It’s the spring of junior year and time to make an initial list of colleges to which your child might apply. This initial list is just a start, as it will winnow down once you visit campuses, do more research, and start to match your junior’s data (standardized tests and GPA) with scattergrams* and the historic data for admission at each institution.
In the meantime, as a parent, you likely have certain expectations for what you would like to see in your junior’s future. Maybe you see your junior at a big state school, maybe a small liberal arts college, maybe close to home, or maybe you would like to see your junior’s wings spread geographically. There are other concerns, such as financial, social, life balance, legacy status, athletic eligibility, and so on.
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. 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. However, it is more likely there will be some differences, and sometimes, these differences can create 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 may feel as a parent. This will then allow you to be a better source of support for your junior, as the peer group will definitely feed stress into your junior’s life.
If you determine your expectations are vastly different from those of your junior, seek a compromise. 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, they will assume your student is not fully committed to any one college.
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, but be sure to explain to your junior why you are prioritizing the colleges you choose. Open communication about your priorities will keep your junior informed and not 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.
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 be admitted, and 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. 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? Do your best to ask questions of students, other than the tour guide, to get a sense of campus culture.
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, but 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) and 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.
Though there are many more aspects of the college admission process you will tackle, by taking these simple steps together, early in the process, you will de-escalate potential conflict and tension, creating a more collaborative and stress-free start to the college admission process.
*Scattergrams: check with your high school college counselor who should have a record of admission decisions in the form of a scattergram. Many high schools use Naviance, though some smaller high schools will keep this information in-house. Scattergrams can inform you of trends in admissions within your high school environment, indicating the impact of various data points, such as legacy, athlete, financial need, GPA, leadership, diversity, geographic location, etc.