College Search Tips For Parents

College Search Tips For Parents

When I wrote yesterday’s post about J being newly engaged in his college search, it occurred to me that I have tons of advice for people who are embarking on the hunt for the right post-secondary school. Many people tend to freak out when their kids become high school sophomores and juniors because that’s when the college talk really kicks in from the high school’s end (if you’re lucky enough to have a high school that is on top of such things, that is). Many families don’t talk much about college before sophomore year, and then when they find out all there is to do along the way to making a decision in a matter of a year or two, it’s very daunting.

Please keep in mind that what I’m about to tell you is from a mom-of-two-older-teens view and probably applies to the majority more than those who are Ivy-league bound. I would imagine much of this also applies to those who are destined for Harvard and Princeton, but in the cases of those students I’m probably missing something. (Also, I imagine those students have been talking about college for years and years already.)

With that, here are some tips that can help soothe those college search fears:

Start conversations around the dinner table.

If you don’t eat dinner together as a family, you’re missing out on valuable connection time with the kids. Not only is dinnertime a good time to begin the chats that will assist in the search for colleges itself, but it’s also a great way to get to know your kid really well, meaning when the talk about majors comes up you might be able to remind them of things they seem to be interested in and how they can parlay that into a future career.

Starting Freshman year, impress upon them the importance of good grades.
Freshman year itself is often a huge adjustment, especially if your kid is coming from a middle school where classes are set up by team (rather than a junior high which is literally set up like a, well, “junior” high school) because they have to learn how to have their own individual schedule, not to mention the change in workload. It’s important though, that they work to the best of their ability because even though Junior year grades are what the college admissions departments love to see in depth, good grades in the Freshman and Sophomore years can make for a more forgiving cumulative GPA, which will be important for scholarships later.

Make sure they are taking classes that challenge their abilities and/or emphasize their interests.
Excellent grades for four years on basic-level classes just to fulfill graduation requirements is fine, but many colleges like to see students put themselves out there and take higher-level, Honors, and AP courses. Many advanced classes are weighted, meaning a “B” in the class actually counts for an “A” (which assists the cumulative grade point average), and if your student takes and successfully passes the AP test at the end of an AP class, many colleges give credit for it, which translates to a savings in time and money at the post-secondary level. If your student is interested in art or foods (or accounting or chemistry or whatever), he or she should select a couple of high school electives in those areas so college admissions departments can see that they are already dabbling in what they want to continue in college.

Extracurricular activities–including community service–are important.

In all of the college tours I’ve done with both of my boys up to this point, it seems to me that colleges aren’t looking for any specific extracurriculars (though community service activities are definitely impressive) or that the student is totally overloaded outside of school. I believe that as long as your kid is participating in something that makes him or her more well-rounded, whether it be a sport, scouting, a job, music lessons, or whatever, that gives the college admissions reps something to work with and also makes your kid unique and memorable versus the kid who does nothing outside of school. Unique = GOOD.

Attend College Fairs.
If you live in an area where there is at least one college fair per year, attend it. This is a great way to gather tons and tons of information (mostly on paper, which is a big disadvantage…I’m waiting for colleges to start handing out their information on flash drives) on many schools. If it’s your first exposure to this kind of thing, it can start your college search with a bang. It’s also a chance to speak to a rep directly, ask questions on the spot, and get an idea about the personality of the campus from someone who works there. MAKE SURE to pay special attention to the college reps who don’t have scads of people waiting to speak to them: the lesser-known colleges can sometimes offer unique opportunities, more scholarships, and other things for which your kid would have to compete to get at the more popular schools. (We found J’s current first-choice school by visiting its admissions rep, who was standing at her table alone!)

Suggest that your kid takes advantage of the opportunity to speak to college admissions reps who visit his or her high school.
Especially if you don’t have access to a College Fair, this is a great way to get lots of great information from real, live representatives of schools that you may have never heard of, wouldn’t have thought to visit, or should consider because of elements that makes the school stand out from others. At J’s high school, the counselor’s section of the school website has a listing of which college reps are coming in on what days so he can plan appointments. Talking to a rep first can also help weed out schools from the list of possibilities.

Do NOT disregard private schools EVER.

What many people think is that private colleges, because they tend to start at (are you sitting down?) $30,000 per year and go up from there (I told you to sit down!) are impossible on an average family’s budget. What many people don’t know is that private colleges, because they have lots of donors and other ways of bringing money in, usually offer tons of scholarships to qualified students, and the cost can be brought down to something really close to the cost of attending a state university. In fact, D attends a private college and the only way it worked out for us is because he was awarded enough scholarship money to bring the cost down to the public university level. (By the way, here’s something you may not know: private schools, unlike public schools, do not have an in-state student/out-of-state student difference when it comes to costs like public schools do. At a private college, everyone pays the same no matter where they come from.)

