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7 min read

The Student/Parent Partnership in College Planning

The Student/Parent Partnership in College Planning

Five Keys to Success In Moving the College Process Forward While Maintaining Your Sanity!

The mid-point of the Junior year in High school signals the opening of a new life chapter for young people and their parents. The far-away talk about post-graduate options comes into sharper focus as standardized test results arrive creating a sense of possibility for college entry. Colleges have begun marketing themselves to students in earnest, giving an added layer of importance to course selections for the Senior year. College visits will soon follow with the application process not far behind.  

Regardless of your level of anticipation, college planning will wash over you and your student like a tsunami for the next 14-16 months. Even though you will not be the one heading off to college, the process will sap your energy and test your patience. Done well, though, college planning can be a time of self-discovery and empowerment for your student. As one who has seen the process as a parent—and a dean of admission—I would like to offer the following keys to success in navigating the early phases of the college planning process with your student.

 

1. Create space—and permission—for your child’s vision to emerge.


As our kids approach the end of their high school years, we face the realization that the pride of our lives will soon be facing the world on their own—the future we have been imagining for them awaits. In whatever comes next, we hope and pray we have prepared them well to have and to be the best. 

As your child steps forward into the next chapter of their life journey, though, you need to have the confidence—and courage—to step back and create an implicit permission structure for your student to step forward. 

While logic suggests there is no way you can entrust the decision-making in the high-stakes college planning process to a 17-year-old, you might consider doing so. It’s natural that you might be reluctant to give up control of decision-making. In fact, I was that parent until my eldest (lovingly) chided me with, “Dad, you have to cut that out. How will I ever learn to make decisions for myself if you keep doing it for me?”

Could she be right? Was she ready? I hoped so. More importantly, she needed to find out. Her life going forward wouldn’t be mistake-free, but it was hers. Fortunately, she didn’t allow the mistakes to become failures. Rather, she learned from them as she charted her path into the future. It is now your child’s opportunity to do the same.

That doesn’t mean you disappear. So much of you is wrapped up in your child and, surely, the years of experiences provided, lessons imparted and opportunities explored must hold value. Indeed, everything you have done for and with your child is foundational for the next step in their life journey.  

The future your child faces is as uncertain as it is promising. Stepping back simply means that you give them the space and support to begin imagining what that future might look like. The “script” you have imagined for that future needs to give way to the shaping of a new vision. 

 

2. Encourage a “student-centered” discovery process.


One of the biggest mistakes families make early in the college planning process is that they begin with predetermined outcomes derived from your own experiences, projections based on your child’s performance and, often, conversations with friends and relatives. When that happens, you and your child become “destination oriented.” With the outcome seemingly predestined, you will hear them—or yourself—asserting that they are going to “XYZ” university long before an application is even submitted.

While “XYZ” might ultimately become a viable outcome, such a single-minded approach can be limiting at the outset when it is best to be open to a range of possibilities. This is borne out by the uncertainty of the selective college admission process. Moreover, the fact that barely half of the young people who start college each year will ever complete degree requirements suggests that many find themselves in situations for which they are not well-suited.

A more prudent approach might be to engage in a student-centered orientation to college planning. Ask your child questions like, “Why do you want to go to college?” “What do you hope to accomplish during your four years of college”—or “What’s your bucket list for college?” “How can you best accomplish these things?" While responses might not be clear or immediately forthcoming, you are signaling to your child that it is okay to think expansively on the subject.

My youngest child was very laid back about college planning, much to the consternation of his dean of admission dad! The only inkling I had about his thought process came from an overheard conversation in which he asserted that he wanted to go to a big school in the city. Why?  Because “that’s where the action is!” We had to talk!

The “why college” and “bucket list” questions quickly produced responses like “I want to get a good education” (much to my relief!), “I want a place where my professors get to know me,” “I want to study chemistry with a lab orientation,” and “I want to play my trumpet.” (Noticeably absent from the conversation was a big school in the city!) The conversation didn’t take long but each “I want” statement revealed another of his priorities. Furthermore, my 17-year-old had realized that the articulation of these priorities was not coming from his dad. He was hearing them in his own voice! 

Done well, the college-going process is as much about self-discovery as it is about the selection of a college. Conversations like this can be incredibly empowering for the young person. Taking the time—and finding the deference—to ask probing questions and to hear what they have to say can be enlightening to your child. In this case, my son had come to realize that the college planning process was for and about him, not his dad. Moreover, I was better equipped to support his inquiry going forward.

