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College apps = parent stress

You have heard of parents overwhelmed by the toddler years, juggling work and kids whose runny noses get them sent home from day care. But now, there’s another phase of parenthood just as stressful on parents who are already balancing multiple demands — helping a teen get into college.

As high school graduating classes get larger and college admission becomes hyper-competitive, parents are bending their work schedules and spending hours guiding their kids through the overwhelming process.

“There’s no easy way out,” says Leslie Coller, mother of Rachel, a senior at Miami Beach High School. “It’s an all-consuming process, whatever level you are going for.”

BY CINDY KRISCHER GOODMAN, Are you helping your child with the college application process? Should they just do it on their own? Comment below.

Coller, who works as a clothing line representative, says she had to get tough with her daughter, insisting she write the required essays and fill out applications during the summer, when both of them had more time to devote to it. Her daughter applied to 12 colleges — a process that took dozens of hours. With that out of the way, they now begin the scholarship application process.

“It’s very intensive,” Coller said. “There are laid-back parents who have kids that are driven to do well. But even with a kid who is motivated, the process is overwhelming. If you can help make it easier, you are giving your kid a gift,” she says.

As a parent of two high school students — a freshman and a sophomore — I’m already feeling the stress of landing my kids a spot in the colleges of their choice, scrutinizing their course selections, their summer programs and their extracurricular activities. We’ve already taken them on some college visits, but the choices, price tags and requirements make my head spin. There are more than 4,400 degree-granting institutions in the United States and the number of students applying to them directly out of high school has jumped 70 percent in the last decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The reality has become that today the start of college preparation begins in the high school freshman year - choosing classes and building a resume that will impress admissions officers. Lisa Solovay, an advisor for continuing education at Western High School in Davie who provides college guidance, believes competition for college admission increased when high schools began offering more Advanced Placement classes, dual enrollment and International Baccalaureate programs.

“Students need to take advantage of what’s offered because the competition is fierce,” she said. “You see students who are published authors or have performed at Carnegie Hall. They are doing so much more, and with the Internet there are all kinds of opportunities.”

For students, getting adult help with the written application has become more critical, she says, because for some colleges it’s the only way they have to differentiate themselves. While school counselors like Solovay guide them, Solovay feels students whose parents get involved have a better chance. “That may be an unfair advantage, but that’s the way it is,” she said.

Today’s pricey tuition bills give parents a bigger stake than ever in the process. There’s certainly a larger role for them in keeping track of financial aid deadlines for submitting applications and preparing tax returns early, typically in January.

One mother of a high-schooler, a human resources manager, actually quit her job as her daughter neared college to devote full-time to the search. Others rush home from work to supervise. With application deadlines looming at Florida’s public universities, Laurie Levine, vice president for business and finance at Lynn University in Boca Raton, would walk right in

the door and review her son’s essays and applications before he hit “submit.” But she says the guidance started years before. “We would talk at the dinner table and lay out a game plan.”

Rather than take on this time-consuming role, some parents hire private college counselors to ease the stress. They typically charge $5,000 and up for services that include interview tips, school recommendations and application reviews.

Fittingly, with the stress on parents, a growing number of employers are making college advising services an employee benefit. College Coach, a national company under the umbrella of Bright Horizons, advised more than 40,000 families last year on the application process. “Parents have made the argument that this is an issue that causes stress and when that happens they are not as productive because they are not able to bring their whole self to work,” says Dave Lissy, CEO of Bright Horizons. Two years ago, Ceridian, a provider of health and productivity solutions, also began offering college admissions counseling services to employees of its large employer clients.

Among the companies that have added the benefit through College Coach are American Express, Citi Group, IBM and PepsiCo.

When Doria M. Camaraza’s son was applying to colleges last year, she got the kind of help that most parents would shell out big dollars to receive — guidance from a former assistant admissions officer at Georgetown University.

American Express, where Camaraza works as senior vice president and general manager for Fort Lauderdale, began offering the benefit in July 2008 and offers workshops, online help and private counseling. While working late, Camaraza often would participate in conference calls from her office in the evening with her son and the advisor who provided feedback on his essays. “We went through about 10 revisions,” she said. “My son was accepted at amazing schools due in large part to her help.”

Citi Group rolled out the benefit in January 2011 and has more than 6,000 employees who have used College Coach — either by attending onsite workshops, going online for webinars or using the private counseling. Citi’s HR vice president Niko Triantafillou says he had gauged that a good portion of the financial services company’s workforce has high school students, and still he’s been overwhelmed by the popularity of the benefit. “I’ve never seen a first-time benefit that was this appreciated.”

Of course, how much parental involvement is necessary could depend on your child — some kids need handholding or a strong nudge, while others just need guidance. Others resist any parent involvement. Meanwhile, experts caution against completely taking over the process, suggesting you think of yourself as a cheerleader or coach and let your teen do the heavy lifting.