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By Carol Becker and Diane Kummer
HSLDA High School Consultants
With so many colleges and universities to choose from, parents and teens often have questions about how to navigate the selection process. In this article, we’ll explain how your family can take advantage of timing, determine key parameters, and implement key steps to make well-informed choices about which colleges to explore further. After you have narrowed down likely colleges, a campus visit can play an important role in making the final decision about where to apply.
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The earlier your teen begins the college selection process, the better. Ninth grade is a prime time for your teen to begin a college prep course of study (sample high school plan).
Use the 10th-grade year to make some pivotal decisions about the necessity of attending a four-year college or university. Begin with career aptitude testing, which can provide clarity about career goals and recommendations tailored to your teen’s strengths and interests. Of the many career paths available, only some require a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree. Investigate recommended career paths by interviewing career professionals and setting up some job shadowing opportunities each year of high school.
Prepped with this information, your teen can productively begin searching for prospective colleges that offer suitable majors. “The College Search and Application Process” recommends several tools to employ. For each college or university that surfaces, we strongly recommend that your teen research the school’s undergraduate admissions webpage to understand the following minimum admissions requirements:
Tenth grade is an opportune time to visit college fairs, where your teen can talk with recruiters about majors offered, admission requirements, campus life, services available, and the importance of developing essential skills (time management, study skills, and independent learning) during high school.
Teens can determine how competitive the application process is at a particular college by researching freshmen stats for the current class. These stats are typically found in the college’s “freshman profile.” This can help your teen assess his or her likelihood of acceptance.
College majors and minimum requirements are not the only basis upon which to determine a college’s suitability for your teen. Each family’s parameters for a college will be different, so discuss them to determine the importance of each one. During 10th grade, teens can start researching parameters such as the following on college websites and at college fairs.
- Costs: These include tuition, meals, books, student fees, laptop, Wi-Fi, and required software packages. Discuss finances with your teen so that he or she has the big picture to make wise financial decisions. The amount of college debt that students can quickly amass could have long-term financial consequences.
- Location: Consider how far away from home your teen should look. Quick trips home are more likely when a college is within a reasonable day’s drive from where you live. Many college towns offer low-priced bus fares to major metropolitan areas for college students to get home for the weekends. When a student attends college farther away, adding in the cost of plane tickets for trips home can become prohibitive. Some colleges offer mentoring programs with people in the community, and some local churches offer this as well. Knowing that your student can visit with a local family during a break or holiday is a boon when teens can’t afford to return home mid-semester.
- Size: Smaller colleges usually offer smaller classes with lower professor-to-student ratios. Some colleges promote student interaction with faculty, such as through “take a professor to lunch” programs. Larger colleges have more resources on campus, such as student centers and recreation centers. Discuss class size with your teen to get a feel for his or her preference.
- Majors: Some teens have determined their college majors early on, but others need more help to do so. Some will graduate with a different major entirely from the one under which they enrolled. Survey the majors offered to determine a range of options suitable for your teen. Unusual majors such as strategic foreign languages, strategic intelligence and national security, and textile sciences/engineering are only offered at certain colleges around the country. But for most professions, students have a range of majors they can take as undergraduates. This minimizes the need to transfer to a different college should your teen switch majors. Changing colleges will cost both time and money, and students may forfeit some credits if a transfer to another school becomes necessary.
- Worldview: Students can choose secular colleges or religiously affiliated ones. It helps to understand the worldview of the professors and the core philosophy taught at each school. Christian colleges usually provide their statements of faith on their websites. It’s important to note that a specific college may or may not require its professors to adhere to the statement of faith.
- Housing: Research the types of dorms available at each college. Some may offer dorm choices such as honors, foreign language, substance free, and same-sex roommates. Can freshmen live off campus? Can students select roommates? Once your teen has a roommate, coming to an agreement about overnight guests in the dorm room is important. Some housing options give students access to kitchen facilities.
- Meal plans: Find out what options are available, from full seven-day service to a set number of meals with campus dollars to spend on and off campus.
- Clubs: Campus clubs enable your teen to find other students who enjoy similar interests. These span a wide selection of activities, such as physical fitness, musical performance, drama, ballroom dancing, adventure, debate, mock trial, horseback riding, fraternities, sororities, political affiliations, campus newspapers, yearbook committees, honor societies, charities, chess, and more.
- Intramural sports: Intramurals promote competition, comradery, and fun. They can range from team sports to individual sports and include basketball, bowling, broom hockey, golf, field hockey, flag football, Ping-Pong, racquetball, soccer, softball, tennis, ultimate Frisbee, and volleyball.
- Community activities: College programs, parachurch groups, and community organizations can offer students opportunities to serve in the local community. Working alongside a mentor, volunteering with a charity, tutoring schoolchildren, or raising awareness for local needs are great ways for college students to give back to the community. Some churches provide these activities as well, in addition to van rides for students to attend Sunday services.
- Services: Investigate what services a college offers, such as technical assistance (staffed by computer science majors), writing labs (staffed by English majors), printing services (for student papers), undergraduate tutoring, library/research assistance, and career guidance (career counseling, resumes, cover letters, networking, job searches, interviews, onsite interviewing, etc.).
During 11th grade, we encourage taking time to visit various college campuses armed with the above research data. Determining when and how many colleges you can visit depends on your schedule, finances, and time.
Prior to a visit, check with the college to see if they have certain open days for visits or if they prefer you make an individual appointment. Many colleges have “rising senior” open days and will line up a full day of seminars and activities during which different departments present helpful information and answer questions. If your teen is interested, you can make arrangements for him or her to spend the night in a dorm and explore off-campus housing.
Scheduling a tour when a college is in session gives you and your teen access to the financial aid office and admissions offices. Also, call ahead to see if your teen can meet with a department advisor. Ask all three sources about financial aid, scholarships, honors programs, and recommended high school courses (above minimum requirements). When your teen hears from these independent sources about the importance of developing good study skills, managing time well, and completing required courses, the impact is priceless.
During your visit, conduct some informal interviews within the department of your teen’s intended major and in the dining hall. The College Board offers some recommendations on the types of questions to ask and a printable checklist.
The notes your teen takes during each college visit will provide valuable information for ongoing discussions about post–high school plans. Each college has advantages and disadvantages, so talk these through to help your teen make wise decisions.
As important as academic achievement is for college admittance, your teen’s emotional development is an important contribution to this momentous decision. Working through this process with your teen will reveal whether he or she has the maturity to take responsibility for his or her work, the self-discipline to meet deadlines, a vision of the future to fuel self-motivation, and the ability to resolve conflicts. All of these play a part in the college experience.
Whew! There is much to consider as your teens visit colleges. Making the final choice will be easier when both of you have researched together and discussed the pros and cons of each college. We encourage you to enjoy the college visits with your teens as they experience another step towards independence!