Parents: 8 Ways To Help Your Teen Make a College Decision
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By the spring of your student’s senior year of high school, most of the work of the college application process will be finished. Tests are taken, essays are written, and applications are submitted. All that’s left to do is wait for colleges to respond, right?
Not exactly. While your student is done applying, they still have important decisions to make. Once colleges send out acceptances and rejections, your student will have to weigh the pros and cons of the colleges to which they’ve been accepted. Sometimes, the choice of where to attend is simple; more often, it’s complex and even a little confusing.
As a parent, you’ve supported and helped your child so that they could get to this important crossroad. Now, you have the opportunity to help them make an informed, well-thought-out decision about where they’re going to spend their next four years. Here are some concrete ways in which you can help your college applicant as they undertake this life-changing task.
When it comes time for your student to make a final college decision, they’re not alone—and neither are you. Your school, your community, and other resources are available to provide advice and personal perspectives as you work to help your student make this important choice.
At your student’s school, guidance counselors can offer their specialized experience and training, and teachers can recount what they’ve learned from the students they taught in the past. Organized parent groups can be useful, but so can more informal conversations with other parents, especially those who have recently helped students navigate the college application process.
Gathering advice doesn’t mean believing everything you hear. Every student is different, and the choice that was right for another student might not be right for yours. It’s up to you to think critically about the advice you receive and consider how it applies to your own family. Still, the more information you gather, the more you’ll be able to help your student make informed decisions.
Consider the Requirements
Every college takes a different approach to academic requirements for its students. Some require all students to take specific classes or complete a core curriculum. Others have distribution requirements, in which each student has to complete a certain amount of coursework within each of a variety of academic subjects. A handful of schools have few or no general requirements, but even at these schools, students are subject to the requirements of their majors in order to graduate.
Before your student makes a decision about which college to attend, they should carefully consider how that school’s academic requirements will shape their educational plan and course choices. As a parent, you can help them envision whether a particular set of academic requirements or a particular academic environment will work for their educational goals.
Some students do best when immersed in a structured academic environment where expectations are clear and course planning is simple. Others thrive when they’re able to take a more eclectic approach and chart their own paths toward a degree. Either way, you can help to ensure that your student knows what they’re getting into.
For example, let’s say that your student is particularly excited about the opportunity to study abroad, which usually occurs during the junior year of college. Academic requirements and course planning can have a significant impact on study abroad opportunities. Will your student have time to take required language classes in their first two years of college? Will studying abroad as a junior interfere with them taking a required course on their usual campus? These are important questions for your student to ask before they make any final decisions.
Plan for Future Priorities
Planning for college can sometimes feel like a battle between conflicting priorities. The range of academic possibilities available at a top college is vast, with opportunities to study every subject under the sun. Your student may come to find that their passion lies in a field they’d never even heard of, whether or not that field is known for its stellar career opportunities.
Practical concerns about future career prospects and life goals aren’t the only thing of importance in the world—but nevertheless, they matter. As a parent, you know this all too well, having spent the past eighteen years or so making sure that your now-teenager is fed, housed, and given opportunities to grow. You’re fully aware that in four or five years, when they graduate from college, your student will benefit from having thought about these practical matters in advance.
You can do a great deal to help your student balance their current interests and tentative life plans with a knowledge of what they’re likely to find important by the end of college. It’s not just about ensuring that your student will have employment opportunities; it’s also about ensuring that the right kind of employment opportunities exist in a particular field, and making sure that your student gets started early in preparing themselves for those opportunities.
As you discuss academic planning with your teen, make sure to include consideration of the different career paths to which a particular college major could lead. For instance, if your student loves English literature, they could parlay their English major into writing novels, teaching and researching as an English professor, or working in the sales department of a publishing company. Each of these occupations uses a somewhat different skill set and offers a different opportunity for your child to pursue their interests while meeting their practical needs.
Allow for Change
The college years are going to be a time of major growth and development for your teenager. This means that their initial academic plans may change significantly as they take classes, explore new fields, and find out more about the subjects they enjoy. In fact, most students change their minds about their areas of academic focus while they’re in college—it’s normal and healthy to do so.