Do NOT disregard public schools that are out of state, EVER.
Check with the schools that are in the states that border your own. Often neighboring states will have special agreements where, in order to bring students in from the bordering states (diversity!), they will charge in-state tuition or have some other accommodation. J’s first choice school at the moment is in Wisconsin, and they offer a special program that adjusts the cost: we would pay a little more than the in-state rate for him to go there, but much less than the out-of-state rate. Bonus: the price we would pay through that program is the same or cheaper than tuition and room/board at Illinois public universities. (Sorry, Illinois!)

Do NOT disregard private schools that are affiliated with a religion other than your own!
We are Jewish. D goes to a college that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. This is not a problem at all. We asked lots of questions and it seems like many of the religiously-affiliated private colleges are very welcoming to students of all faiths. There is a religious requirement for graduation at D’s school (an Intro to Religion class and then one more religion class of his choice) and there are no classes for a certain time period on Wednesdays so the students who want to can go to chapel, but students can participate–or not–as much as they feel comfortable. Besides, one of the great things about college is surrounding yourself with diversity, right? You learn more that way.

Be organized: colleges start to run together when you are checking them out!
You will start to get lots of college information in the mail once you start looking. I recommend that you put each school’s info in a system of file folders, and recycle the brochures immediately from any schools you have eliminated to keep things simplified. You can see the system I created for my older son here.

Charts help you remember what you like and dislike during your college search.
I mentioned in yesterday’s post that we made a chart. This is so helpful. You can lay it out however you want, but I recommend comparing general facts about each school like: size of undergraduate student body, distance from home, does it have the desired major(s), what the most popular majors are at that school, tuition cost, room and board cost, financial aid and work study opportunities, etc. After you list the general facts, have sections for things like: what we liked about it, what we didn’t like about it, what are the dorms and dining areas like, does this school have activities that are interesting, does this school have a religious presence (if that’s important to you), and other random things that only you would come up with. One of the most important pieces of your chart is the section for: “HOW DID MY KID FEEL WHEN VISITING THIS COLLEGE?” I can’t stress that enough. Your kid (and hopefully you but mainly him or her!) should feel like they belong there. Ask him or her, “Can you see yourself attending this school?” If they are super-excited about it and say “YES, I CAN!” or if they aren’t sure but “think so”, that school stays on the list of possibilities. If he or she feels uncomfortable, I’d knock it off the list either immediately or after a second visit at a different time of year if you had strong feelings about what it had to offer. We were lucky when we were searching for a school for D: he and I both felt like his school was “the one” within minutes of arriving, and he’s been over the moon about it since the day he moved in. Only one of the great things about it is that his backyard is Lake Michigan.

The college search ended here for my older son!

Community College is a smart choice these days for many reasons.
Two-year colleges offer a much higher level of education than they did years ago. In addition, it is a very good idea fiscally to attend two years of community college (the price difference is ridiculous) and then, if your kid is going into a career that requires a four-year degree or more, transfer. Community colleges are also great for young adults who don’t yet know what they want to do in life because they can get their general education requirements out of the way while they take more time to think about it.

Don’t panic!
You can do this. All of you. It can be a scary time, but it’s so exciting too. Putting forth the time and effort to help your kid choose the right post-secondary home is worth it when you get the phone calls about how thrilled they are to be there.

Next up? Scholarship advice. Click HERE.


  • Mrs4444

    Excellent advice!

    I didn’t realize private colleges don’t have in-state/out-of-state tuition requirements–That might open up some more possibilities for us.

    Our system is a Google doc table with all of the info you included in yours.

    Our first visit will be on Monday! U.W. Eau Claire, followed by U of Minnesota on Tuesday. I can’t wait! 🙂

    I’m not sure it fits in this discussion (maybe you already have this covered for your next post), but I dropped the ball on a very important thing this year–Taking the PSAT is VERY important if you have a student who hopes to earn a National Merit Scholarship. It MUST be taken as a junior. I had no idea how important it was, and I am kicking myself for not being better informed, as Kendall certainly would have been eligible 🙁

    • Melisa

      I am definitely going to mention PSAT in my next post: thank you! 🙂 (and ugh: bummer that you guys missed it.)

  • Vicki@collegeparentcentral

    This is a great post and very comprehensive. I especially love the suggestion of dinner table conversations – great way to know your kids – and to put some of your own thoughts out there in a generic, non-directive way.
    It’s so helpful for parents to think of the big picture as they start the college search process. Having lived through it with three daughters, I know that there’s lots to keep track of.
    I’d add a couple of thoughts – one is to keep it in perspective. It’s an important decision in the life of the student and family, but there isn’t only one perfect place. Don’t let it take over your life. The second is that in being organized and keeping the train on track, parents need to be careful that they remember that the student needs to own the process. We need to keep pushing them, for sure, but they need to own the decision and the process – even if we might make a different decision or do things differently.

    • Melisa

      Forgot to respond to your comment! Thanks so much for the nice words, Vicki, and thanks for linking my post on your site!