How to Help a Reluctant Student With College Plans

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, kids 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 kids drag their feet

According to college experts, key factors for stalling on making college plans include feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to start, confusion about career paths, worries about cost, and plain old fear. “What we see with these students is they’re reluctant to fill out applications because they don’t want to deal with the fear they’re facing,” says Geoff Heckman, school counselor and department chair of Platte County High School counseling office in Platte City, Missouri. It could be fear of the unknown, moving away, or letting parents down. But mostly, kids don’t know where to start. To parents, it looks like 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 founder of Florida-based Knowledge4College. They need to be told there’s a college out there for them. 

Related: The Ultimate Guide to the College Search: How to Find Your Perfect College Match

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.

Signs of a reluctant student

When a student isn’t taking hold of the process, especially by senior year, parents need to assess. Is your student intimidated? Unclear about career interests? Suffering a mental health issue? Not interested in college? “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 with a relaxed attitude. “When a student is lackadaisical but the process is moving along, parents need to understand it’s not their process and back off even if they wouldn’t handle it that way,” Larson says.

The timing of the college process

Appropriate timing solves a lot. In ninth and tenth grade, students should be focused on high school, 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 kids a road map for high school. But parents need to be mindful about not pressuring kids for unrealistic résumés.

Junior and senior year bring campus tours, SAT or ACT exams, soliciting letters of recommendation, hunting for scholarships, and filling out 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 student to discuss the stages of the college process. “That gives the parent something to come back to and remind the student they said they would get this thing done by this point. It also gives the child ownership and allows the parent to step back a bit,” he says.

Related: College Prep for Each Year of High School: What to Do All 4 Years

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 unstop them, Larson says. If their school doesn’t offer good career assessment tools, experts suggest several online tools. ($29) walks students through brain games that highlight their aptitudes and then lists careers for those abilities. (free) and (free) offer career assessment questions and career matching.  Early job shadowing, internships, and interviewing adults about careers—including Mom and Dad—can also help kids tap into career choices, Beam says.

College alternatives

Perhaps your child’s ideal career doesn’t require a university degree, and they’re afraid to tell you. If Johnny wants to become a police officer but you’re set on a four-year college, that mismatch might be shutting down the process. Sadly, it can lead to a student failing out of college unnecessarily, lost confidence, angry parents, and depleted finances.

If you don’t know why your child 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. Kids worry they will disappoint their parents, but 99% of the time, parents just want to know there’s a plan, Heckman says.   

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 child reminders are appropriately helpful, Larson says. Text the reminders rather than issuing them face-to-face, 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 up kids 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: How to Get Financial Aid for College: The Ultimate Guide

How to support the final decision

Congratulations if your student decides a four-year college is the right path right now. Getting through the overwhelm of senior year is an achievement. For those 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 they’re clearer about goals. “It’s better for them to come to it on their own,” Larson says.

Colleges welcome gap years and often allow a year’s deferment. The last thing you want is a child with shattered confidence and a college transcript of failing grades. Taking the time to assess your child’s struggle and creating a plan to address it will serve everyone better in the long run. 

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