Your student’s choice of college can either provide them with opportunities to branch out, or limit their ability to change course midway—it depends on the school. It’s easier to change majors at some schools than at others, and a really significant change might even require your student to transfer to a different school. If your student isn’t sure yet what they want to study—another totally normal occurrence—it’s extra important for them to seek out a college that offers some flexibility.
Before your student makes their college decision, it’s essential for them to consider the very real possibility that they’ll change their mind about their future path. You can help them understand that no matter how sure they feel about their interests now, this sureness may not last, and they’ll have to be prepared for the consequences—especially if their chosen college offers limited flexibility or options.
Some college applicants are set on staying close to where they grew up, while others are itching to travel far away and explore new environments. Many fall somewhere in between. Location can make a big difference to a student’s college experience, and both the distance from home and the type of location are important considerations when picking a college.
Going to school far from home can involve additional expenses for travel and the like, and any limitations in this regard should be discussed with your child in advance. Features of individual colleges matter too; the right housing and community support resources might make a faraway college a more viable option for a student who’s not sure they want to stray far from home.
Your insight as a parent can be especially important here. You’re in a unique position to assess how ready your student is to live more independently, perhaps at a college farther from home. Your life experience can also help you to determine whether an urban, suburban, or rural college environment might be best for your child’s needs. You can also help your student to prepare for college life by teaching practical life skills at home and arranging for shorter-term practice experiences like summer camps.
Think About The Whole Experience
When it comes to choosing a college, many parents focus on factors like academics and career preparation. These are important, of course, but your child’s college will also be their home for four years. The right college for your student is not just the one that provides the “best” opportunities, but also one where your student will feel comfortable, supported, and inspired in pursuing those opportunities.
Student life and campus culture aren’t just extras; they’re going to have a very real impact on your student’s life. If your student is really unhappy with life in their dorm, for instance, the stress of that experience might negatively impact their academic performance, extracurricular involvement, or overall mental health. On the flip side, a supportive culture among students and advisors can help students to meet the challenges they’ll face.
As a parent, you can help your child to evaluate the schools they’re considering not only based on academic and career factors, but also on how well they fit the prospective student as a person. You’re in a perfect position to remind and reassure them that life and culture outside the classroom does matter when choosing a college.
Know Your Applicant
Every student-parent pair has a different relationship, but generally speaking, you as a parent likely know your child better than almost anyone. You’ve spent many years with them, you’ve watched them grow and develop, and you’ve had the opportunity to hone your insight regarding their needs, strengths, weaknesses, and habits.
This is information you can and should use to help your student make a wise decision about where to attend college. Your perspective can help them to stay realistic about their college plans, something that doesn’t always come easily to teenagers, and to choose a college that matches their real needs, personality, and goals—not just what they think sounds cool or impressive right now.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Just like with other aspects of the college planning process, it’s best to get started on these discussions and develop open lines of communication early on. If sharing and trust aren’t established already, it can be very difficult to develop that openness quickly when college application season rolls around. The rapport you build with your child before they apply to college will serve you well through that challenging process and beyond.
Your child is growing, developing, and figuring out who they are as a person, and while they might be resistant to parental involvement in this process, your role as their parent nevertheless means that you’re a major influence in their life. You may have to be patient with them and work hard to maintain a caring and respectful relationship, but it’s worth the work to help your teen transition to adulthood more smoothly.
In the end, you can’t make your teenager’s college choice for them; only they can determine their future path. However, by providing your insight, experience, and support, you may be able to help them make wiser decisions with regard to college, and also to alleviate some of the stress that can come with this important decision.
Looking for more advice aimed at parents like you? CollegeVine has you covered. Visit the Tips for Parents category on our blog for more parent-centered posts.
If your student is in the midst of making a college decision, these posts from the CollegeVine blog may also be helpful:
- Important Next Steps After Receiving a College Acceptance Letter
- Tips for a Successful Spring Term
- 7 Tips to Help You Escape Going to the Wrong College
- A Higher Offer: When Should I Wait to Commit to a College?
- Envisioning a New Future: Preparing for Life at Your Second-Choice (or Third, or Fourth) School
Does your teen want access to expert college guidance — for free? When they create their free CollegeVine account, they will find out their real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve their profile, and get their questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Encourage them to sign up for their CollegeVine account today to get a boost on their college journey.
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