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Start the college search process with your high school student

By Suzanne Shaffer


We’re past the halfway point of the academic year! Your sophomore or junior is now a seasoned high school student. You’re both used to the high school routine with all its joys and challenges.

Each year has brought your student closer their goal of attending college. It’s time for your family to shift from dreaming to doing and formally begin the college search process. Following these simple first steps will help put you on the right path.

Have conversations about life after high school.

College preparation starts with a conversation. If you haven’t discussed college preferences yet, or even the idea of college, it’s time to start.

This should not be stressful for either you or your student. These conversations — which you can even have with a high school freshman — can be casual and open-ended. It’s important to do more than ask questions; you must also listen and allow your student to express their feelings. Be prepared for surprising revelations, and don’t panic if they're not sure about attending college. There are many alternative paths.

Is your student drawn to the traditional four-year college experience, or more toward a technical education or even entrepreneurial endeavors? Technical colleges like Penn College provide hands-on training and a liberal arts education. If your student wants only the technical training, you can help them explore these options as well. Remember that this is only a discussion but be open to any possibility. Your student may change their mind many times over the next few years!

One expert suggests reframing the conversation:

“Don’t ask, 'What do you want to major in?' Instead, ask them what their favorite classes have been and why. Ask them how they would construct an entire day for themselves, if given the freedom. Where do their natural curiosities lie? (And remember to relax on this front. 'Undeclared' is a popular major for freshmen!)”

Meet with your student’s high school counselor.

The high school counselor is an invaluable source of guidance and information. They can direct your student toward some colleges that might not have been on your radar. Counselors have information about local college fairs and planned career days, as well as contacts within the colleges themselves to help your student connect and ask questions.

The counselor will also play a key role during the application process when it's time to submit recommendations and transcripts. All good reasons to establish a relationship!

Late winter/early spring is an ideal time for your younger high school student to request an appointment for a fact-finding conversation (since counselors are winding down their work with the college-bound seniors). Ask your student if they want to do this on their own or include you, too.

When they meet with their counselor, your student should also get advice about making a course plan that will impress college admissions. Are they candidates for AP and Honors courses? The goal is to take a challenging course schedule but not overdo it and end up stressed and overwhelmed.

Explore career interests.

By now, your student has an idea of what kinds of classes they like. Are they drawn to the sciences? Do they excel in math? Love literature? An understanding of their interests and strengths will help guide your teen as they choose a college, a major, and eventually a first job. It would be frustrating to aim for pre-med if science and math are their least favorite subjects. On the other hand, a student who loves theatre but isn't comfortable on stage will be happy to learn that acting is only one of many possible careers relating to film and theatre.

While helping them analyze their interests, keep in mind that your student doesn't have to know what kind of career they might want at this stage in the game. In fact, the word "career" can be intimidating and freeze young people in their tracks. Self-awareness and and an openness to exploration are what you're looking to cultivate right now.

Many schools and communities offer career days with speakers from various walks of life. Encourage your student to attend these and ask questions. Find out where the speaker attended college and the types of classes they might recommend if your teen is intrigued by that line of work. Maybe a job shadow or internship opportunity will result!

Attend college fairs.

Your student should begin attending local and online college fairs. Colleges use fairs as opportunities to attract potential students; your student can use them as an opportunity to informally interview potential colleges while connecting with admissions officers or alumni from multiple colleges and universities. Collect business cards and contact information and keep track of them in a spreadsheet. These contacts will help later if your student has a question about a specific school or needs a personal contact during the admissions process.

Make some college visits.

Sign up for a campus tour and information session, but include some informal wandering as well — a visit to the school library, or a stroll through the campus bookstore. By making some college visits during sophomore and junior years, students get a feel for the campus environment, the student body and everything that makes a college. There’s nothing like observing students and spending time on campus to spark your student’s interest in college. These visits also help you student start a mental list of preferences as they compare big vs. small campuses, close to home vs. a plane flight away, etc.

Explore colleges online.

A college's website may offer a virtual tour of the campus or you can check out YouVisit, which offers 360 degree tours (and virtual tours if your student has a virtual reality headset!). You can also research college history, degree programs offered, extracurriculars and more. Colleges also have social media sites available for students to follow, ask questions and connect with students and admissions representatives. These online communities let your student learn about schools before adding them to their college list.

Begin a list of likes and dislikes.

The look of a campus and its surrounding environment is important to most students. Does your student favor a campus with beautiful grounds and historic buildings? Are they looking for a sprawling, metropolitan campus or a small suburban one? Do they want access to the research opportunities that a big university provides? Are academics the only concern or do experiences such as Greek life and study abroad make the list? Your student needs to know the answers to these questions when making their college list.

Educate yourself about the college admissions process.

Before you delve deep into the college search process, it’s a good idea to educate yourself and understand your role. CollegiateParent offers resources for parents of high school students to learn about college prep. You can also find other college experts online. An informed parent can help their student gather information and make decisions while serving as a cheerleader throughout the college search process.

Following these early steps will help you and your student prepare for senior year when that final college list is locked in and the application process begins!

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been highlighted on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College and TeenLife online and she has written for Smart College Visit, College Focus, Noodle Education and Road2College. Her articles have also been featured in print in TeenLife, UniversityParent and CollegiateParent publications.

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