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4,726.  That is the reported number of degree granting institutions in the U.S, according to the Department of Education.  Yet, ask any college bound student, and you would be led to believe there are about ten.  Depending on what region of the country in which you live, the list of ten will vary, but the lists will still be just a fraction of the number of colleges and universities from which to choose.

College sign

Once your child takes the PSAT, they will be “in the system” and begin receiving a multitude of college marketing materials. It can be a very heady time, as they begin to receive all of the “We Want YOU!” glossy packets from colleges all over the country.  How to choose? The great thing about receiving so much information is that it introduces the student to colleges they may not have otherwise considered. However, it can also be overwhelming. Where do you start? A good place to begin is to get a book like The Complete Book of Colleges, 2017 Edition: The Mega-Guide to 1,355 Colleges and Universities (College Admissions Guides), which gives a lot of great information about a lot of schools. Note that a book like this only reviews 1,355 schools, so we know it isn’t really a complete book. So do your own research, as well.

Preparation for college cannot begin too early. I remember when my daughter was in grade school, the principal would take the older students on college tour field trips, and would always include the grade school students, as well.  They were too young to process everything, of course, but it planted the seeds of attending college when they were older. As far as actual preparation for college, most schools will hold meetings with 8th graders, to go over the courses they will need to take in high school to complete the diploma plan necessary for their college choices. There are usually a few tracks from which to choose–one for students wishing to attend two-year colleges pursuing associate degrees, and another for those seeking a degree from a four-year institution.

So what is your role in all of this? Heading into this, I honestly thought I would be all Tiger Mom. I quickly observed how overwhelming this process appeared to my daughter, so I decided to pull way back. I realized the last thing she needed was me yapping in her ear every day. I would encourage you to lightly take the reins in this process when you first begin. Your child does not know how to navigate the college application process, and most will welcome the guidance. Their guidance counselor at school may or may not be on top of their game in this area, so you can’t always rely on their direction.  My high school guidance counselor was worthless.  My parents were both teachers and very involved in my education, and I am grateful for that. You may not know what you are doing with all of this either, but you need to learn. Get in there! Your children will be feeling anxiety about this whole process, so knowing there is someone in their corner keeping them on track will be a comfort to them. Remember they can smell fear, so educate yourself. Don’t leave them hanging out there. So when I say to lightly take the reins, I want to encourage you to guide your child, not push and pressure them. This is harder for some than others. If you are a control freak, you may want to work really hard at restraining yourself. Our children are different people than we are, each unique, and their ultimate college choice has to be the one that works for THEM, not you.

The biggest mistake I think some parents can make is to not be involved. An alarming number of students in my daughter’s senior class “decided” to take gap years after graduation. I’m not opposed to gap years. If the student just honestly does not know what they want to do next, it may be an appropriate choice. If they are going to use that time to do something meaningful like travel through Europe, build wells in a developing country, or intern at a company in a field that interests them, it can certainly have merit. But if they are taking a gap year because they didn’t have direction on how to apply for college and they missed the required deadlines, then that’s on you.  I saw quite a few students in my daughter’s class fall into this latter category. Taking a gap year should be an intentional decision, not something you do because you didn’t have your act together and are left with no other options. I’m not going to lie to you, the pace in the junior and senior year of high school is swift and unforgiving. So get cracking and get informed and have some fun!

Which University checklistStart by having conversations with them early on in high school. Pose questions. “So do you have any ideas about what you might like to study in college?” “Do you have any thoughts about where you might like to go for college?” If they don’t have the answers to these questions, let it ride. Everything begins to coalesce in good time. Don’t keep hounding them. My daughter has told me that nothing strikes fear in the heart of a high school senior more than that ubiquitous question, “What are you going to major in?” The pressure to have your whole life figured out at age seventeen is immense, and your child doesn’t need more of that from you. Just check back in periodically when appropriate, and ask if they’ve given anymore thought to their course of study or college choice.

