10 Ways to Help Your Teen With the College Decision

It’s Decision Time

For high school seniors who are admitted to multiple colleges, deciding which one to attend often requires additional research and deliberation. But teens only have a few weeks to make up their minds – National College Decision Day is May 1 for many colleges and universities.

Parents have a role to play in their child’s college decision, but they shouldn’t try to take control of the process, experts say.

“If you really want the student to have buy-in into their choice, it needs to be their choice,” says Rob Durkle, associate vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Here are 10 ways parents can help their teenager think through the college decision.

Be Supportive

Choosing a college is an exciting but also stressful process for many teens. Parents should try to be understanding during this time, instead of adding more stress by pressuring their child to choose a particular school – for instance, their alma mater – experts say.

“One of the best things you can do for your child is to show them that you believe in their ability to make a good decision,” said Amy McManus, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles, via email. “Tell them that you will be happy to assist and support them, but you are confident they will be able to make a sound decision,” she added.

Don’t Compare Your Child to Others

This may be easier said than done, but parents shouldn’t compare their teen’s college acceptances, or rejections, with those of their friends’ children, says Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education, a New York-based college admissions advising firm.

Doing so just adds more stress to the college decision process, he says. “Not comparing is obviously the advice that I give,” Rim says. “Every student is so different, so unique and has different passions and interests.”

Compare Financial Aid Offers

College is a sizable investment, but families often don’t have to pay an institution’s full sticker price. To inform students and parents of the net cost, or amount due after subtracting scholarships and grants, schools will send accepted students a financial aid award letter. This document details the loans, grants, scholarships and work-study options being offered by a college.

Parents and teens can compare award letters from different schools to see where they can get the best deal. Award letters often show the cost for one year of enrollment, but Durkle encourages families to think about the total four-year cost for each of the schools they are considering. To account for potential annual increases in tuition and fees, Durkle says families can ask a college how much these costs have gone up over the last four years and use that information as a barometer.

Discuss Affordability – in Detail

After reviewing financial aid award letters, families should discuss the money-related implications of attending each school. Parents should be honest and detailed when talking with their teenager about college costs, says Jeff Schiffman, director of admission at Tulane University in New Orleans. “Treat your kid like an adult,” he says. Schiffman recommends that families make a spreadsheet to compare the cost of each college. The document can also include information about how much debt a student or family would have to take on for each option.

Discussing the implications of student loan debt is also important, Erin Goodnow, co-founder and CEO of Going Ivy, an Arizona-based college admissions consulting firm, said via email. “Debt should mean something to your student, whether it is theirs or yours,” she said. “It might also mean the difference in certain college experiences like studying abroad, work study, bringing a car to campus, or flying home less frequently,” she said.

Evaluate Academic Opportunities

Teens have probably already spent some time looking into the academic offerings of each college they applied to, but experts say it doesn’t hurt for families to do some additional research before making a final college choice.

Parents can help their teens research and think through the breadth and depth of academic opportunities offered at a college, said Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based education consulting company, via email. This includes the majors and minors offered, course selections, accessibility of faculty, undergraduate research opportunities and study abroad programs, she said.

And for teens who aren’t sure what they want to study, families can look into how easy it is to change majors at a particular institution, experts say.

Families can do some research to help determine whether a school will be able to help teens reach their career goals. Internship opportunities are one factor to consider. Looking at job placement rates and starting salary data for recent graduates can also be helpful, Durkle says.

And if a teenager hopes to eventually attend graduate school, families can look into grad school outcomes for a college’s recent alumni, experts say. For example, some colleges offer information about how many of their recent grads who applied to medical school got in, Durkle says.

Career and graduate school outcomes data are often available on a school’s website.

Talk About Location

Some teens may want to attend a college that’s close to home, while others want to go to school far away from the town they grew up in.

Bob Bissen, a father of two who lives in Annandale, Virginia, says his older daughter, Libby, wasn’t interested in attending a college close to home. She was accepted to six schools, and the closest one was a little more than 400 miles away. “She wanted to do her own thing,” he says.

Parents and students can talk about the pros and cons of the location of each college on their list, experts say.

Focus on the Fit

Fit encompasses many factors, including academics, extracurriculars and campus culture, to name a few.

Students should choose a college where they believe they can succeed, Rim says. This type of fit matters more than a school’s brand name or any other factor, he says. Parents can encourage their teenager to approach the decision this way.

Bissen says his daughter ultimately chose to attend the college where she felt most comfortable – Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. The liberal arts school also appealed to her because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. “It turned out to be a great decision for her,” Bissen says.

Visit the Campus Again

Many colleges hold events on campus in the spring for students who have been admitted to the incoming class. These events offer undecided teens another chance to experience a school and ask any remaining questions they have about academics, student life and other topics. Experts recommend that undecided teens attend admitted students days, if doing so is financially feasible for a family.

Don’t Pester Your Teenager

Asking teens about their college decision every other day can stress them out. However, since there is a deadline, parents can check in regularly to make sure their child is making progress toward a final decision.

Families can pick one night a week to have a conversation about the college decision, Schiffman suggests. “But you don’t necessarily need to be talking about it all the time,” he says. Families can use this discussion time to weigh the pros and cons of each school.

More College Decision Tips

Looking for more tips? Learn how to appeal a college financial aid package, and discover college decision day strategies from students.

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