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Helping Your Indecisive Teen With the College Search

The college search is a huge process with a lot of choices for students to make. Here's how to guide your teen to informed decisions when looking at schools.

Helping your high schooler choose the right college or university for them is no easy feat. While majors and test scores will play a role in narrowing down their options, they may still feel overwhelmed by the weight of their decision (especially if they’re factoring the rising costs of college into the equation). As a parent, it’s important to help your student understand all the factors that make up a college experience and guide them toward making an informed decision to attend a school where they’ll excel academically and personally. Here are a few specifics to talk about with your indecisive student.

School size

Since your student may not have a clear sense of their academic direction, it could be tempting to suggest a school that offers them the most options. In many cases, this would include larger campuses. For example, the University of Southern California, a private university in Los Angeles, had over 31,000 undergraduate students enrolled for the 2020–2021 academic year and offers over 178 majors and 190 minors. By comparison, Marymount California University, a small private college in Rancho Palos Verdes, has an undergraduate student body of fewer than 1,000 students and offers just nine majors and 11 minors.

A school with a lengthy list of majors won’t necessarily ensure your child’s academic success. Instead, focus on how a school’s size will impact your student’s ability to learn in that environment. Ask them to consider how they best learn in a classroom. Do they prefer a hands-off experience, like listening to a lecture and studying the material exclusively on their own? Or do they learn best by asking questions on the spot with consistent feedback? If it’s the latter, they should narrow down their search to schools that prioritize small classrooms and one-on-one interactions. 

Related: Considering College Size: Which Is Right for You?

Campus culture

You may worry about whether a college has built a reputation as a “party school,” but helping your student find the right campus where they feel socially comfortable is crucial. If your teen is indecisive about choosing a school, ask them what attributes they’d want from campus culture. For example, they might want to actively engage in on-campus events and organizations. This could mean joining a culturally affiliated club, volunteering, or pledging for a fraternity or sorority. For other students, school spirit may look less like participating in campus groups and more like cheering on a Division I sports team. Regardless of however many good qualities schools may have, some may not end up being a good fit. Unless you have financial aid tied to a specific school, remind your student that transferring to another institution is always an option, and they don’t have to feel pressured to stay somewhere they don’t enjoy.


The less than exciting—but necessary—discussion to have with your college-bound student is cost. Price variations between private and public schools as well as in-state and out-of-state tuition will likely narrow down your options. However, looking at tuition and fees won’t give you the full picture of your true out-of-pocket costs. Your teen should also consider state differences in the cost of living and transportation at their colleges of interest. Affordability is majorly affected by two key things: your potential contribution and financial aid.

Your financial role 

As a parent, it’s important to clarify expectations about what you’re willing to contribute (if anything) toward your child’s education. Are you able to support a fixed percentage of their tuition each year? Do you expect them to pay you back? Do they intend to work part-time while completing a full-time course load? All these questions can help your student decide whether a school is financially viable for them and you as a family, or if there’s a more affordable option that still offers the academic and social attributes they’re looking for.  

Financial aid

You’ll also want to help your student submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will determine the type of financial aid package they’ll receive. During this process, talk to them about the implications of various types of aid. For example, scholarships and grants don’t need to be repaid, whereas student loans must be paid back. Ensure they understand what it means to take on student loan debt during school and after graduation, including interest charges, the cost to defer payments, and forbearance).

Related: Tips for Families to Maximize College Affordability

If your student is overly stressed about deciding which college to attend, it’s important to help them understand their choices don’t have to be permanent. Students can change their major, school, or even attend graduate school to steer themselves in a new direction postgrad—so while making this decision is important, it isn’t necessarily set in stone. Talk to your student like an adult (and keep your own preferences in check) to help them make a confident decision. 

For more advice to help you find your role in your student’s college search, check out the other blogs and articles in our Parents section.

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