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Dec 12 2017
by Neeti Joshi

Just How Much Should You Help Your Siblings Through College Applications?

By Neeti Joshi - Dec 12 2017

Many of us have younger siblings who are either beginning to think about the college process, or may even be applying right now. Based on our personal experiences, our personal failures and successes regarding anything college-related, what should we tell them?

Should we give them advice that ensures they don't take any risks, and as a result don't experience any failures or rejections? Or should we encourage them to shoot for the stars, even if it means they probably won't reach them?

Should we hound them and expect them to give us updates on everything on a second-by-second basis? Should we revise their essays and tell them exactly who to ask for recommendation letters? 

Or should we just leave them alone altogether and give them no advice at all, in order to give them the independence and accountability we think they should have (in addition to making sure that what they do is THEIR decision, not our decision being forced on them)? How should we go about it?

It also varies depending on whether your sibling has academic goals similar to your own or if they are very different, in addition to how different or how similar your high school experiences were to each other's. It's a topic that can be tricky to navigate, and it's different for every single sibling pair, but mine has been quite the ride so far, and it’s one I’m still navigating everyday.

As a STEM major, I’m usually not sure what to tell my younger sister to do about college, since she’s a business person. I could give her general advice about the application process, but that’s too generic and she could probably find that information anywhere. I could tell her about which colleges to apply to, but that would probably mess her up even more, since I’d probably end up leading her down a path she shouldn’t be on. I could give her advice on writing essays, but what to write essays on is something she needs to figure out for herself so that her voice is the one shining through, not mine. Should I just not help her at all and let her figure out the whole thing on her own? Is that what I, as a good big sister, should do?

This was a dilemma I had faced for quite some time, because I wanted to make the process easier for her than it was for me. I didn’t want her to have to learn every single thing the hard way (although some things are usually better for people when they’re learned the hard way). I wanted to be a resource for her and I wanted to do what I could.

At the same time, I didn’t want to take away the learning process from her. I didn’t want to do everything for her, because one – I didn’t want to do all the work and let her get off easy, especially since colleges can usually sense that (not to mention it’s probably illegal or something), and two – the college application process is a very valuable learning experience, and I wanted her to get as much out of it as she could. It would probably teach her a lot of life skills and help her to be much more successful in the long run.

Not everything in life should have to be hard, though. I messed up so many times while I was applying to college and I pretty much hated myself the entire time. I wasted a lot more money than I probably should have and I ended up writing a total of about 50 essays. It was a disaster for me, to say the least. I definitely did not want the same for my sister. I would absolutely write another 50 essays in a heartbeat rather than make her have to go through it. In an effort to try to stop her from making similar mistakes, I resolved to give her all the advice I could.

I started giving her essay topics, I started telling her which teachers to ask for letters of recommendation (as well as telling her exactly how to ask for them, detailing it down to every second). I started telling her during which months she should start studying for standardized tests and which months she should actually take those tests, telling her about each and every technicality involved in the process. Sometimes she’d listen, sometimes she wouldn’t. She’s a pretty responsible person, so she didn’t always need the advice I gave. But I told myself that she’d thank me later.

Soon, however, I realized that I was taking away her identity. By telling her what to write her essays on, as well as telling her how to start and end her essays, I was making her essays mine. Her personal experiences throughout high school, and throughout life in general, were somewhat similar, because we obviously share some of the same identities and have had almost the same upbringing.

When I gave her ideas for essays, they would usually stem from our shared experiences. But there was so much about her that made her unique, that probably would make her essays more unique. There are some things that nobody – not even me – could relate to, and those were the things she should be writing her essays on. Not to mention that her writing style was so different from mine and the spin she puts on things would probably make her a better applicant than what I was trying to make her.

I was supposed to be guiding her, not assuming her identity. I didn’t know how to balance the two, so I decided to give her some space.

I went some time without telling her anything. Even when she asked for help, I’d tell her that I’m too lazy to help and that she’s perfectly capable of figuring it out on her own. Even when she asked about specific colleges, I’d usually lie and say that I didn’t know much about their business programs, so she shouldn’t ask me.

That didn’t last long, though. I’m the type of person who feels guilty about everything and very soon after I began leaving her alone, I felt terrible for not doing what a big sister should do.

So I went back – but not to hounding her. I went back to doing what a big sister should do.

I began asking her what she thought she needed help on. And when I thought she missed or overlooked something, I’d ask her if she wanted my input instead of just giving her advice immediately. I started listening.

And it made all the difference. It improved our relationship vastly, and it continues to improve our relationship everyday. It has been quite the journey and it is far from over. I can’t wait to see how our past experiences shape our futures and I can’t wait to see the roles that each of us play in that for each other’s lives.

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Neeti Joshi - New York University

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