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5 Tips For Navigating College Admissions

Here's how to help your teen cope.

Key points

  • Help your your child navigate this difficult process in a structured way.
  • Explain to your child that their college and major choices are not permanent decisions.
  • Your child is most likely to select a school closer to home, with recognizable name, and one that friends plan on attending.
  • College visits may not be as important as you think.

1. Don’t step away.

Help your child. No matter how independent, confident, or smart your teen appears right now, I assure you—deep inside, they are anxious, insecure, and intimidated by the process. To most high school seniors, the decision to enter college, and the resulting application process, are experienced as highly stressful—to the point of paralyzing their ability to get started or even complete the process without help. While it may not seem to you that their college or major choice is life-altering, it may feel that way to them. If ever there was a time to hold your child’s hand through a stressful experience, this is it.

Offer your help in a structured way. Saying, “Let’s sit down this Sunday at 2 p.m. and work on your application for two hours,” is more helpful in reducing anxiety than offering a vague, “Let me know if you need any help with your application.”

2. Understand how teens select colleges.

In my experience as a therapist and a mom, teens use three main criteria to select a college: name recognition, peer recommendation, and proximity to home. It will likely be a waste of your money to encourage your teen to apply to schools that don’t fit these criteria.

3. College visits are important but not crucial.

I am on the fence about college visits. I’ve known teens who visited many colleges and then selected to attend the one school they didn’t visit. And I’ve known teens who really benefited from the visits. One of my children visited the school he chose and hated the visit but still chose the school.

If the process of school visits is enjoyable to you and you have the money, go for it. If you don’t have the money, virtual visits will be just fine. Perhaps, save your money by visiting the top two schools which admit your child if the decision is difficult to make.

4. It ultimately should be your teen’s choice, but help guide them.

Stories abound about college students who are terribly unhappy with their first year and transfer. I find this usually happens when they selected a school too far away from home or a school that did not fit their personality. Your teen should do a significant amount of research into the school spirit, the type of people they will meet, and the opportunities at the school. Also, plan to visit so they don’t get too homesick if they are far away from home.

5. Help them understand it’s not a life-or-death decision.

Teens often feel it is. College counselors often convince them it’s the most important decision that will guide the rest of their lives. Explain to them over and over that it’s not true. They can always transfer. They can always change their major. They can always change their mind about being in college. They are barely 17 or 18—they don’t have to have their entire future figured out. This is just a step.