How to pick a college: Tips for parents and students as they search for college

As a parent of a 14 year old 9th grader, and a college professor, a faculty advisor, and an administrator, I am probably more aware than others about the pressures and challenges facing our young adults as they engage in the college search process.  It is nerve-wracking and fraught with pressures, deadlines, tests, worries, financial challenges…oh my.

At the same time, because I’ve taken on an Assistant Dean position, I have just become the person who is responsible for making the decisions on whether or not a student within our Division may stay at our college or not.  Yes, I am responsible for Academic Dismissals and deciding on conditional probation.  This is one of those new responsibilities that is not something I enjoy.  At Champlain, if a student doesn’t achieve a 1.8 after 15 credits and a 2.0 after 30 credits they run the risk of not only being put on probation but also being removed from the college. After every semester, we look at students grades and I write a letter to each student who slipped below the threshold letting them know the consequences.  Students sometimes have the option for appeal while others who did not meet the conditions of their probation do not have that option.

It’s a difficult process for the student, for the family and for me.

As I’ve gone through this process for the first time and as I reflect on our expectations for college students and I see the new crop of high school students embarking on their college decision-making process I would like to offer these tips to high school seniors and juniors and their parents.  You see, as an advisor I am also the one who counsels your child.  I’m the one who sees how unhappy they are trying to fit into a major that they do not like.  I’m the one who shares their joy when they achieve an amazing goal.  I’m the one who sits with the parents and the student as they wrestle with addictions and learning disabilities and balancing life, life events, and academic expectations.  I’m the one who has to be both pragmatic, realistic, compassionate and cheerleader.  I take the heat from unhappy parents and from miserable students.  I celebrate with happy families as their child graduates and  leaves our college ready to take on the world.

So, for what it is worth I offer Elaine’s tips for parents and students for managing your expectations for the college search process (please remind me I wrote this when it is my turn in about three years).

Tips for parents

  1. Listen: I can’t tell you how many students I have dealt with over the past ten years who are miserable because they are in a major their PARENTS made them pick. They are in business because Mom or Dad wanted them to be in business.  The reality is that careers we got ready for back in our day are not the careers that are out there now.  Let your child follow their passion — you have NO IDEA where it will lead them in four years.
  2. Let go: Now is the time to let go. No more driving the bus for your child.  They are determining their own life path and their life choices.  If they want to study Early Mayan Underwater Basket-Weaving LET THEM.  Seriously. They’ll be happy and you never know what they will do with it in four years.
  3. Be the Guide: This is NOT YOUR search process:. Dear parents, this search process is NOT about you.  It is about your child and what they want and their interests. Do not organize the process for your child. Do not tell them where to go or what to do.  GUIDE them.  This is not your time to re-live your glorious college days — it’s your child’s time to build their own memories. Be there, but don’t take over. Guide them to ask questions — don’t ask the questions for them.
  4. Don’t push: If your child is not ready to go to college then don’t insist they go. The Gap Year is not a bad idea — and actually gives students some time to mature as they work and take on more responsibility. They will come to college better understanding the value of a college education and will have a better handle on the direction they want to take. The cost of a college education does not leave room for a failed semester of “finding yourself” — if your child doesn’t know what they want, don’t spend $40k to help them find it. Let them work first.
  5. Encourage you child to meet with faculty on your college tour: So many people tour a campus and go through the Admissions agenda but never meet with faculty from the program. Yes, your child is going to be living in the dorms and making friends and getting involved in extra curricular activities, but at the end of the day they are here to get an education. Would you buy a car without knowing the type of engine it has? Then why decide on a college when you’ve never met with faculty or sat in a class to see what to expect?

Tips for students

  1. Ask good questions. Come in with a list of questions of things that matter to you. Consider housing, activities and above all the academics. Find out when you get to start learning about your major area of interest. (In many colleges you don’t get to do that until your Junior year.  If you don’t want to wait that long, look for another college).
  2. Be sure to sit in on a class and meet with faculty from the major area you are interested in. (and bring that list of questions) You are going to spend a lot of time in the classroom.  This is your opportunity to study in an area you are interested in — what your passion is. Yes there will still be hoops you have to jump through, but it’s not high school anymore so take advantage of this opportunity to get to know the people who will be your guides and your mentors for the next four years — if you find you are scared of them or don’t like them, look for another college.
  3. Relax. I know there is a lot of pressure. You’ve been pushed through tests and AP courses and requirements and essay coaches … all with the goal of getting into a”good” college.  Let me tell you a secret.  They are ALL good if they have faculty who care and are passionate about helping you achieve your success and if you are hungry and willing to do the work. I went to a community college, then transferred to a four year school, then got my masters degree after being in my career for ten years, then started teaching and got my Ph.D. while I taught. If you asked me when I was in high school if I had dreams of being a college professor I would have laughed you out of the room. Stuff happens, things change, education opens up doors and opportunities but nothing is ever carved in stone.
  4. Follow your passion: My students know this about me as I incorporate this theme of passion into many of my classes — if you are not passionate about what you do, why do it? I love my job which is why I blog on a Sunday, am online in the evenings to help students, spend my day on campus and get on the phone on the weekends with parents. If you get into a college and you want to do everything BUT your academic work that should tell you something.  When you are passionate about something you are hungry to learn everything you can about it.  College is that time to seek out your passion and be successful in it.
  5. Don’t get caught up in “everyone is doing it”: Just because your friends are on the college search process doesn’t mean it is right for you. I sat across the desk from a student who lamented about the amount of writing and level of expectation of college and his lack of interest in the whole thing.  When I asked him “So why are you here?” he said, “because it was the thing to do”. Don’t do that to yourself. The guilt and unhappiness is just not worth it.  If you have doubts listen to them and take your time.  Go to your community college and take a few classes, work for a bit. You’ll get grounded and outside of all of that peer pressure you will discover what is right for you.
  6. Know yourself. If big crowds freak you out, don’t look at a really really big school. If you hate the cold don’t pick a Northern school in the snow belt.  If you love sports be sure to pick a school with sports. If you want to study agriculture don’t go to a school that doesn’t offer it! Do you thrive in a hands-on environment? Make sure your classes are project-based, hands-on and engaging and that there are internship opportunities.
  7. Be open to change. Pick a school that has more than one major area of study that you are interested in.  Changing majors is easier than changing schools!
  8. Plan to go abroad. Make sure the school you select has this amazing option. Now is the time for you to experience the world — so take advantage of it. Go places you’ve never been before. It is so worth it!

So take it from me…a professor, an advisor, an administrator and a Mom.

Parents be the guide and the cheerleader, students follow your passion and do what you love.  When that happens then as my daughter says, “it will all work out in the end”.

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  • Wendy59

    I have LOTS of friends with high school juniors and seniors that I will be sending this on to. Good advise – and you haven’t even had the fun of the process yet from the Mom side of things.

  • Liz Schlegel

    Excellent and perfect, Elaine. Just what I needed!