Junior’s College List Doesn’t Match Parent Expectations?

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Anne MacLeod Weeks
Anne MacLeod Weeks

Anne has worked in college admissions for four decades and has published extensively on all aspects of the process. She taught AP English, consulted for the College Board, and was a leader in various educational initiatives in independent schools.

It’s the spring of junior year. That means it’s time to make an initial list of colleges to which your child might apply in a few months! Remember, this initial list is just a start, as it will winnow down over time. Ultimately, it will take final form once you visit campuses; do more research; and start to match your junior’s data (standardized tests and GPA) with the historic data for admission at each institution. Nonetheless, in the meantime, you likely have certain expectations for what you would like to see in your junior’s future. How can you move forward when your junior’s college list doesn’t match parent expectations?

Parents, you are suddenly facing a big change.

Maybe you see your junior at a big state school; maybe a small liberal arts college. Perhaps you prefer close to home; or maybe you would like to see your junior’s wings spread, geographically. There are other concerns as well, such as financial, social, life balance, legacy status, athletic eligibility, and so on. Your reasons make perfect sense. So why doesn’t your kid’s college list match up?

How can you reconcile your wants and your student’s dreams?

A great place to start is to make a list of what you would like for your junior in terms of college, and to prioritize that list. This list is for basically any qualities of a college you care about. Then, have your junior do the same. Once done, compare your lists to see where there are similarities and differences. With luck, you will see you are both on the same page.

Still, it is more likely there will be some differences! It’s almost inevitable. Nonetheless, these differences can feel like an impasse. The media emphasizes the stress and competition associated with the college admission process. However, if you take the right steps at the start of the process, you can minimize the stress you feel as a parent. In turn, this will then allow you to be a better source of support for your junior. This support is increasingly vital at a moment when your student’s peer group will (intentionally or not) feed stress into your junior’s life.

Steps to compromise when your college list doesn’t match your junior’s list, here:

If you determine your expectations are vastly different from those of your junior, seek a compromise.

Part one:

Decide together on the number of college applications your junior will file. A good number to use for a gauge is nine: three reach schools, four target schools, and two safety schools. It is best not to stretch too thin on the number, as you want your junior to be able to devote the proper amount of energy and focus to each application as a senior. Also, if colleges see too many applications to too many institutions, some may assume your student is not fully committed to any one college.

Part two:

Once you have determined the number of applications, agree to have your junior choose 5-6 as their priority. Then, you choose 3-4 as your priority. You can make your decision based on what your parental priorities are; all we ask is that you explain to your junior why you are prioritizing the colleges you choose. Open communication about your priorities will keep your junior informed, as opposed to caught off-guard later in the process. This also makes clear that this process is a joint commitment, and family needs must be a part of the conversation.

This provides you with a starting point!

How do we work them together?

Too often students and parents argue about the final college list. It is truly a waste of time, as you may be collectively arguing about colleges where your student will not ultimately earn acceptance! Right? If so, then you have not only wasted precious time and energy, but you have also created undue stress and potentially damaged your parent/child relationship.

As you visit college campuses, listen carefully to your junior’s observations, and acknowledge understanding the pros and cons your junior shares. Make your own observations about life balance on each campus. Together, discuss:

  • Would your student be able to manage the academic expectations while also committing to other areas of life, such as organizations, athletics, community service, and social time?
  • Do the students you see on campus mirror the types of friends towards whom your student gravitates?
  • Are professors accessible?

Stay open-minded and gain as much insight as possible. Do your best to ask questions of students, other than the tour guide, to get a sense of campus culture.

The College List Commitment: what are your stakes?

Whether or not finances are a concern, educate both yourself and your junior about each college’s financial commitment. Check the Parent Contribution Calculator and fill out the FAFSA, even if you will be a full-pay family. In order to qualify for scholarships, including merit-based, the colleges will ask for FAFSA information. Ask colleges about their policies on private scholarships. Some colleges will apply private scholarship money to your parent contribution; others will apply it their grant money, thus diminishing their financial commitment to you rather than yours to them.

If your junior is an athlete and is interested in playing in college, be aware of the requirements of each division level (NCAA). Further, never assume your junior is competitive enough to earn a special consideration. Work closely with coaches to assess your junior’s chances and to stay on track for this admission avenue.

If your combined college list includes a legacy institution, be in touch with the admissions office to determine how they weigh legacy status. Alert the Alumni Office that your student is applying. Have an alumnus/a, who knows your student well, write a letter of recommendation.

Conclusion: successfully navigating when your junior’s college list doesn’t match up with your expectations!

Though there are many more aspects of the college admission process you will tackle, taking these simple steps together means you have already won. Working like this early in the process when your college list doesn’t match, you will de-escalate potential conflict and tension. In the end, you create a more collaborative and stress-free start to the college admission process.

Questions? Let us know!