How to Team Up With Your Teen on the College Search

You know you want to help your child with their college search, but what can you do? Here's how you can help your student throughout this process.

The college search and application process is more expensive, more confusing, and more overwhelming today than when we went to school. It’s not realistic these days for teens to handle the search on their own, says Vicki Beam, an independent college counselor and owner of Michigan College Planning. But figuring out how to help without inadvertently taking over can be tricky for parents. From general conversations to nuts-and-bolts tasks, here are the best ways to team up with your teen according to the experts.

Be a teammate, not a coach

To avoid being too directive from your parent perch, get into the mindset that you and your child are teammates. It’s your child’s future and their happiness, and they need the space to take ownership of the search, experts say. When parents get too invested in a particular direction, students’ goals and desires can get sidelined. “Empower them to know that it’s their process, but be there to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks along the way,” says Kathryn Sloustcher, independent college counselor and founder of California College Prep.

Help establish college criteria

Parents can be useful sounding boards as they guide a student’s search of best-fit attributes—just keep in mind that it’s your teen’s criteria, not yours. Sloustcher suggests asking casual, open-ended questions to get the ball rolling: Do you want to go to college (useful even if you know the answer is yes)? What do you see for your college future? In what kind of environment do you think you learn best? Do you like engaging and participating in the classroom, or do you prefer to listen and take it in? Do you feel ready to move far from home, or do you think you’d be more comfortable staying close? It’s okay if teens don’t know what they want at this point. Introverted kids might do better writing down thoughts rather than talking out loud. To compare college information, admission rates, and typical student profiles, start with College Board’s Big Future and CollegeXpress! Another resource is Colleges That Change Lives, which can be helpful for understanding unique environments even if your student doesn’t apply to those schools, Beam says.

Related: How to Help Your Reluctant Student Start Planning for College

Explore the financial side early

Many families leave this conversation until senior year, but determining your budget early is a crucial parent job. Your child can’t do this part. Some experts recommend getting a handle on what you think you can contribute by ninth grade, but at a minimum by junior year when the formal college search begins, Sloustcher says. “There’s nothing worse than having your student’s head in the clouds, going through the application process, getting their acceptances, and thinking they’re in and going. And then you have that conversation [about finances]. That’s when it’s really heartbreaking.”

That doesn’t mean you should rule out expensive private colleges by not applying. Many families don’t pay the sticker price. Your cost is tied to your financial profile and your student’s academic profile. Do your homework by using each college’s net price calculator to predict financial aid and scholarships as closely as possible, Beam says, and tell your teen that each college acceptance will depend on finances.

Help your teen keep an open mind

There’s a college out there for everyone, and your child will do better aiming for a school that’s a good fit for their grades, test scores, and activities. “Your child is going to have options where they can be happy and successful—as long as they’re willing to not become obsessed with only certain name-brand schools, because that’s when the process can start to feel high-stakes and stressful,” Sloustcher says. Admission to elite schools is unpredictable because these schools receive so many applications, and your teen will need to be flexible. Support kids for aiming high if that’s their goal, but remind them these schools aren’t the only good option and that if they don’t end up there, that’s okay. If receiving merit scholarships is critical to your child’s ability to attend college, you must be open-minded about what those schools are. Experts say the more of a reach for a student, the less likely they will offer merit aid—some schools don’t offer merit aid at all.

Related: How to Pick Your Safety, Reach, and Match Colleges

Strategize college tours together

Parents feel a lot of pressure to take teens touring college campuses. It’s easy to drop a bundle on them, so you’ll do better by strategizing how to handle visits for your budget. Start by visiting nearby campuses to develop criteria: get a feel for size and location—urban or residential, public or private. “Your teen can also take virtual tours on college websites and meet with admission representatives who come to your high school,” Beam says. You can incorporate college visits into family vacations to a particular area as well. Then if you have the means to do a tour, choose a location where you can visit multiple schools with different kinds of vibes. The most important visit will come after a student has been accepted and you’ve got the financial aid award in hand.

Assist with organization and deadlines

The tempo will pick up during junior and senior years, with test taking, college applications, and the scholarship search. Staying on top of things requires organization, and parental help can be a boost. You can give deadline reminders (texting is good), help establish a calendar, and plan to check in once a week to see how things are going. “Work as a team, and don’t hound every day,” Beam says. “That adds pressure to everything your student has to handle.” Instead, set up a weekly conversation to go over what your student has completed. Creating structure together can help kids feel less overwhelmed and more able to take ownership of different tasks.

Related: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Combat Senioritis

Talk through which standardized test to take

Experts recommend students take a practice SAT and ACT to decide which feels more comfortable then focusing their energy on that one. “No colleges need both, but all will accept either,” Sloustcher says. More schools are going test-optional these days as well. Typically, students take a test from one to three times, depending on their college goals. Some will do their best on the first try, some on their third. Many schools accept superscores, the best score from each section, even if they’re from different tests. If sitting for the test more than once, students should prepare and only sit for a retake when they’re ready. Also, make sure they schedule test dates early because spots fill up.

Research school scholarship deadlines

If your teen is aiming for a scholarship from the college itself, be sure to research deadlines, because some scholarships require extra work. The college application itself might need to be submitted by a priority deadline and require an extra scholarship application. Every school is different, and researching the particulars can be overwhelming. “As a parent, if you want to be involved, this research is a great piece to take off your student’s plate,” Sloustcher says.

Related: Top 4 Myths About Money and the ACT That Parents Should Know

For kids who feel overwhelmed or seem disengaged (it can happen anywhere in the process), try asking what it is about the process that’s stressing them out. Fear of failure is a big one, according to Sloustcher. Talking about college all the time is also stressful for kids, so stick with scheduled check-ins once the search starts in earnest. Make sure to prioritize conversations about anything but college. And if they stumble, says Beam, let them stumble. It’s part of the process, and it will work out.

For more info on how to help your student with the college search process, check out our Parents section.

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