Helping Your Teen Begin to Think About College
Even though the school year has just begun, if your teen is a junior or senior in high school this year, more than likely the main topic in your household is what your teen is going to do after they graduate. If your teen would like to attend college, they are probably feeling a little overwhelmed. While they may feel worried that they won’t get into a college, they will most likely have several choices. The harder decision will be which one they will attend. It is important for parents to not insert their opinion in this decision. This is one of your teen’s most important choices in life, and while parents should offer help and guidance, they should let the ultimate decision be their teen’s. Here is some of the guidance parents can provide:
Review Your Budget
The first factor to consider when choosing a college is the cost, the school’s financial aid package, and your budget. Financing college is a critically important conversation to have with your teen at the beginning of their search. Whether your teen plans to work part-time and pay his own way, borrow money using student loans, has been offered a scholarship or already has a fully-funded college fund, the cost of each university has to be compared. Parents must help their teen weigh the pros and cons of each of the potential schools. For example, attending an expensive school may force them to finance much of their education. Graduating with no debt instead of carrying thousands of dollars in student loans can make the difference between being able to choose a dream job and having to work two jobs just to pay the bills.
Help Your Teen List Their Priorities
Help your teen create a list of priorities for their college. They should list anything that is important to them, ranging from academic programs to distance from home to class size to athletics. If your student has a passion – athletics, music, drama, art, community service, etc. – have them list it on their priorities. Your teen’s passion may have helped define their path in life, and it will give them an anchor in their new world. Discuss your teen’s long-term goals and possible careers, and include these on their priority list as well. Even if your teen has an idea what they want to major in, many students switch their majors, so it may be good to have two to three fields of study that are of interest to your teen at a college they are considering.
Once your teen has listed their priorities, have them rank the factors in order of importance. Review what each college offers and how each school lines up with the priority list. Remind your teen that these priorities are ultimately more important and satisfying than choosing a college based on how much they love their football team or where their best friend is going.
Research and Consider Options
Encourage your teen to conduct online research about potential colleges, based on their priorities.
- Rankings and Reviews. Have your teen check various college ranking systems, as well as forums and posts from current and past students. The comments of current students can be very helpful and revealing. If your teen has a particular field of study in mind, they should look at how well each college ranked and what the academic requirements are for that major, as well as what type of job-placement services they provide.
- School size. Have your teen think through what it will be like to attend a small, medium, or large college. This is a very individual choice. For example, a student from a small town with a small graduating class might be completely overwhelmed in a large university, or they could be thrilled by all the new offerings they’ve never had access to before. If your teen is academically gifted, have them consider whether they would perform better in a small school where they can shine as the “big fish in the small pond” or in a large school where they will be challenged by equally gifted peers.
- Location. The location of your teen’s college determines everything from how often they can come home for a visit to the leisure activities they can participate in. Have your teen consider the travel time and expense involved with each college. Perhaps they don’t mind only coming home twice a year or perhaps they would like to come home once a month. Have your teen consider the lifestyle they will be in at each college. Do they want to be in the middle of a big city or away from large towns? Will they be able to do their favorite activities at the college like hiking or kayaking? What is the weather like? They must be prepared for the environment.
- Social Fit. This may be one of the most important factors to consider, but it is often overlooked. It really doesn’t matter how wonderful the college is if your teen doesn’t feel like they “fit” there. You’re not looking for everyone attending the college to be just like your teen, but rather that your teen’s personality can be accepted there. Your overly-cautious bookworm may not appreciate the party atmosphere at some schools, while your outgoing, bubbly teen may feel stifled at a small, quieter school. Are there students with similar values to your teen? Are there social and extracurricular activities that appeal to your student’s interests? The absolute best way to determine the answers to those questions are by visiting the campus.
Visit Each School With Your Teen
The only way you will get a true picture of a college is by visiting the campus. Use the criteria above to narrow down your search, and then visit those schools your teen is seriously considering. Attend a campus tour. Encourage your teen to speak directly with the admissions office, talk to current students, and look at the housing. If offered, attend events for prospective students. A college website is a great starting point for your teen’s research, but it won’t tell them if the school is known for a party atmosphere, if students leave campus on the weekends, if there is diversity among faculty and students, or if the town is welcoming to students. You must visit.
Parents, you are an important support and guidance system for your teen in making this big life decision, but you must avoid inserting your opinion. Focus on helping your teen weigh the pros and cons of each college and encouraging them to keep an open mind as they explore their opportunities.