Marist senior Ivonne Perez reviews materials colleges have mailed to her. Starting early and thorough research helped Perez avoid common college application pitfalls. (Bob Kerns/Catholic Sentinel)
Marist senior Ivonne Perez reviews materials colleges have mailed to her. Starting early and thorough research helped Perez avoid common college application pitfalls. (Bob Kerns/Catholic Sentinel)
Move over helicopter parents. Make way for the latest, worst example of overprotection: the snowplow parents. College admissions counselors say snowplowers are not content with hovering over their teenagers and swooping in when there’s trouble. Instead they blow away any adversity before their kids even come to it.

Ivonne Perez, a senior at Eugene’s Marist High School, is blessed with parents who neither hover nor snowplow. “They’ve always offered advice, like which colleges to apply to,” she says. “And when I did make the decision, they were there to really support me… I really wasn’t in the college process alone.”

But when parental sheltering runs amok? “That’s dangerous,” says Martin Williams, an associate director of admissions at the University of Portland. In his 13 years at the job, he’s seen just about every mistake a prospective freshman can make when applying for admission. “How do you teach a 17-year-old independence if they’ve never had a chance to be independent?” Williams has heard of parents calling the admissions office and pretending to be the student’s counselor and even claiming they are the student. He has been in meetings with parents who say, “We are working on our application.” His advice? “Let the child drive the bus. You can provide assistance, but don’t commandeer it.”

This time of year, seniors are trying to meet different deadlines set by the different colleges and that can be tough, he says. But the process should begin at least a year before that.

Perez, along with her closest friends, began thinking about college in middle school. “When we researched colleges, we could help each other out. And that was really nice.”

Williams says one of the worst mistakes an applicant can make is missing out on the right high school classes. He cites an example of someone who wants to study engineering without having a strong mathematics background. Early planning helped Perez. “At the end of my freshman year I wanted to focus on health sciences or medicine,” she says. “Then by the end of my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to be a nurse.” Now a senior, Perez is taking anatomy and physiology—her favorite classes.

The college application essay is one of the biggest challenges for students. Williams has a long list of tips, including:

Don’t rely only on spellcheck. He recalls one applicant who typed “groped” when he meant “grouped.” Spell check doesn’t see the error, but any careful reader would.

Choose words carefully. An applicant who wrote, “I enjoy serving low class people” displayed a lack of literacy, he says.

Don’t be lazy. Williams recalls one student who said she was “interested in Reed’s art program” even though she was applying to the University of Portland.

Williams says young people are accustomed to communicating through texts. But when corresponding with an admissions officer, students should be professional. He warns against using “text-messaging type language.”

“No one thing gets a student in,” says Williams. “There are so many factors.” He encourages students to rely on their high school counselors for advice and to start early. He stresses the importance of visiting campuses and applying to schools “within their academic wheelhouse.” According to Williams, Stanford University may be a target for many, but “only 4 percent of applications are admitted into Stanford. Applicants need to find backup schools.”

Perez seems to have avoided the major pitfalls. When she finally felt like her essay was ready, she presented it to her parents, not to edit, but for feedback. “I told my parents I wanted their honest opinion… My parents can be really picky sometimes. So it was good to hear they thought it was really good… I felt like I got the real official stamp of approval.”