If you are the parent of a junior or senior in high school, your child has likely gotten or will soon get more mail delivered to your home in the past few months than in their entire lifetime. Many of this will be in the form of glossy brochures and possibly flattering letters.
It is easy to be overwhelmed and confused. College propaganda (as I soon began to call it) is meant to convince you and your child that there is no place better than the school featured in its pages. If your child excels academically or in sports, you may even have seen scholarship offers without having even applied.
In addition to the mail, there is also a flurry of emails and phone calls. Once your child’s name gets out there as a prospective student, (usually via the College Board, the organization that administers the SATs) it begins. I advised my children to collect it all in a box, and sort through when time allowed. As they got into the process and became more aware of what they were looking for, some mailings were easily discarded. Be prepared for the request to get rid of the callers, to lie and tell them your child is not available. I admit I did this on occasion, but I also sometimes made them take the calls and have the awkward conversations themselves.
How to get through the piles
If you are just starting out, advise your teen to make a list of criteria. If your child has specific interests, obviously the school would need to offer classes in that topic. Location matters. Will your child be more comfortable in a big city, a small town or a rural area. (Your teen’s answer to this question may surprise you, and the answer may change after visiting schools.) Proximity to home matters. Aside from the desire to stay close or move far away, there are greater travel costs involved with going to school father from home and for shorter breaks, students may not be able to come home. Size matters. Some students are more comfortable at big schools, some prefer smaller schools. If your child is unsure, you may need to visit schools of varying size. Price matters. Although some private schools offer considerable financial aid, possibly even making them more affordable than state schools, you often won’t know the actual cost until the last minute. Make sure your child is aware of costs and any limitations there may be.
Next, have them prioritize these requirements. Like most things in life, you are unlikely to find one school that has everything you want. Narrow down the options. Take a look at the schools’ websites and look at college ratings in major publications. However, try to not place too much value on these lists as these magazines all have their own idea of what the Top 50 colleges look like and their criteria may not match yours. Have your teen pick out a number of schools to visit in person. Although you can get much information from mailings and websites, there are many things you won’t know without visiting. (And like real estate, real life does not always look like the pictures.)
Encourage your teens to talk to current students. If you tour the school, encourage (or even physically nudge) them to the front of the group so that they can ask questions without drawing attention to themselves, or at least clearly hear the answers to others’ questions. Being near the front also increases the likelihood that the student guide will engage them in conversation and provide a true feel for the college atmosphere. Many student guides offer an email to contact later with any questions (ask if they don’t, most are willing). Some schools offer overnight visits in a dorm with a current student so that your teen can get the full college experience.
Be aware that frequent contact with a school sends the message that your child is interested. This may be looked at when making admission decisions. Colleges would rather accept students who are likely to actually attend than those who consider their school a backup option. If you can’t visit, interest can be expressed through emails and other contact with the school.
Though you will want and need to be involved in this process, consider your role as advisory. Of course you will have some say in the final decision (especially if you are footing the bill), but allowing them to make the early decisions and arrange for visits will better equip them to handle things when they enter college. Allowing your child to drive the process not only provides practice in dealing with real-life issues, it also gives them confidence and demonstrates their readiness for college life. It also helps prepare you for a world where you have little to no say in their day-to-day lives.
Try to enjoy the search process. Maintaining a relaxed attitude can help your teenager more than you know. Demonstrate confidence in their ability to handle this and the challenges to come. Pay attention to what things are important to your child (some care about living arrangements, others pay more attention to labs and other resources). Take notes (yes, actual notes) so you can discuss the pros and cons later. Much has changed since you were 18 and the process is more overwhelming than ever, but know that you’ve got this.
Next week: surviving the application process.