Parenting Your High School Senior During College Decision Time

How to offer guidance without taking control.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

With at least a couple of college acceptance letters and financial aid packages in hand, your high school senior knows decision time is looming. National Decision Day is May 1. Whether your child knows exactly which offer he’s taking, or is struggling with his options, here’s some advice on how to help. Remember that understanding how to make decisions is a big step toward learning to become an adult.

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This is your student’s decision Yes, I’m talking about a 17-year-old making a major life decision. Your input is required, but must focus on what’s best for your child. This is not your chance to get a do-over, or to force your teenager to live your dream. As parents, we know our children well, and that wisdom should be the guiding force behind any advice we offer during this time.

Flip-flopping is natural Expect your child to make a definitive decision—and change it the next day. Nothing is final until she says she’s ready to make the deposit. Kids are so afraid of making the wrong choice that they change their priorities as they try to decide. You can ask, “What is most important to you?”

The money facts matter You need to be the voice of reason here. Saying, “We’ll find a way” to pay for your son’s dream school may not be the smartest move in the long run. Carefully review financial aid packages, discussing and comparing them with your teenager. A college education is a good investment, but it shouldn’t leave you or your student strapped with overwhelming debt for the next 10 to 20 years.

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Consider that the majority of college students change their major at least once. That means their expected income will likely change, too. Take that into account when contemplating whether and how much to borrow.

Keep the guilt card out of the discussion If your student finds a good, affordable college that she loves but you consider too far away, don’t say, “I’ll miss you too much if you go there,” or “I won’t be able to visit you very often.” That’s your problem, not hers. (Of course, transportation fees should be factored into the total cost of college.)

Restrain yourself if she doesn’t pick your or Grandpa’s alma mater. Avoid saying things like, “He’ll be so disappointed if you don’t go to his school.” Again, this isn’t about you or Grandpa, even if one of you is paying the tuition bill.

A campus visit is essential Before picking the college, your student must see it at least once after he’s been accepted. A high school senior views a campus differently when he knows he may be spending his next four years there. He’ll pay attention to the current students walking by, listen more carefully to the tour guide and admissions director, scrutinize the dining hall, look closely at the residence hall options and review that list of clubs and teams thoroughly.

Compare and contrast This is the time for you or your student to show off your spreadsheet skills. Make a list of all the colleges where your child has been accepted and add comparable details like location, size, cost, financial aid, key major(s), plus your teenager’s priorities such as specific clubs, housing options for freshmen, internship possibilities, etc. Include notes from the most recent campus visit. Though no school is perfect, seeing the differences between colleges in one place should help one stand out from the others.

Don’t rush It’s true that at some colleges the earlier a student places a deposit the better her chance of getting into the dorm of her choice. But you want your student to make the right choice for her, so give her the time she needs.

Listen Sometimes, in order to get a clear view of his choices, a kid needs to talk it out, to take all those thoughts in his head and say them out loud. Your job is to listen, and ask a few questions to help him focus his priorities. Guide, but try to keep your words to a minimum, unless you’re asked to share.

For more advice, check out my ultimate guide to making the college decision.

Share your experience going through the college decision-making process with your high school senior in the comments section below.



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