How to Support Your Teen in the College Planning Process

How to Support Your Teen in the College Planning Process

tips for parents of college students

It may seem like just yesterday that your child was clinging to you at preschool drop-off and now, suddenly, you find yourself worrying about whether they’ll ever call you when they head off to college. Everyone hears the same advice when they become parents: cherish this time when they’re little because it will go fast and, soon, they won’t need you. While there may be some truth to these words of wisdom, it’s important for parents to know that there are many things their teens will need from them as they approach their college process — though it may not be the kind of help you’d assume.

Let Them Drive
While you might not be willing to hand over the actual car keys, it’s important that you allow your teen to be the one driving their college search process. This doesn’t mean you have to forego sharing your thoughts on their options, or even encouraging them to humor you with a visit to your alma mater.

What it does mean is that they need to be the one reaching out to the admission offices when they have questions. They should be the one deciding what to write about for their college essays and, needless to say, the one doing the actual writing of said essays. The responsibility should be on your teen to request their transcripts and recommendations, and to follow up with the colleges to be sure their application materials have been received.

As tempted as you might be to send that email to the admission office, or to fill in your child’s applications, remember they are the owners of this process. Let them drive it.

Provide Encouragement, but Manage Expectations
We all tell our kids they can accomplish anything they set their mind to as long as they work hard. Right? Unfortunately, when it comes to the college process, it’s just not that easy. Even valedictorians and football team captains face uncertainty in the admission process. There are no guarantees. However, parents should encourage their children to seek out colleges where they’ll be challenged and, if that means including a few “reach” schools on their list, that’s OK.

That being said, it’s important that along with the encouragement parents also manage both their child’s, and their own, expectations. Not every student will receive an offer of admission and parents should help their children understand this from the beginning so they’re prepared for that possibility.

Help Them Understand Financial Obligations
Here’s something we all know: college is expensive. One of the biggest challenges for many families is figuring out how they will afford their child’s dream college if they are admitted. For this reason, it’s important that parents begin discussing the financial reality of college expenses and how this may affect their child’s options.

For example, many families don’t realize that colleges within the Ivy League don’t offer merit-based scholarships. This means that while your child might be a great candidate for admission, they would not be offered a “full ride” academic scholarship to any of the eight “Ivies.” So, if your family does not qualify for need-based financial aid, you would most likely find yourself paying the full sticker price if your child were accepted to one of these institutions.

If this scenario isn’t financially feasible, then parents should begin talking with their child early so they can be prepared for the possibility that it may not be an option for them. Families also can use the net price calculators located on each college website to get an idea of what they can expect to pay a specific institution.

No matter what type of path your child is on for higher education, the best support you can provide to them is a belief that they will find their place. Remember that this is their journey and they need to feel supported by you. Most of all, celebrate the milestones with them as they move through this process and trust that you have raised them well and that they will make good choices and successfully launch into the next stage of their lives.


Kristina Dooley is a certified educational planner and founder of Estrela Consulting, a Northeast Ohio-based educational consulting firm guiding students through the college search process.

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