Choosing a college can be difficult for many high school students. With so many factors to consider, Eileen Huntington of Huntington Learning Center encourages teens to go about the process systematically. "Narrowing down colleges can be overwhelming, but by thinking through priorities and goals, teens can make the process easier and make a well-informed decision." Huntington offers seven tips for parents helping their teens choose their college carefully.
- Write down the five most important factors in a college. Some teens might have their hearts set on a small college, a big university or a college that's close to home. Other teens might already have specific majors in mind or be looking into certain academic programs, such as an honors or leadership program. Have your teen think about five (or more) things he or she is looking for in a college. This list may change over time, but the exercise is worthwhile.
- Talk about the future. Talk openly with your teen about his or her ideas for a major and career. Is your teen still figuring things out or clear on his or her path? Students who seem certain about their direction might want to consider colleges based on the availability of academic programs in their area of interest. Those who are still unsure might be wise to choose colleges with plenty of options and a great career center that can help them decide.
- Discuss cost and scholarships. Whether you have a college fund set aside for your teen or he or she will be funding some of the cost, it's important to discuss the cost of college and start exploring financial aid options. Keep in mind that the tuition and fees listed on a college's website aren't likely the net price you'll pay. Loans and financial aid are available to most students and parents, and depending on your financial situation, your teen may qualify for grants or work-study as well. Arrange a meeting with your teen's high school guidance counselor early in the search process to talk through scholarship options and your teen's chances of receiving some merit-based assistance. The earlier the better, so even if your teen is just starting high school, start familiarizing yourself now with financial aid options.
- Start searching for colleges. The in-state colleges and universities are obvious options, but encourage your teen to search far and wide. Tools such as Peterson's, the College Board's College Search, and College Navigator help you research schools based on just about any criteria you can think of: college type, size, fields of study, average percentage of financial need met, setting, sports and activities offered, and more.
- Go back to your teen's "five most important factors" list. Once your teen has spent time researching colleges online and with the help of the school guidance counselor, return to that list of important factors. What colleges do not meet most of those criteria? If your teen's list included small college, warmer climate, affordable/scholarship opportunities, strong engineering program and study abroad opportunities, peruse your teen's list of colleges to see if any can be ruled out. If your teen found the perfect private liberal arts college in Florida, but it doesn't offer engineering as a major, cross it off the list. If a school seems too expensive, perhaps you can keep it on the list while you explore financial aid and scholarship options that would lower the net cost to your family.
- Plan a visit. It can be immensely helpful to spend time on college campuses to get a feel for student life and the community. If possible, plan a trip when college is in session to a few schools that are high on your teen's list. Take a tour, check out the dorms, sit in on a class and even talk with a few students or faculty members.
- Ask around. It can be helpful to get the perspective of a few alumni or current students of a college to understand what it's like to be a student there, pros and cons, information about classes and more. If you know any family friends or relatives who have attended a college, perhaps they would be willing to share their insight and experience. If you're exploring a college where you don't have any contacts, the college's admissions office may be able to connect you with a student.
Huntington adds that choosing a college is a very personal decision. "Students should come up with their priority list, research their options and, most importantly, consider how their top few contenders each make them feel," Huntington says. "In the end, teens must choose a college that seems to be the best fit on paper and the place where they'll be the happiest."