Applying to college is both exciting and nerve-racking ... for your teen and for you. What are admissions committees looking for? How do you know that your child is picking the right school? Will you even be able to afford it? Here's how to make sure your teen has the best chance at getting into the school of her dreams—without stressing yourself out (too much) in the process.
You and your teen should start looking seriously at colleges during junior year, but you can keep an eye out and prepare even prior to that. “The truth is, the earlier you start, the less you will have to cram into the fall of senior year,” says Evelyn Alexander, an independent counselor for Magellan College Counseling. “I start working with students as early as the 10th grade, to make sure the student has depth in their extracurriculars, interesting summer activities (or jobs), fulfills all of their academic requirements, and begins looking at colleges—by going to college fairs or looking at college websites—long before they begin to create their official college list.”
“Many parents could simply not be accepted into their alma maters based upon today's standards."
—Susanna Cerasuolo, guidance counselor
Don’t Rule out a College Based Solely on Tuition
“One of the biggest misconceptions parents [can have] is not to understand how financial aid is calculated,” says Sarah McGinty, author of The College Application Essay and former member of the writing faculty at Harvard University. “Some parents look at college A, with a $50,000 cost, and college B, with a $10,000 tuition cost, and they’ll say ‘So, we’ll only apply to the $10,000 school.’ But that school will only give you $2,000 worth of aid, where the $50,000 school might give you $42,000. It’s important to look at the financial aid, how colleges meet needs and talk to the school counselor or financial aid officer.” In other words? Don’t eliminate a school based on its tuition—at least not in the beginning.
At the Same Time, Know How Much You’re Willing to Take On
You should have an amount in mind that you’re willing to pay, and your teen should also have an idea of how much they can take on in loans. Most offers include grant or scholarship money, but some of the promised “financial aid” is straight up loans. “Unfortunately parents and students don’t always think long-term when reviewing offers,” says Maura Kastberg, director of Student Services, RSC: Your College Prep Expert. “Both parents and students need to become more mindful of what they are agreeing to before the student agrees to attend any college.”
RELATED: Start Saving Up For College—Now!
Set Realistic Expectations
We’re not discouraging your child from applying to “reach” schools, but you may need to reevaluate what that means nowadays. “Most parents applied to college 30 years ago when the admissions scene was wildly different,” says Susanna Cerasuolo, an independent guidance counselor and the brains behind CollegeMapper. “Many parents could simply not be accepted into their alma maters based upon today's standards. This is not helpful, and it really stresses the kids. Parents can be tempted to mention all of the big name schools that people have always heard of, but the important thing is to be realistic and well informed about the current acceptance statistics. With more and more students applying to college each year, admission becomes more competitive. “
Another Way to Look at It?
Remember that as truly amazing as your child is, with his volunteer work, tutoring, sports and/or grades, there are a ton of other children just as talented/hardworking/amazing. It’s tough to hear, but you have to put everything in perspective—it helps you to understand what really makes your child special—what he, himself, is passionate about, and why he's a good fit for a certain school. As Eddie LaMeire, an independent consultant who previously worked at UCSD in admissions and outreach, says: “If I were a parent and my child graduated as valedictorian, I'd be thrilled. But, there are about 28,000 high schools in the country, each with its own valedictorian. It's incredibly hard to look exceptional in this process. Parents need to keep that in mind in order to develop a healthy perspective.”