When my children were in high school, they received minimal college planning guidance from their school. So we stumbled along and learned as they journeyed through it. As a psychologist, I have heard similar stories of befuddlement: high school seniors and their parents bemoaning the absence of clear advice and lamenting what went wrong during the application process. And though I may try to help them weather their frustration and disappointment, I suspect that with better preparation, their options would have vastly improved.
Here are five tips that teens and families must consider when planning for college (and which just might save time, energy and heartbreak):
1 | Do the research
Families need to research colleges themselves and forego relying exclusively on schools to guide such a critical decision. Guidance counselors are notoriously overworked. Many are only familiar with local colleges and may be unaware of admissions standards at more distant schools. They may direct your child toward a particular college despite little chance of acceptance, while never suggesting other colleges that might be ideal. In some high schools, counselors barely have time to get to know your child, and may have little awareness of your financial resources or limitations.
You can find a wealth of information online and through college guidebooks, and can tailor the search to your child’s specific interests. Don’t assume the high school will help. You know your child best and are in an ideal position to sort through the information with your child.
2 | Plan far enough in advance
High schools are often negligent when it comes to recommending which classes, extracurriculars, or tests favorably influence college admissions decisions. Your child may be unaware, for example, that securing a high PSAT score in 11th grade can lead to National Merit Finalist status, increasing the odds of admission to “reach” schools and additional scholarship opportunities.
Other frequently omitted information includes: whether to pursue dual enrollment, what activities are viewed by colleges as resume padding, whether to submit a portfolio or audition recording, the relative differences between the SAT’s and the ACT’s, and when (and if) to take the SAT Subject tests. Guidance counselors also may not be prepared to offer sound advice about scholarships or financial aid. Don’t wait until the end of 11th grade to plan. Start early and become as informed as possible.
3 | Set realistic goals
Some students set their sights on colleges where they have little chance of admission, bypassing amazing but less prestigious schools. They scan the college’s reported acceptance rates and, if their GPA or SAT’s fall near the 25th percentile, they might assume they have a chance. In reality, competition is just too intense, and many capable students are left out. Most of the highest “reach” schools expect outstanding additional qualifications well beyond grades and test scores.
Students could avoid disappointment if they assessed their chances more realistically, and appreciated what other colleges have to offer – not just the highest “reach” schools. Encourage your child to apply to a variety of colleges, but don’t waste time on schools well out of reach.
4 | Base decisions on a full range of factors
Students who choose a college based on any one overriding factor often face disappointment. Some fall in love with a particular campus and refuse to consider the other components of a successful college experience. College lasts at least four years and the right school needs to fulfill multiple criteria: academic, social, financial, and geographic. Each school has a different “feel,” and some factors, such as size, the influence of Greek life, proximity to home, or the flexibility of the curriculum, can make or break a decision. The more specific the information you acquire, the more factors your child can weigh in making an informed decision.
Visiting colleges and participating in campus tours and information sessions are a good start, but your child can learn even more by spending time in the student center, observing an activity he or she hopes to join, and sitting in on several classes. And overnight visits for accepted students also provide a glimpse into the campus social climate. Sorting out what is important, ranking all priorities, and then coming to a compromise is critical.
5 | Understand financial aid policies
Many families are blind-sided by strict financial policies. Despite financial aid calculators on college websites, some families assume they will receive more aid than what is stated. While some colleges will negotiate (for example, when a family hardship arises), it is unlikely that additional aid will be offered after your child is accepted. On the other hand, should you qualify for need-based aid, don’t discount some of the elite colleges if your child has the stats to gain admission.
Despite their sticker price, many elite schools are extremely generous, making it a more affordable option than some state-funded universities. Keep in mind, though, that many colleges are “need-aware:” they take financial need into account when making admissions decisions. Unless there is a firm “need-blind” policy, students who require financial aid may be rejected even if their academic qualifications meet the school’s admissions criteria. And don’t count on merit scholarships. They may only partially cover tuition, are typically offered to only the most outstanding students, and may not be available where your child wants to attend. Set your sights on colleges you can truly afford and plan strategically for maximizing your financial aid award.
The final decision about college belongs to your child. But as a parent, you are in the best possible position to offer guidance and encouragement, help with strategy, and provide those much-needed reality checks. Staying informed is not hovering; it makes sense to gain as much information as possible so you can help your child navigate this complicated process. I urge you and your child to do the research, determine which colleges offer the best social, academic and financial fit, and be realistic about admissions chances and your financial resources. This can ease some of the stress, offset unnecessary regrets, and help your child feel confident with this important decision.