Don’t set unrealistic expectations for your teenager.

Knowing and accepting your child’s strengths and weaknesses before you get too far into the college admissions process will save a lot of disappointment later on.

Scores, grades and rankings Using College Board or Naviance you can learn about the admissions requirements of most colleges in terms of GPA, SAT/ACT test scores, etc. for a college. Accessing a college’s own Admissions site and/or Prospective/Future Students page you can learn the average SAT and ACT scores of this year’s freshmen, whether the majority of these students were in the top 10, 25 or 50 percent of their high school class, the percentage receiving financial aid and the admissions acceptance rate, among other details. If it’s not readily available, type in “Common Data Set” in the search box on the college’s Admissions page and you should find a link to the information.

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By adding a zero to your child’s PSAT score, you have a general idea of their expected SAT score. Yes, there is always potential for this number to increase when kids take the “real” test, which it did for my kids, but most parents have told me it was accurate for theirs.

If your teenager’s score is 300 points below the average for a certain college, or the majority of the university’s students were in the top 10 percent of their class and your child is barely in the top 25 percent, you’re looking at a reach school. That’s okay, but the rest of the colleges on the list should fit your student’s profile better.

This is not about telling your child they can’t succeed; it’s about helping them find a college where they can. Some kids flourish in a highly competitive environment while others find themselves motivated by less pressure. Make sure you’re aware and realistic about where your student falls.

Majors and athletics The same attention is necessary when it comes to potential majors and athletics. Engineering requires strong mathematical ability and English majors should like to read and write, a lot. The student athlete who hasn’t received countywide or state level recognition is unlikely to receive an athletic scholarship from an NCAA Division I college, although good grades and athletic achievement might create the opportunity for an academic scholarship to a Division III program.

There are exceptions. I’m one. Throughout high school my teachers discouraged me from becoming a writer, telling me repeatedly that I just didn’t have the talent. I knew that I could be taught to be a writer in college. Because of my grades, I was accepted to a top journalism school and have made a living as both a writer and editor.

For kids who are trying to pick a major, it’s important to take into account their abilities and their interests. Which classes do they seem willing to put extra effort into? Which after school activities have them willing to sacrifice time with their friends? An athlete who likes science might consider sports medicine or athletic training; a musician with a strong interest in computers should think about sound production or music composition.

Some kids show an equal interest or disinterest in all subjects, making them good candidates to apply as “undeclared.” They should check out colleges that assist undecided students in finding a major in the first two years. On one accepted students tour with my daughter, an academic vice president said she considered the undeclared students the smartest ones in the room because they left their options open.

Size matters Your child’s behavior is an indicator of how big a college they need. The kid who’s feeling stifled by the size of their high school and everyone knowing their business will probably prefer a medium to large university. But the one who likes knowing everyone on campus and what’s happening in other kids’ lives might fare better in a smaller, close knit environment. Then there are the kids who don’t like the idea of sharing a room or living with strangers, and will be happier as a commuter student.

Many colleges offer learning communities, in which students with a similar interest or major live on the same floor of a dorm and take at least one class together. This arrangement works well for kids who like studying in groups, want an instant set of friends and/or need a little more structure from day one.

The two-year option Not everyone is meant for a four-year program. Community college is a solid choice for the kid who needs another year or two to mature, to improve their grades, has little or no money for college or seems turned-off by the idea of four more years of school. This is also the student who has interests and abilities, but needs more education to get started on a career path. An associate’s degree will provide the skills and knowledge necessary to begin working in a decent paying job upon graduation, and leaves the door open to pursue a bachelor’s degree later on if that seems necessary.

Finding colleges that might be a good fit starts with understanding your child’s capabilities and interests.

Share your experiences helping your child approach the college admissions process realistically. 

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