In their sophomore year if you are an early starter, or for sure in their junior year of high school, start visiting colleges. Start local if there are any colleges where you live, then begin expanding your reach. This is exciting for students, as the colleges always have exciting seminars and fun social opportunities, and you should go along and just stay in the background. Let them know you are there, but just step back and let them mingle with the other students. There are always dorm tours included, and this is perhaps the first time students begin to imagine living on their own. If your child receives an invitation to a special event at a college, go. If they have the opportunity to spend the night in a dorm with other prospective students, let them. We did a number of those type of visits, and I would drop my daughter off and stay in a hotel near campus while she attended the program.  Is it nerve wracking to turn them loose like this? You bet. But you have to do it.

Visiting colleges begins to give your child an idea of what they are looking for. And what they are not looking for.  This is a great time to begin having discussions about what they might want their college experience to look like. Finding out what they don’t want is just as helpful as learning what they do want. It helps them begin to narrow their search. Talk about things like public or private? Large state school? Small school? Ivy League? Competitive sports program? Honors programs? Religious or secular? Conservative or liberal? Far away or close to home? Their answers to these questions are valuable information. It helps you guide them toward more specific research based on what they think they want. A friend of mine drove her daughter to a very large state university she thought she was interested in. When they arrived, her daughter began to have a panic attack. That is some good intel. A reaction like that is your cue to talk it through, and perhaps start steering your child toward a smaller setting, or maybe something closer to home.

Colleges make it really easy to find out what they have to offer.  Many times a group of colleges will host an event together in your town. They will send representatives to give presentations on the programs and opportunities, scholarship opportunities and costs of their schools.  Go to as many of these as you can. And meet the people hosting the event.  Many times they are local recruiting representatives, and can give you so much valuable information about the application process. We also met many local alumni from these schools who would attend the events to visit with students. Have your child talk to as many of these folks as you can get your hands on. They are a wealth of information.

I tend to feel that a college fit is much like finding your wedding dress.  You just know. You and your child will visit many campuses. Talk about everything on your way home. They will be able to tell you if they felt like they would fit in there or not. There may be several that seem like a good fit. You may want to visit some of the front runners several times under different circumstances. Go to a sporting event. A football or basketball game is a great way to just get a feel for the student body. My husband travels a lot, so attending some college football games on the weekends with our daughter was a wonderful way for him to participate in this process. Don’t go when the students are on spring break or gone for the summer. The energy of a campus is completely different when the students are there. The list of potential candidates will begin to narrow until your child says, “This is the one.”

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You need to work hard to keep your own personal feelings and preferences out of it. You may have to accept the fact that your child does not wish to attend your alma mater.  Get over it, and move on. If they do begin to express a preference for certain colleges, ask them what they like about it. Encourage their choices and use every bit of willpower you have to keep from telling them what to do. This is their process.  Their choice. Your job is to guide them, keep them on track, and cheer them on. They are every bit as scared about all of this as you are, so position yourself as the person they can come to with fears, questions, and thoughts. You will want to jump in and voice your opinion. Don’t do it unless they ask you. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop myself before saying something opinionated. I had my own thoughts about this whole process, but I think I did a really good job at keeping them to myself. This is a major accomplishment for me, because I have an opinion about almost everything. :) Do whatever you have to do to hold your tongue.

So 4,726. That is a lot of educational choices. Take full advantage of as many as you can. Look beyond the obvious and check some of these places out. My daughter had narrowed her choices down to about eight, and ended up at a college that wasn’t even on the list when she started.  There are plenty of colleges out there that would love to have your child study there. Seek them out. There are some great gems out there just waiting to be discovered.

We’ll talk more later about the actual process of applying to and getting accepted by a college, and I will share with you stuff we learned along the way. Just know I am rooting for you because I have been right where you are!  Feel free to leave a comment and share your own experiences with us.

Keep filling that nest,



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