Choosing a college is the first step in your child's life beyond high school—a life that must eventually be managed independently. Of course, your support and guidance can be incredibly helpful. Here are some ideas for giving aid, direction, and reassurance.
Many college students look back appreciatively at the help their parents gave them during the college admissions process. But just as children don't come with formulas for raising them, they don't come with formulas for helping them get into college. Support that one student might eagerly embrace, another student might see as interference. Some students figure out on their own what they want in a college and need only occasional assistance; others will agonize over their college list and need a steady supply of reassurance.
Help with Planning for College
Nurture commitment. If your child has a serious interest, find a way to support that interest. It could be a sport, a hobby, community service, even a part-time job. Colleges look favorably on students who show commitment over time to a pursuit that helps them develop as individuals. This commitment shows tenacity, maturity, leadership, and growth—the very qualities that pay off in college.
Take time to educate yourself about paying for college. Learn about the financial aid process and the many ways to save and find money for college. CollegeData's Pay Your Way section thoroughly covers college financing. Our College Net Price Calculator helps you see what a specific college might actually cost your family. Our Scholarship Finder lists over 550,000 awards worth more than $3.3 billion.
Talk with your child about money. It is never too soon to talk with your child about how the family is going to pay for college. What is your level of financial support and how will that limit college choices? How much do you expect your child to contribute? How much debt is acceptable to you or your child?
Keep an eye on your expectations. If you have expectations for your child's college choices (such as financial or geographic limits) or suggestions (such as specific colleges) let your child know up front. If your expectations include admission to a famous highly selective school, bear in mind that a great many highly qualified students are turned down every year by these schools. There are hundreds of other colleges whose academics are just as rigorous, whose campuses are just as beautiful, and whose students are just as likely to succeed in life. Some of these are likely to be a great fit—or even a better fit—for your child.
Keep an eye on the college list. It can be challenging to assemble a list of colleges—any one of which might work for your child. Some students agonize over their lists, not really sure what they are looking for in a college. Other students may not put enough thought into their lists, opting to list only local colleges or schools their friends are applying to. Here are some ideas to help you put together a great list.
- If you or your child need help determining the qualities you want in a college, read the CollegeData article What Is Your Ideal College? which features a comprehensive list of college qualities you can use as a starting point. Campus visits are also helpful (see below).
- Our College Match search tool can help you and your child identify good college choices. You can search colleges by location, major, size, selectivity, and other key college qualities.
- A range of admission chances should be represented on your child's list. This allows a student to go for a dream school while at the same time ensure that he or she will get in somewhere. CollegeData's College Chances calculator can estimate your child's admission chances at more than 2,000 colleges and universities. Based on your child's profile, College Chances estimates whether he or she is a "good bet" (highly likely to get in), a "match" (has a reasonable chance of getting in), or a "reach" (has a much smaller chance of getting in). A few colleges representing each level of admission chances should be on the list.
Our article Deciding Which Colleges to Apply to walks you through the process of making a college list that has schools with both the features you want and a range of admission chances.
Encourage your child to visit colleges. No brochure or website can tell you what a campus is really like. Letting your child visit college campuses is one of the biggest gifts you can give your child—and yourself. There are two types of visits:
- A road trip to see campuses. This may only be a matter of touring each campus for a few hours, attending an information session, and talking to a few students. This tour can open a student's eyes as to what college experiences he or she really likes—or doesn't. If time and money are issues, visiting local colleges can help a student see what college life is all about, even if he or she has no intention of attending those schools.
- Longer visits (preferably overnight) to schools your child is seriously considering. These visits allow your child to hang out with current students, attend classes, talk to professors, and get as close to the real student experience as possible. Most colleges welcome such visits. If time or money is a problem for you, consider sending your child alone. Perhaps you are not ready to let go, but after all, this same person will be attending college without you in a matter of months.
For more ideas, see CollegeData's article See for Yourself: Visits and Interviews.
Help During the Application Period
The essay. The required essay is often your child's first experience writing something personal and meaningful. While some students savor the challenge, many find it frustrating. ("The dreaded essay" as one student called it.) Most high schools help students get started, but encouragement and support at home can help them finish the essay. While it is not advisable to heavily influence the essay topic or your child's approach to it, many students welcome a parent's editorial eye to check for coherence, proper grammar, and errors.
Organization. Call it prompting, reviewing, reminding, or even nagging; many students need help with the dizzying number of deadlines that accompany college applications. There are deadlines for admission applications, recommendation letters, financial aid forms, essays, test dates, not to speak of scholarship applications. Deadlines can fall on different days. The steps to prepare the paperwork can be daunting. Parents who have run households and worked for years are experienced organizers. While you shouldn't run the show, most students appreciate advice and support from the experts.
Encouragement. Choosing a college is likely your child's first adult-life decision. While some students take the whole process in stride, most are more than a little anxious. Be your child's sounding board. Don't interrogate, but ask good questions and let your child talk through their worries. Believe it or not, many students are afraid they won't get into any colleges. Reassurance—and cheerleading—from mom or dad can provide a big boost.
The Envelope, Please!
Choosing. Hopefully, your child will get into one of his or her top-choice schools. Time to celebrate! But sometimes deciding which college to attend is not obvious. Help your child weigh the variables, such as financial aid, size, distance from home, etc. Another visit may be in order. Remind your child there is no perfect school.
Rejection. Being denied or waitlisted is a common and natural outcome of applying to college, especially when there are a few "reaches" on the list. Your child may take it very hard. But schools have many reasons for denial. He or she should not take it as a personal judgment. Help your child focus on the acceptances in hand and the ones that may be likely to arrive.
Letting go. The writer Bill Bryson had this moment of epiphany when dropping his freshman son at college. "It wasn't until we . . . left him there looking touchingly lost and bewildered amid an assortment of cardboard boxes and suitcases in a spartan room not unlike a prison cell that it really hit home that he was vanishing out of our lives and into his own." Of course your child won't totally vanish—there's always e-mail and phones—but he or she is now an adult, if perhaps an adult taking baby steps.
For more perspective from parents who "let go" after sending their children off to college, visit the Parents section of our Bookstore to take a look at these books: Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years and You're On Your Own (But I'm Here if You Need Me). Take a look at students' true stories of the help their parents gave them on CollegeData's College Buzz page.