When it came to my stepdaughter Gabrielle applying to college, I’m pretty sure I made every mistake in the book. I nagged, I pleaded, I bribed, I yelled, and, yes, at times, I took over. She stood at the top of the stairs and I stood at the bottom and, buddy, the only thing that could cut through her reluctance and my frustration was a very sharp knife. The kind that is seen on TV slicing through soda cans and frozen packs of spinach.

While it was a stressful time for poor Gabrielle and all of her four parents, I’m hoping a few good things came out of it. First off, she was accepted to many wonderful schools. Second, I’ve learned we did a few things right. Third, you get to benefit from the error of my ways.

Read on for five dos and don’ts to help your teen with college apps.

DO: Start with a schedule. DON’T: Put together the schedule for them.

If we had to do it over, I would have started the college application process with a fun trip to Office Depot. I would have handed over the credit card and told Gabrielle to buy whatever she needed to get organized: a yearly calendar with erasable markers (to get a bird’s eye view of what’s in store); a fun, trusty notebook (to take notes along the way); a variety of folders and hanging folders (to keep track of school information — you’ll get a lot of it); and a rainbow of sticky notes (to flag areas of interest).

When we got home, she could have sat down with that calendar and decided on her deadlines, which include:

  1. Establish my college list
  2. Conduct more research into schools and narrow down list
  3. Identify times to visit schools
  4. Fill in application details
  5. Write down ACT/SAT testing dates
  6. Write down application deadlines
  7. Ask for recommendation letters
  8. Write essays

Instead, we only had a fuzzy idea that something big was looming and it was going to take a lot of work. She blindly dove in, and it was unclear when she could come up for air.

Whether it includes new office supplies or not, start with, and have your teen take ownership of, a schedule. Even if they don’t stick to it, the work has been broken down into pieces so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.

DO: Show them how to research colleges to establish their picks. DON’T: Tell them where to go.

Here are the resources to start the mind-boggling process of finding the schools that are a right fit for your child:

Direct your teen to these websites and read my blog post about how to choose a college here. This is all you need to attack this major project.

However, when you have offered up these resources (some of which include student-written reviews), it’s time to sit back and relax. You’ve done your job. The next step will be to ask them which schools they have chosen, so you can research them yourself in order to have a thoughtful conversation about each institution. I would recommend not having it at a time when you can look at the schools online together. 

Gabrielle’s mom did this part of the process with her, and it went very well. Lisa remained positive, oohing and aahing over how gorgeous the schools were and what opportunities that were out there (looking at study-abroad options is a nice way to insert some fun in the task). As Gabrielle narrowed down her list, we all stayed very positive as schools got kicked off of it. Ultimately, we didn’t care where she went, just as long as she was happy when she got there.

Two points I’d like to make on this front:

  1. When you see your child’s choices, stay calm and positive. If they’ve decided to apply to Harvard, let them. Even if it’s way out of your price range, schools like that have enormous endowments that they’ll access if they want your child. Just make sure your kid has also chosen at least a few schools that are easier to get into. We recommend applying to seven schools: two reach schools (ones that will be a stretch for your teen to get into), three on-target schools (ones to which they are likely to be admitted), and two safety schools (ones to which they are almost sure to be admitted).
  2. Have your teen choose at least one school that is close to home or, vice versa, one school that is farther away. When it gets down to it, they may balk at the last minute and realize they aren’t ready to leave yet or, conversely, that the only way they can really succeed is to be away and completely on their own.

DO: Be enthusiastic and supportive about college. DON’T: Talk about it all the time.

My husband William and I became so immersed in the college application process, it was almost all we talked about. We wanted to make Gabrielle feel excited about this next stage in her life, to prepare her for the task ahead, to make ourselves feel like we’d done our due diligence and mined every opportunity for her success.

But when it came up, all Gabrielle could think about was all the work she had left to do — not just for applications, but in getting through college itself. She was (and is) afraid to disappoint us and herself and she didn’t want to think about any of it. As a result, she clammed up. But when she did, we talked even more, trying to stuff more information into her, telling her anecdotes and memories from our own college life. And she clammed up even more.

Every teen is different, of course. Some are ultra organized and do their college apps completely on their own. Some would put it off to the last minute if you let them. But either way, I think it’s important to let your child come to you. They will when they’re ready, if only to say, “I don’t know what to write about.” That’s where you can step in and feel like a savior instead of a dictator.

DO: Go on college tours. DON’T: Be the parent on the tour who asks all the questions.

For all the time that can go into researching schools, there’s really nothing like being on campus to get a feel for the place. Every college has a unique atmosphere, and it’s important to be able to experience that.

Luckily, we nailed the college tours in the parenting department. We hung back, while Gabrielle walked up front near the tour guide (of her own volition). We looked at the dad who asked too many (and not very good) questions and felt smug that that wasn’t us.

We even made Gabrielle schedule the tours herself. The colleges make it easy on their websites. Then, when it came to tour day, she was in charge of knowing what time it started and how to get us to the admissions office.

DO: Remind them of their strengths, experiences and accomplishments. DON’T: Write the essays.

When we at Sway Essay visit colleges and ask about admissions essays, the mantra we hear from admissions officers is: They want to hear a student’s authentic voice. And they know when there is a discrepancy if your teen has a so-so writing score on standardized tests, but a flawless admissions essay.

So, when your teen comes to you in despair (and possibly tears) and says they don’t know what to write about, remind them you can’t do this work for them because the whole point of it is that it comes from them. Ask them what the prompt is (and how it’s specifically worded) and simply talk to your child about themselves. Remind them of their strengths, experiences and accomplishments. Remind them of what makes them them: that they bake chocolate chip cookies for their friends, that they spend their free time listening to nerdy podcasts about mythology, that they told you their favorite word is “petrichor.” Gabrielle would often bring down her laptop and write while I was cooking in the kitchen, reading lines to me as she wrote them. That’s when it worked best. She felt encouraged and I was relieved something was getting done.

Also helpful? Having a stack of admissions essays that were winners. Often, reading other essays will trigger ideas for their own work. Find great admissions essays herehere and here. 

Another helpful tip? Hire us to get everyone through this part. I will make sure these essays get done, are real and are polished.

In the end, is it hard to step away? At least for me, it was so hard. Not nagging Gabrielle and asking when-oh-when she planned to ask her teachers for recommendations or write her essays or schedule her ACT, well, for me it seemed impossible. But read this: I regret being such a nag. So, learn from me. Be a guide and support, not a boss or task-master. And if you find that hard? Know you are not alone.