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Words to the Wise College-Bound Parent

female student with parent

Getting into college can be one of life's biggest challenges. Support and guidance can be incredibly helpful, especially from parents.

Choosing a college is the first step in your child's life beyond high school—a life that must eventually be managed independently. Here are some ideas for giving support, direction, and reassurance.

Help with Planning for College

Nurture commitment. If your child has a serious interest, find a way to support that interest. It could be a sport, a hobby, community service, even a part-time job. Colleges look favorably on students who show a commitment over time to a pursuit that helps them develop as individuals. This commitment shows tenacity, maturity, leadership, and growth—the very qualities that pay off in college.

Educate yourself about paying for college. Learn about the financial aid process and the many ways to save and find money for college. CollegeData's Pay Your Way section thoroughly covers college financing. Our College Net Price Calculator helps you see what a specific college might actually cost your family. Our Scholarship Finder lists over 595,000 awards worth more than $4.5 billion.

Talk with your child about money. It is never too soon to talk with your child about how the family is going to pay for college. What is your level of financial support and how will that limit college choices? How much do you expect your child to contribute? How much debt is acceptable to you or your child?

Keep an eye on your expectations. If you have opinions about your child's college choices (such as financial or geographic limits) or suggestions (such as specific colleges) let your child know up front. If your expectations include admission to a famous, highly selective school, remember that these schools turn down a great many highly qualified students every year. There are hundreds of other colleges with academics just as rigorous, campuses just as beautiful, and students just as likely to succeed in life. Some of these could be a great fit—or an even better fit—for your child.

Keep an eye on the college list. Some students agonize over their lists, not really sure what they are looking for in a college. Other students may not put enough thought into their lists, opting to include only local colleges or schools their friends are applying to. Here are some ideas to help you put together a great list.

  • If your child isn't sure what he or she wants in a college, both of you should read What Is Your Ideal College? It features a comprehensive list of college qualities you can use as a starting point. Campus visits are also helpful (see below).
  • College Search can help you and your child identify good candidates for the college list. You can search for colleges by location, major, size, selectivity, and other key qualities.
  • Your child's list should include a range of admission chances. This allows a student to go for a dream school while ensuring that he or she will get in somewhere. CollegeData's College Chances Calculator can estimate your child's admission chances from "reach" to "maybe" to "good bet."
  • Deciding Which Colleges to Apply To walks you through the process of building a list of colleges with the features you want and a range of admission chances.

Help your child visit colleges. No brochure or website can tell you what a campus is really like. Letting your child visit college campuses is one of the biggest gifts you can offer. There are two types of visits:

  • A road trip to see campuses. This may only be a matter of touring each campus for a few hours, attending an information session, and talking to a few students. This tour can open a student's eyes to what college experiences he or she really likes—or doesn't. If time and money are issues, visiting local colleges can help a student see what college life is all about, even if he or she has no intention of attending those schools.
  • Longer visits (preferably overnight) to schools your child is seriously considering. These visits let your child hang out with current students, attend classes, talk to professors, and get as close to the real student experience as possible. Most colleges welcome such visits. If time or money is a problem, consider sending your child alone or ask for financial assistance from the college.

Help During the Application Period

The essay. The required essay is often your child's first experience writing something personal and meaningful. While some students savor the challenge, many fear it, dread it, or at least find it frustrating. Most high schools help students get started, but many students welcome a parent's editorial eye to check for coherence, proper grammar, and errors.

Organization. Call it prompting, reviewing, reminding, or even nagging—many students need help with the dizzying number of deadlines that accompany college applications. There are deadlines for recommendation letters, financial aid forms, essays, tests, and scholarship applications. Parents are experienced organizers. While you shouldn't run the show, most students will appreciate your help in this area.

Encouragement. Be your child's sounding board. Don't interrogate, but ask good questions and let your child talk through their worries. Believe it or not, many students are afraid they won't get into any colleges. Reassurance—and cheerleading—from mom or dad can provide a big boost.

The Envelope, Please!

Choosing. Hopefully, your child will get into a top-choice school. But sometimes deciding which college to attend is not obvious. Help your child weigh the variables, such as financial aid, size, distance from home, etc. Another visit may be in order. Remind your child there is no perfect school.

Rejection. Being denied or waitlisted is a common and natural outcome of applying to college. Your child may take it very hard. But schools have many reasons for denial. It should not be taken as a personal judgment. Help your child focus on the acceptances in hand and the ones that may be on the way.

Letting go. The writer Bill Bryson had this moment of epiphany on his son's first day at college. "It wasn't until we . . . left him there looking touchingly lost and bewildered amid an assortment of cardboard boxes and suitcases in a spartan room not unlike a prison cell that it really hit home that he was vanishing out of our lives and into his own." Of course, your child won't vanish—these days it's easy to stay in touch. But he or she is now an adult if perhaps an adult taking baby steps.

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