Hear that collective sigh? That’s the sound of high school seniors — and their parents — finally finishing the often years-long college search process.
Fortunately, my oldest daughter recently found the right “fit,” a buzzword guidance counselors emphasize for good reason. For many, though, the process can be quite stressful. Here are five big-picture college search tips from the trenches for you and your children.
College search tips No. 1: Conduct an ‘I-search’ before research
Long before visiting campuses, encourage your son or daughter to pay attention to what interests them. How do they answer “I love …”? What do they get “lost” in or experience “flow” doing? Such introspection can begin as early as ninth grade, though many students may not know their passions until years later.
Even if children are not sure what they love, exploring themselves provides material for the many personal essays the application process entails. Prioritizing “I-search” also sends the family message that personal fulfillment and self-defined success, not soul-sucking-academic-and-professional-anxiety, are the ultimate goals of the college search process. Aim for “fit,” not “fit to be tied.”
College search tips No. 2: Don’t overthink a major
Striving for self-knowledge also helps students start to think about majors. Some high schoolers know their major early on, but many remain undeclared, which is fine. Indeed, several of our campus tour guides presented themselves as confident “X” majors before revealing they had just changed majors before leading our tour.
And as they say, many of tomorrow’s jobs do not exist today — though that sentiment often stresses kids out even more. When ready, perhaps consult together with the annual College Board Book of Majors (or its equivalent), which explores how to choose a major, where to study it, and the many kinds of jobs that could result from it.
College search tips No. 3: Preview schools online for ‘fit’
Internet research can save you so much time, travel and money. But don’t just visit school websites — read “around” the schools, too. Try Fiske Guide to Colleges (or its equivalent). Find ways to shrink the college search — e.g. by major, geography, religious affiliation, size, cost, etc.
Be aware, however, that there are ways to literally “shrink” (or “enlarge”) colleges and universities. For example, a large university might have an Honors program or specialized track that shrinks classes; a small college might have study abroad and internship opportunities that enlarge a student’s experience. Regarding financial “fit,” tuition does not always tell the full story. Explore both need-based and merit-based financial aid. Merit scholarships, for instance, sometimes bring high tuition at small private colleges in line with lower tuition at large public universities.
Student-sourced websites such Niche.com and UniGo.com also offer insights to help your child get the low-down from recent attendees before going on visits. Even a such on YouTube for student-made videos can give you a flavor of student life.
College search tips No. 4: During campus visits, let your child take the lead
After all your child’s “I-search” and research, it’s time to visit a short list of strong candidates. Most visits happen in and around 11th grade, but it is up to each family. To aid your memory, take notes after each college tour. Beyond the admissions brochures, read the student newspaper to learn about campus culture in the students’ own voices.
During visits, try to stay neutral and follow your son or daughter’s lead. This can be challenging because your own college memories and desires often flood your mind. For example, I got so distracted by my first look at a famous college football stadium that I drifted away from our tour group to take photos. Enter a severe look — and call to return to the tour — from my daughter. (To my defense, a second dad was at my elbow, and his daughter had to retrieve him,too.)
College search tips No. 5: Don’t worry if your child doesn’t find ‘true love’
Many students know instantly that a certain college is a fit for him or her. But not all great relationships begin with love at first sight. As long as your family stays flexible, chances are you will have good options to choose from. And once your child decides, help him or her develop a brief script about the choice for family and friends. Then celebrate, sigh, and move on.