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How to Help Your Reluctant Student Start Planning for College

High school is when college conversations begin in earnest, but sometimes students don't readily engage. Here's how parents can help get the ball rolling.

High school is when college conversations begin in earnest: college fit, career goals, and personal aspirations. But sometimes college-bound students don’t readily engage, and parents encounter subtle resistance. Often, teens simply don’t understand how fast time flies, but sometimes something bigger prevents them from taking hold of planning. If you have a dawdler, here’s what might be going on.

Why teens drag their feet

According to college experts, key factors for stalling on planning for college include feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to start, confusion about career paths, worries about cost, and plain old fear. It could be fear of the unknown, moving away, or letting parents down. But mostly, teens don’t know where to start. To parents, it looks like a lack of motivation. Some students worry they don’t have college chops. As they compare themselves to their peers, they embrace a skewed view of success in today’s competitive academic culture. When surrounded by super-high achievers, they can become despondent about the college search, says Michele Larson, independent college counselor and author of the book Knowledge 4 College. They need to be told there’s a college out there for them. Over-eager parents jump-starting the process too early or taking over too much can also freeze a student. The more parents push, the more kids passively push back. You’ll need to figure out what’s going on for your student and possibly check the mirror.

Related: The CollegeXpress Ultimate Guide to the College Search

Signs your student is being reluctant

When a student isn’t taking hold of the process, especially by senior year, parents need to assess and calmly step in. Is your student intimidated? Unclear about career interests? Suffering from a mental health issue? Not interested in college at all? “Signs they’re not owning the process include lack of clarity, general lack of engagement, not completing things, or even self-sabotage like worse test scores,” Larson says. These signs indicate a larger issue than procrastination and are different from a student handling things in a relaxed manner. “When a student is lackadaisical but the process is still moving along, parents need to understand it’s not their process and back off even if they wouldn’t handle it that way,” she adds.

The timing of the college process

Appropriate timing solves a lot. In ninth and tenth grade, students should be focused on high school and extracurriculars, experts say, not looking at specific colleges. During these years, students should be working on getting good grades and identifying interests, and parents needn’t push campus tours—though casually visiting a campus isn’t a bad thing. “Learn the value of volunteering, extracurricular activities, leadership, why grades are important for merit-based scholarships, and the value of standardized test scores,” recommends Vicki Beam, independent college counselor and owner of Michigan College Planning. Understanding what colleges value gives teens a road map for high school. But parents need to be mindful about not pressuring their students with unrealistic standards for their résumés.

Junior and senior years bring campus tours, SAT and ACT exams, letters of recommendation, hunting for scholarships, and completing college applications. To avoid battling the details, Heckman suggests families obtain a timeline from their school to understand what students should be working on in which years. Sit down with your teen to discuss the stages of the college process. “That gives the parent something to come back to and reminds the student they said they would get this thing done by this point. It also gives the student ownership and allows the parent to step back a bit,” he says.

Related: Smart College Prep Steps for All 4 Years of High School

How to support your student

Your job as a parent is to provide support and ballast without taking over the work. The kind of support you give will depend on your student’s struggle. For students stalled by career path confusion, helping them figure out what they’re suited to do can unblock them, Larson says. If their school doesn’t offer good career assessment tools, they can explore a plethora of online career assessments and career-matching quizzes.  Early job shadowing, internships, and interviewing adults about careers—including their own parents—can also help kids teen into career choices, Beam says. Supporting your student may also mean accepting that college isn’t for all students and making a plan regardless of which path they choose to take.

College alternatives

Perhaps your student’s ideal career doesn’t require a university degree, and they’re afraid to tell you. If your student wants to become a police officer but you’re set on a four-year college, that mismatch might be shutting down the process. Going to college when it wasn’t the plan can lead to a student failing out unnecessarily, losing confidence, angry parents, and depleted finances. If you don’t know why your teen is balking, spearhead an honest conversation. Try something like, “Tell me what your plan is, because it doesn’t seem like it’s college,” Larson suggests. Students often worry about disappointing their parents, but a lot of the time parents just want to know there’s a plan.   

Making a plan

If your student says college is indeed the goal, ask how you can help and create a plan together to break down tasks and mitigate overwhelm. Mapping out test dates, putting soft deadlines on admission essays and other time-sensitive chores, and giving your teen reminders are appropriately helpful, Larson says. Text reminders rather and revisit the timeline conversation if need be. If a student still isn’t handling the process, a gap year to work or travel or, staying in town for community college might be in order. Something is getting in the way—possibly academic burnout or underdeveloped organizational skills—and many students won’t miraculously pull it together in college.

Heckman says allowing early small failures in high school provides important guideposts for students to learn how to pick up the pieces—things like botched grades or missed assignments. Parents who mop up through senior year set students up to fail in college when costs and academic stakes are high. Wouldn’t you rather uncover an organizational deficit before paying that big tuition bill? You need to back off to let them handle things, even if they don’t. Discuss finances for college openly. Even if your kids aren’t worried, the money conversation needs to happen before senior year so you’re not staring at a college you can’t afford. Many families don’t discuss the family budget, Beam says, but it will ease kids’ concerns. Do your part to learn about how financial aid works, and reassure your student you’ll make a feasible plan together. 

Related: Parents, It's Time to Communicate About College Costs

Congratulations if your student decides a four-year college is the right path right now. Getting through the overwhelming senior year is an achievement. For students who need more time, delaying college a year, starting at community college, or taking a different path won’t hurt them. They can always attend university later when their goals are more clear. Colleges welcome gap year students and often allow a year’s deferment. The last thing you want is a student with shattered confidence and a college transcript of failing grades. Taking the time to assess any struggles and creating a plan to address them will serve everyone better in the long run. 

The college search doesn’t have to be scary! Help your student start slowly with our blog on 5 Easy Ways to Start Your College Search.

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