Updated: Jun 07, 2018
From campus visits and applications to gathering supplies and helping on move-in day, parents of college-bound students are often involved in every step of college prep. And that involvement doesn't end after drop-off day. While schoolwork should obviously be the number one priority for students, participating in extracurricular activities can provide valuable, often hands-on, experiences. It's also an opportunity to make important social and professional connections that can last well past the college years.
There are some easy ways to help encourage your student into a life at school that comfortably includes both studying and extracurricular activities. Here are a few ideas.
If your child is headed to college soon or in their freshman year, you can introduce them to people who might better explain the advantages of extracurricular activities at college and how to go about finding good ones.
Robert Herbst of Larchmont, New York, has an 18-year-old daughter who is a freshman at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. While Herbst's daughter is still trying to decide what she'll study at school, she's settled nicely into a routine that involves schoolwork and Lacrosse Club, and she is potentially joining a sorority in January — thanks in no small part to a little extra encouragement from her family.
"We kept our input simple and low key," Herbst said, "and any pushing we did was gentle questioning just to make sure she was not going to sit in her room and be overwhelmed by college."
While Herbst and his wife did do some investigating into the options their daughter would have so they could raise the topic, he thinks watching two older brothers go off to college and find extracurriculars they loved also helped.
"I think she saw that college didn't have to be overwhelming and that one could, and should, take part and be involved in enjoyable activities," he said.
Your child doesn't have to have older siblings to help guide them, though. Children of your own friends or colleagues who already participate in extracurriculars at their colleges can be equally as helpful. They can explain how to juggle school and extra activities and can make suggestions about how to get involved.
It would be easy for your child to focus solely on the extracurriculars that they think potential future employees might look for — like working on the school paper if they're a journalism major. While there's nothing wrong with those types of activities, Shereem Herndon-Brown, a former admissions officer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and now an educational consultant, encourages parents to suggest a different route.
"The key is to get them involved and contributing to their school, community, church, synagogue, mosque or work," said Herndon-Brown, who was also the associate director of college counseling at the Riverdale Country School in New York City and Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "Colleges really like students who are innovative and daring."
To foster innovative and daring ideas — like starting their own club if one doesn't exist — Herndon-Brown thinks it's important for students to think outside of the box. Yet, that advice may need to come from someone other than a parent.
"At this age, kids don't listen as much to their parents, so parents suggesting anything is often falling on deaf ears," he said.
The solution? An intermediary. If there's someone at school — perhaps a favored professor or coach — try suggesting that your child talk to them about potential hobbies and interests since they probably know more about opportunities than you would. And if not someone directly at the school, even a favorite relative or another person your student is close to would do said Herndon-Brown.
He also suggests using personality assessment tests, like the Myers-Briggs test, to tap into your child's interests.
"I don't hold them to be gospel, but I'm a big believer in personality assessments," he said. "They're usually pretty accurate and can give kids a good idea about the kinds of activities they should look into. Parents think they know their kids, but an impartial tool like these assessments is a really helpful way to give kids clarity and evaluate their strengths."
Most colleges have departments that help parents navigate the tricky waters of watching their children go off to college. In Herbst's case, the Office of Family Engagement at Wake Forest reached out to him and his wife directly as soon as they accepted his daughter, before she even officially decided to attend. The office "spoon fed us repeated announcements about the fair the school holds where the various clubs set up tables on the quad to tell about themselves," he said. "In turn, we made sure she was aware of the fair, which she duly attended."
If you don't hear directly from such a department at your child's college, a quick online search or call to the admissions department should help you find out whether something similar exists so that you can reach out yourself to see what resources are available.
Even if your child seems reluctant to chat with you about their social life at school, don't give up.
"Without trying to be helicopter parents too much, we have encouraged our daughter to get involved in extracurriculars and supported her efforts," said Herbst. "We have used the office to be generally aware of what is happening on campus so that we could ask our daughter about what she is doing. Also, like most things with teenagers, she tolerates our questions, but we don't want to push too hard."
"My best advice is to keep things low key and not pressure them," Herbst said. "College offers many choices, and they will find things that appeal to them.
"On the other hand, parents should be aware of the types of opportunities that are available so that they sound informed when they speak with their student," he continued. "Also, that will help them make suggestions if their student is more on the introverted side."