful people.
For instance, let’s say your child is set on studying Law. It’s a subject that’s particularly prone to misconceptions, thanks to a combination of urban myths and legal dramas on film and TV, so your child’s impression of what being a law student is like might not be entirely accurate. If your social circle contains any current solicitors or barristers, reaching out to them and asking if they can talk to your child about what’s involved can be of huge assistance. The same holds for just about any subject, and this is something that you can do much more easily as an adult than your child can themselves.

6. Don’t write anything for them

Resist the temptation to step in.

If your child is bashing the keyboard in frustration trying to compose their personal statement, then it can seem incredibly tempting to sit down and ‘help’ them with it to the extent that you end up writing it for them. But this was a bad idea with their homework in primary school, and it’s an even worse idea with their personal statement now. That’s partly because university admissions tutors will be able to tell, partly because it’s intended to be a personal document that they’ll be able to talk freely about at interview, and partly because there’s no guarantee that you’d actually do a better job anyway.
What you can do to help is get them to talk you through their ideas. If the difficulty is knowing how to phrase something (and that’s often the biggest stumbling block), get them to say what they’d like to say out loud, and write it down word-for-word as they do. Sometimes that will turn out to be the ideal phrasing. Even if not, helping them air ideas is useful and much better in the long run than taking over.

7. Do help contact universities

Phone-admin can take a real load off your child’s mind.

Depending on what kind of work experience your child has had to date, they might never have had the experience of writing a professionally-phrased email or making that kind of phone call. It’s certainly good for them to get practice in these areas, but perhaps not by getting in touch with the admissions department of their favourite university (no one is keeping track of enquiry emails, but that won’t stop your child feeling anxious about it). If it’s just a matter of ordering a prospectus or asking a straightforward question, there’s no harm in you volunteering to do it for them, and they can exercise their independence in a less stressful context.
Similarly, university admissions and administration teams can keep odd office hours, and it may be that these don’t intersect well with your child’s school timetable – especially if there are time zone issues as well. If you’re free at those times, volunteering to do some of the straightforward phone-work can make life a lot easier for your child.

8. Do keep key dates free

Block out key dates well in advance.

There are some really important dates in the university application calendar, and you can find out well in advance when they are so that you can keep them free. For instance, if the any of the universities to which your child is applying are likely to do interviews, you’ll want to keep a couple of weeks ahead of then reasonably clear so that you can help with interview preparation. (You don’t need to worry about the day of the interview itself; it’s more usual for students to travel to interviews and back on their own).
Even more important than interviews are the dates when exam results are released over the summer. If all goes well, these will be uneventful; your child will get into their firm university choice and then all that will remain is organising accommodation and buying them new duvet covers. But if it doesn’t go so well, they’ll need to call universities and figure out what their options are, and it’s best to do that as soon as possible. They’ll want you on hand for moral support at the very least.

9. Don’t jump to conclusions or scaremonger

Take reasonable precautions, but don’t alarm your child.

When your child leaves for university, it’s a difficult time as a parent, too. One key concern is safety – will they be OK living independently? If they’re moving to a big city, will crime be a concern? It’s easy to jump to conclusions about where will be safe and where not, and to leave your child feeling alarmed about these things, but that’s doing them a disservice.
If your child has a more cautious personality, you don’t want to leave them feeling anxious about their future destination, so do your best to calm any fears that you or they might have. Broad-brush assumptions, like the idea that universities in big cities are always less safe, are particularly unhelpful – especially if they’ve already settled on a London university as their first preference. If you’re really concerned, a decent contents insurance policy, high-quality bike lock and regular backup of laptop contents go a lot further than agonising over whether a university is in a safe area or not.

10. Do provide stability as much as possible

Maybe hold off the big building projects until things are more settled.

Naturally, you can’t tailor everything that’s happening in your own life around what your child is doing. But if at all possible, try to provide a base of stability at the point when they’re applying for university. It’s a time that’s filled with a lot of change and decisions, so if you can help provide a counterbalance to that, it can be both helpful and reassuring.
For instance, if you’re thinking of moving house, can you delay that disruption until they’ve left for university? Even something more minor like redecorating can be very disruptive. You might have made plans around when they’ll be sitting their exams, but the first UCAS deadline for some courses falls in October of their final year, so the applications process gets started even earlier. Bear that in mind, whether you’re booking a holiday or planning a loft conversion.

What have you found helped your child with their university applications? Let us know in the comments!

Image credits: trinity college dublin; christ church oxford; taxi; boy on mountain; working at laptop; doors; handshake; phone; calendar; bike helmet; building work .


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