How to Help Your Teen Pick a College by Julie Clark

Just as winter finally gives way to spring, scores of high school students will receive their final acceptance notices. Many will have a choice of schools to attend, and most will have until sometime in May to make that decision final. It can be a nerve-wracking time for most of these teens, as college is anything but a small decision to make.

In honor of kids who are soon to follow in their footsteps, I offer up some tiger mom advice to families who have at least another round of college visits to go before applications are due. The goal of this blog piece (aka, free advice) is to help you whittle down the list to a manageable size and realistic shape before August rolls around. We’ll touch on elite schools, but this advice is general enough to help most.

There are all sorts of terms used to describe the college hunt and application process. Regardless your teen’s academic standing, it’s good to have at least three types of schools on the  list:

1) Safety – This is the school(s) your teen has a very solid shot at getting into. It is important to pick a safety school she will actually be ok going to if the others fall through, which does happen. (I was admitted to my dream school, but could not afford it so wound up at my safety. It happens.)

2) Match – This is considered a great choice as it offers what your teen is looking for. Usually match schools are schools that she is realistically aiming for. It may not be easy to get in, but it’s doable. My guess is most applicants wind up admitted to at least one of their Match schools.

3) Reach – This is the “dream school” category. We’re talking the likes of the Ivy League, UChicago, MIT and Stanford for the high achievers, but it can be your state’s flagship university or another school. What’s a Match for one student is a Reach for another, etc.

A word on elite admissions: No matter what anyone tells you (outside of an admissions counselor at one of these), teens who aim for these schools have an incredibly mixed bag of results with admissions. It really is more than stellar test scores at this level. You never know unless you try, so don’t let that stop you. (Full disclosure; my daughter is at her Reach school, in the elite category. It does happen.)

(c) 2016 Julie Clark

As you put together the initial list, it’s good to have at least one school in each category. The goal is to have at least one college where your teen has a solid shot at admissions. In fact, two safeties aren’t necessarily a bad idea as, worst case, that would leave her with some sort of choice come May. Sound like common sense? You’d be surprised. We know of kids who only applied to Reach schools, and saw the scrambling that ensued once admission was not granted at any of them.

When it comes to narrowing that list down, there are several things to consider. Let’s face it; all that mail in the mailbox and inbox is absolutely overwhelming! Try this advice out and see if it helps make the process a little more manageable.

First, I’m going to ask you a few questions.

Do you know what your family can afford when it comes to college?

Yes, I went there. I did that annoying thing of talking money over your child’s gorgeous test scores that are stuck to the front of the fridge and slapped all over Instagram. The reason being you may find the best college on the planet, your teen may be admitted, but if you can’t swing the payments they will be crushed. To be true, schools do offer scholarships, etc., but do your homework as a family when making the initial list. (For the record, many elite schools do not offer scholarships. However, many do have very good financial aid packages making this type of education in reach of most. Do some research before crossing any school off your list solely due to the sticker price.) After this exercise, a Match school may have to be bumped up to the Reach category, etc.

Is your teen planning on going away and living on campus? Or are you still sorting that out?

When looking at distance from home, how much is MomDad wants to be within a few hours versus some bona fide reason, in which case your teen really truly needs to be closer to home? (This is where we insert the “not one size fits” all clause.) Seriously, MomDad, if your teen has made it this far and is looking at going away to college, let her spread her wings a bit, especially when it comes to a dream school.

Now those major topics addressed, we can talk about “fit.”

In today’s college rat race, there is a term used over and over again that many promote but few truly welcome. That term is “fit.” As a mom of a daughter in college, I cannot stress to you enough how important the concept of “fit” should override everything else – even the name on the bumper sticker. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Fit encompasses many things, including academic rigor, average class size, graduation requirements, social (read party) scene, safety, transportation and setting. You may not hit all the marks, but it’s important to hit most.

Identifying what looks like a fit will further help you narrow down your list. For instance, plopping a country mouse in the middle of a city is asking for things to start off on the wrong footing. But being open-minded to a campus that offers solid mass transit can open up a world to students who do not have access to a car. Schools where socializing is heavy on drinking or Greek life make it difficult for other kids to find a niche. Introverts tend to do better with smaller class sizes, as well as those who thrive on discussion based classes. In other words, fit is complex but it is crucial to understand. I could write a book discussing all the facets; there are so many. Know the schools she wants to apply to and be able to articulate why each school is chosen. That makes a huge difference in the entire process.

As a parent, what are your main concerns for your teen? Be honest. Don’t confuse things that tripped you up or that you enjoyed with things that affect them.  Identify any concerns with schools they may have on that list and work through them. If you have honest concerns, talk about them openly. The truth is some of these kids know what they want, but others are still finding their way. Some need guidance, while others just need someone to listen.

It does take time and an awful lot of energy to complete this process, but hard work ahead of time does pay off.

Wishing you and your teen the very best on this journey!


(For the record, my daughter is at a Top 5 school. If you want to pick my brain about elite college admissions, I can’t promise results, but I’m happy to talk with you, just the same.)


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