 

3. Focus on fit.


My son’s initial thoughts about college—“big school in the city”—are not that uncommon. Absent any meaningful personal experience, students tend to follow social-emotional instincts rather than any logic associated with the pursuit of their educational goals. Statements like the following attest to these tendencies: “My friends are going there.”  “I’ve been at a small school all my life, so I want a large university.” “I want to be in /near a city because there is more to do.” “I want to be in a big-time sports atmosphere.” Note that none of these sentiments speak to the impact of a learning environment or the achievement of the student’s educational goals.

If any of this sounds familiar—and you are the least bit concerned that your tuition dollars will be spent on good times for your student in college—encourage your student to consider five elements of a good college “fit” in their deliberations. A good college “fit” is one that:

  • Offers a program of study that meets your student’s academic interests and needs. This is relatively easy if your student is focused on specific programs. If there is uncertainty, however, universities that will force the declaration of a major at the point of application will not be good fits. Instead, encourage your student to consider liberal arts colleges or general studies programs that will allow them to explore options before declaring a major.
  • Provides a style of instruction compatible with the way your student learns best. Just as we all process information differently, places in higher education vary greatly regarding how they present information. Does your student prefer an interactive learning environment, or do they prefer anonymity? Do they like tests or do they prefer more subjective means of assessment? Urge your student to reflect on their learning style and then look for evidence that institutions will provide appropriate learning environments.
  • Provides a level of academic rigor commensurate with your student’s aptitude and preparation. Theoretically, the learning experience in college should be incrementally more challenging than high school. Help your student identify places that will represent the next step up with regard to academic challenge. Your student’s teachers can be helpful in identifying places that will provide appropriately challenging environments.      
  • Offers a community that feels like home. For most students, the choice of a college is the choice of a new home. It should include people with shared values and interests. It should also be a place where your student will be respected for who they are. Such an environment will enable your student to relax and do their best work. 
  • Values you for what your student for what they have to offer. In the selective admission process, there is a big difference between being qualified and being valued. Help your student to be alert for evidence that a given institution is truly excited about enrolling them. Such an institution will admit your student and invest in their success, including with financial assistance.

 

4. Introduce a hierarchy of importance.


Focusing on “fit” should produce happy outcomes over the course of college planning. Doing so at the outset, however, will likely find you at odds with the social-emotional priorities of your student.

If you find yourself in the position of challenging assumptions, consider employing the hierarchy of importance to help your student sort out any confusion.

As your student weighs different variables relating to a college—or the process in general—ask them to characterize the importance of the variable as “essential—must have,” “very important,” or “would be nice” in their deliberations. For example, how important is a college’s distance from your home? Where does access to kosher food fit? Is access to Greek life going to be a big deal? How important is access to research and/or internship opportunities? 

Considering variables through the hierarchy of importance can put things into better perspective for your student and it will be interesting to see how priorities begin to shift as time goes by. Ideally, their college search process comes to focus on the “essentials.” When the “would be nice” starts to drive the process, you should start to worry!

 

5. Go window-shopping!


As the student-centered reflections continue, possible destinations will begin to emerge organically. When that happens, it’s time to go window-shopping! 

Go see all kinds of places—big schools and small schools, research universities and liberal arts colleges, famous institutions and places you’ve never heard of before. And the first thing you do when visiting a campus? Get out of the car! Check it out. Take tours. Engage in information sessions. Talk with students and professors. First-hand experiences can be very instructive. As your student’s exposure to a range of possibilities becomes more expansive, you will likely see a calibration in their thinking about certain types of institutions. 

The purpose of window-shopping, then, is not to find a “dream school"—although that might happen. Rather, the purpose is to give your student a better understanding of what is possible. The more they know, the easier it will be for them to arrive at a short list of colleges and universities prior to the start of the senior year.

If visiting college campuses is not feasible, the internet can be an incredible wealth of useful information. Encourage your student to visit institutional websites—and to explore beyond the homepage! In addition, the College and Career Network at www.scoir.com is a free resource that will enable your student (parents are welcome, too!) to engage in further reflective discovery while managing a college planning process that is truly student-centered.  

So, strap yourself in and enjoy the college planning process! Good luck!

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