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Helping Your Student Choose a College

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Selecting colleges with the right fit from among all available options can be overwhelming as high school juniors and seniors start the college application process. Starting earlier, even as early as middle school, with no-commitment introductions to various types of college campuses can help your student understand what he or she finds most suitable.

Here are five ways to explore different types of college campuses:

  1. Surf the web. While very different from an in-person visit, exploring a college’s website can help students narrow down what they like and don’t like about different types of colleges. Does a small private college with specialized programs suit them, or would they prefer the variety and relative anonymity of a larger public university? Does the campus map or photos of buildings seem overwhelming or manageable? Does the campus have a park-like setting or is it spread out in an urban area? What kind of feelings does the architecture evoke?
  2. Take a leisurely walk. If you live or travel near a college or university, stop for a stroll through campus. You don’t need to set up a formal tour to get a feel for how students interact, how buildings are laid out and the modernity of dorm rooms and common spaces. Walk through the student union and a classroom building to get a peek behind the scenes. Stop in the campus bookstore to check out the selection of themed merchandise, and watch for fliers and posters advertising upcoming events.
  3. Join the crowd. Go to a game, cultural event or open house on campus to see a different side of college life. Are students involved in the activities your child enjoys? How active are alumni as fans, supporters and donors? Are these events appealing to the local community?
  4. Visit a friend or relative. If your student knows any current college students, see if a visit would work out. An afternoon at a local campus might be enough for your child to see how he or she might spend time on that campus and have a chance to talk with older students about what they like and don’t like. If you’re comfortable, an overnight stay with a trusted current student can be very enlightening for a younger student.
  5. Stay awhile. Many college campuses host overnight camps for athletic, academic and special interest programs during summer breaks. Going to camp will allow your child to stay in a dorm with other like-minded students, eat in dining centers, use the campus facilities and explore the surrounding community.

Once your student has established some likes and dislikes, you can use these five tips for working together as a family to refine possibilities.

1. Discuss everyone’s finances.

It may be a difficult subject, but it is so important for you and your student to start on the same page when it comes to money. Be honest with what you expect your student to contribute and how much, if any, you plan to provide. Published costs should not rule out initial consideration of a school as scholarships and other student financial aid can make a big difference between advertised prices and what the final costs will be.

2. Define expectations and any limitations.

Along with discussing finances, you may want to consider talking about your expectations for your student in college and any limitations in choosing schools. Think about what you hope your student gets out of his or her experience and then ask what he or she wants out college. If you think your student will go to a Midwestern school, but colleges on the coasts are at the top of your student’s list, discuss what your concerns are (e.g., transportation costs) and why he or she is considering those schools (e.g., colleges’ reputations). Knowing what your student is thinking about can help you guide and manage expectations, both yours and his or hers, before the application process.

3. Guide, but let your student choose.

There is a fine line between helping your student choose what he or she wants and making that decision for him or her. Be sure you give your student space to make his or her choices. Offering guidance in the beginning and with more complicated aspects, like completing financial aid forms, of the college search while he or she focuses on steps such as narrowing down choices and completing essays can help your student grow into a confident adult.

4. Ask your student the right questions.

Another way to help your student decide is to ask the right questions during his or her college search. Introspective questions can encourage your student to think beyond the standard pros and cons of each school and learn more about what he or she wants in life.

5. Turn college visits into more than a trip to campus.

Your student’s college life will consist of a lot more than what happens on campus, so if you are able, think about expanding college visits. You can do something as easy as checking out popular spots in the city or town where the campus is located or go sightseeing along the way. Not only will your son or daughter get a feel for the school but also the place where he or she might live. In addition, doing things not related to the campus visit can take some stress off you and your student.


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