Your child has worked hard throughout high school. They got good grades, they have the SAT scores they want, they spent hours doing extracurricular activities and volunteer work outside of school, and now it's finally time to decide where to apply to college. At this point, the biggest mistake parents make is approaching their student’s college search process haphazardly—either resting on research done for an older child, listening to friends, or simply thinking back to when they were in school.
Think about it this way: If you and your spouse were contemplating switching careers, imagine the amount of time you would spend before choosing one over the other. Family relocation, salary, weather, friends, and personal happiness would all be factors in the decision. From your child's perspective, choosing the university they will attend for about half a decade is really no less severe. So here are the four most important factors to consider when helping your student choose a college.
1. Academic programs
Just because a college is ranked in the top 25 nationally does not mean its Engineering program is. If your child knows what they want to study, they should focus on the quality and ranking of their specific major as opposed to the overall ranking of the college. Not only will this behoove them in their future career, but oftentimes a college that's not quite as competitive may very well have a better program for your child's major, therefore making it the better fit.
Though college is a great time to explore the new and unknown, a drastically different environment can sometimes be jarring. For someone who's grown up in Southern California their whole life, spending four years on Lake Michigan is going to be a very trying experience. Students who enjoy nightlife, the arts, and big-city bustle will likely struggle living in a small town. One requisite for college success is that a student should feel comfortable where they live, and a large part of that is the weather and the type of town they are in.
3. Social atmosphere
Some students like to hang out all weekend. Some would prefer to study. Some like to do both. Some want to join a fraternity or sorority. Some want to join campus ministry. Every student has different social needs, and they should be a primary area of focus when looking into colleges as well. Again, though students can grow and change in good ways by exploring uncharted territory, a quiet bookworm might not enjoy attending a top party school. Likewise, a student who's ultra conservative may not enjoy their time at a left-leaning school. The bottom line is that your child needs an environment where they will feel socially comfortable and accepted.
4. Size and type of college
The most applied-to four-year college in the country is the University of California, Los Angeles; they had 149,700 students apply for the fall 2022 semester. But did you know that UCLA is primarily a research institution? For first- and second-year students, that means they go to lecture halls with 500 students and only get face time with a 25-year-old graduate student instead of their professor. It's important to know if your child will thrive in this type of situation. For students who are very independent and enjoy teaching themselves material, this would be a great fit. But a student who comes from a small private school and likes having close relationships with their teachers would find this a very difficult transition.
Where do you find this info?
One of the best ways to figure out all this information is by simply searching online. You can also use the CollegeXpress College Search tool, and the College Board has a fantastic free tool that will help you navigate some of this information as well. Another option is to read blogs like the ones in the Parents section of this site and peruse individual college websites. It's amazing how with 15 minutes of effort, you can figure out a tremendous amount about a college in terms of its potential fit for your student.
As you can see, the college selection process is not just about choosing the school that's the highest ranked or least expensive. You also want to be sure to look at the big picture by figuring out—alongside your student—not just if a school is good, but—more importantly—if it's good for your teen.
We have a lot of different ways to search for best-fit colleges with your student! Check out our unique Lists & Rankings and our featured college lists to explore and connect with schools by location, major, and more.