The College Application Process: Advice for Solo Moms and Their Teens

The College Application Process: Advice for Solo Moms and Their Teens

Reduce the stress of this parenting milestone

Diane Lomonaco, LPC, CEP, brings a wealth of experience working with students in college advising and mental-health counseling. Lomonaco is an educational consultant who runs Major in College, and she served as president of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).

Applying for college is a daunting process for most teenagers and families, but the stress is significantly heightened for single parents. ESME caught up with Lomonaco to seek her advice on how Solo Moms can best prepare themselves and their teenagers for this major milestone.

Q: You have a soft spot for single parents.

A: I’ve been divorced for four years after being married for close to 40. And so many of my clients are divorced or otherwise single parents, which led me to becoming certified in divorce mediation. Because I’m both an educational consultant and a licensed counselor, I understand the complexities of what it means for Solo Moms to navigate the college application process.

Q: What are the unique challenges Solo Moms face?

A: Moms must understand that the admissions process is entirely different than when they went to school. Kids now take the ACT and SAT multiple times and apply to more colleges overall—up to 15. There’s an extraordinary amount of work, money, and organization involved in planning and implementing travel to multiple schools, learning about financial-aid requirements, and helping students complete strong applications. What’s more, the amount of time going into just building a student profile has changed radically: kids today need more of a résumé and activities that reach a national audience.

Two-parent families can divide and conquer: one parent, for example, might take the East Coast schools; the other will cover the West Coast. Or one parent does all the travel while the other holds down his or her job and cares for the younger siblings. Solo Moms sometimes end up shouldering all of this responsibility plus holding down a job. It’s enormously stressful.

Q: What specific tips can you recommend for Solo Moms?

A: By late sophomore/early junior year, create a reasonable, informed college list that is based on real admission outcomes. Set up time with your child to read about the schools together, or talk to your child about his or her interpretation of the schools. Because college websites can be rather overwhelming and biased, I recommend beginning with college guidebooks such as The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, 2015: Students on Campus Tell You What You Really Want To Know. Use the websites later, as you would a dictionary, to look up specific things. Maybe the best place to start your search, however, is with a little-known resource called The National Survey of Student Engagement, which profiles student engagement on college campuses. The results are completely unbiased.

One more tip: go on local college tours first. This allows you the chance to gain valuable information about the differences among schools: size, delivery of curriculum, setting, and resources.

Q: What are the biggest risks for Solo Moms during this process?

A: I believe there are significant financial risks for moms who come from a divorce. It’s easy to overcommit on account of lack of knowledge of how their particular finances will be assessed in the application process. For instance, a divorce settlement may stipulate that the local state school, or its financial equivalent, is all that is expected for the college experience. Talking with a qualified educational consultant who specializes in financial-aid resources would be helpful early in a child’s high school career to alleviate some of this risk.

Q: Can you offer a snapshot of how the entire process can be made less stressful?

A: Start early and stay organized. Begin to gather documents such as high school transcripts, test scores, awards and certificates of merit, immunization records, and tax returns and other financial documents. During your child’s sophomore and junior years, craft a preliminary college list by talking with your child’s high school counselor or working with an independent consultant. Visit schools and build up test scores. Use the summer before senior year to work on applications and essays. Set goals for completion of applications and forms well in advance of admissions and financial-aid deadlines for all schools. Finally, set your own course from an informed position based on research, not on hunches, and then turn down all the outside noise and hype that comes from the media, peers, and the colleges themselves. I hear over and over how my work organizes and reduces stress overall; so, if possible, use the talents and expertise of a qualified educational consultant. A complete list of consultants by state and areas of expertise can be found in the HECA Directory.

Solo Moms should be mindful of the anxiety children feel during this time, particularly if there has been a nasty divorce or other life challenges. In such circumstances, I often see reluctance to separate from the parent, which can lead to college deadlines being missed. It’s difficult for all parents and children to emancipate, and going off to college is one of the big steps toward that path. Gaining help from a qualified mental-health professional can provide support for both parties to help anticipate the challenges and plan accordingly.

Nancy Sharp is an author, keynote speaker, trainer, and coach who frequently speaks publicly about loss, resilience, and bold living. The author of the award-winning memoir, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, and the picture book Because the Sky Is Everywhere, Nancy lives in Denver with her second husband, her twins, and her two stepsons. You can find her on Twitter at @BoldLivingNow and Facebook at Nancy Sharp. Learn more at

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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