A photo collage of Richmond admission representatives and their children.

For the Parents by the Parents: Advice on Navigating the College Admission Process

November 23, 2021

A post by Gil Villanueva, AVP and Dean of Admission, &
Michael Pina, Director of Admission

Gil Villanueva has two children in college. His son is a senior and his daughter is a first year. Michael Pina is a father of two daughters in college. One is a senior, and one is a sophomore. Both credit their spouses for their kid’s smarts.

From the Writer’s Desk

With a combined 60 years of experience counseling students and families on selective college admission, we felt assured—supremely confident, even—that we were uniquely qualified to guide our own children through their college search. The whole thing would go smoothly, right?

Guess again. We thought we had seen it all, but even with decades of knowledge and familiarity with the profession, navigating the college process wasn’t exactly a cake walk. We struggled a little, learned a lot, and gained some valuable perspective along the way.

And now that we’re on the other side of the process, we’d like to share our top lessons learned with you. From parent to parent, we hope you find this advice useful as you support your student in their search.


Gil’s Advice

1. Allow your child to take charge. Be their biggest cheerleader.
It’s easy to say, but hard to practice. My son was not a big communicator in high school, and his one-word answers were often a source of personal frustration. Throughout his college search, there were moments when I wanted to take over and dictate his next steps. As parents, we inherently want our children to succeed. And because we have more life experience, we sometimes assume that we know what’s best for them. But as my much-better-half reminds me, a) our son is fiercely independent, and b) our role as parents is to be his biggest cheerleaders. It was more important for me to place my trust in our young adult than to try to steer the ship.

2. Schedule college talks and stay organized.
You’d be amazed at how far a little organization can go to help manage mental health. Start a simple notebook or spreadsheet. Encourage them to write things down, from notes about colleges to application deadlines. If your child is organized, one hour of college talk per week is plenty. My kids were more forthcoming with college updates when my wife and I equipped them with the tools and time they needed to get answers to our questions. Many college websites extend step-by-step instructions on how to apply for admission and financial aid. Some even have chats that answer your questions live. We scheduled our talks so they knew when to have the answers, and listened closely to help guide which questions to ask next.

3. Have an honest conversation about finances.
College is expensive! And very few families can afford to write annual $70K (or higher!) checks. It’s important to understand what is financially realistic. But before you communicate an affordability threshold to your child, do some research first. Use the cost calculators posted on college and university websites to obtain your family’s expected financial contribution. Pour yourself a nice hot beverage, find a comfy spot, and come prepared with your tax information. Take your time, and enter all required information correctly so your estimate is more accurate. If you encounter questions, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to call the Office of Financial Aid.

4. Check yourself. Mind your comments, facial expressions, and body language.
Regrettably, I was never good at hiding my emotions. My face shows it whenever my favorite teams lose, and I get upset if my child has a bad experience. But the college admission process is dynamic, with lots of moving parts outside of your control—setbacks and disappointing news can/will happen. Your child already feels anxious enough about the process, so try to refrain from adding your own emotions to the mix. Don’t take their college acceptances (or rejections) personally. Remember, your job is to be the best cheerleader you can be for your child. No one can really predict admission decisions, so if bad news comes, don’t get upset. Get supportive.

Michael’s Advice

1. Let your love for your child be your guide
My child’s trust in their college counselor mattered. I was not there to be a second counselor—my role was to be that unconditional backstop of support. To promote dreaming when they felt insecure, and rationality as they navigated big decisions. I always ended the hard conversations (and easy ones) with, “I love you…I am proud of you!”

2. Embrace rejection and disappointment with empathy and support.
No matter the outcome of an application, I made it crystal clear that I was proud—my daughters knew they were supported and seen. And disappointment will happen. The coach at a prestigious school wooed one of my daughters for ten months. After multiple campus visits, it grew into her number one choice. During a final family visit before her senior year, the coach broke the news that she would not be recruited. It wasn’t meant to be, and she felt hurt. But it sharpened her approach. Knowing that we celebrated with her, mourned the disappointment, and genuinely did not wince when the coach delivered the stinging rejection mattered to my daughter.

3. Use your ears twice as much as your mouth.
Communicate and listen carefully—I had to communicate on the child’s terms, when she was ready. When it finally came time to make a choice, I wanted the process to be over; I wanted my children to be decisive. I knew they had good options, but I made myself exercise patience. As the old adage goes, use your ears twice as much as your mouth.

4. Treat their final choices as the first choices, no matter what.
In the end, my children’s first choice schools were not options. That also made the process of deciding harder than I scripted in my mind. One child endlessly flip-flopped until three days before deposit deadlines. The moment of clarity came when we least expected it. The other child had to pivot and utilize fledgling virtual resources because of COVID-19. She saw and internalized things from her digital interactions that her veteran higher ed dad missed. It was eye-opening to trust each of them and hear what resonated in their evaluation. By having honest communication and understanding my role as a supporter, I became a better father for my children and a better admission officer because of what they taught me.