Pat is a middle school teacher in Rockford, Illinois. When her son got ready to apply to college, he knew just where he wanted to go: Southern Illinois University, where his best friend was. Despite encouragement to fill out more applications, he applied only there. The summer before college, he discovered his friend had dropped out. They scrambled to get an application to Northern Illinois University instead, closer to home.

His good grades and high test scores got him in with no problem, and he’s happy and successful at Northern. But Pat says she’ll encourage her daughter to fill out more applications. “I would advise anyone to apply to a range of schools,” she says. “You need to give yourself options.”

Schools, Schools Everywhere

Applying to college can be a stressful time. This is likely the first decision your child will make that has such lasting and important consequences. With more than 3,000 schools to choose from, knowing where to start can seem impossible. The school your best friend attends can be a valid option, but it’s just one among many.

Your guidance will be crucial, but ultimately, your child must make this decision on her own. Still, it can be difficult for parents to resist asserting their own dreams and wishes. But pushing a child toward a school she may not want to attend, such as an alma mater, can result in resentment, even failure or dropping out. Parents want the best for their children. In this case, as Charles Shields, author of The College Guide for Parents points out, the “best” is the place your child will be most successful.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker

Still, ask a teenager what he wants to do in life or what he’s looking for in a school and you’re likely to get a blank stare. So, how to help your child determine what he wants and select a school that will provide it? Here are some concrete steps you can follow.

  • Interests.  First, suggest your child conduct a self-evaluation, writing out answers to questions like “What are my interests? What is my goal for this year and the next four years? What are my personality traits? What values are important to me?” These can seem like huge questions, but getting some answers down on paper will at least start to steer your discussion toward college. This exercise can help jumpstart the process for kids who react to anxiety with paralysis, wanting to push everything off until the last minute.
  • Skateboarding U.  Next, make a list for yourself about what’s important to you in your child’s choice of schools. Ask your son or daughter to do the same. You may have a few non-negotiables, but try to keep an open mind as you look for areas of common ground. It can also help to talk openly about anxiety – applying to colleges can be an agonizing process for teenagers, one in which they have to put their egos on the line and possibly face rejection.  Selecting a school is not a science; it’s an emotional choice with many hazy variables. Acknowledging that can help ease everyone’s tension. But you should also be optimistic – this is an exciting chapter in your family’s life! Once you’ve established some common expectations, it’s time to move on to specifics.
  • University Near Mom.  Ask your child to list attributes of schools she’d like to attend such as size and location – two areas about which experts say students and parents disagree most. The simplest question to address is what region of the country she would like to live in. Next comes what size school she’d like to attend – a large public university or a small liberal arts college? She should also consider the size of the town she wants to live in. Is she more interested in an urban environment, or is she an outdoor type with a serious need to ski?
  • Area of study.  Your child should also consider the areas of academic study he might want to pursue. Many high school students aren’t sure what they want to do yet, and that’s fine – college students often switch majors two and three times. But he should have a broad sense of areas of interest. If he’s a music type he should avoid a school that offers no music performance degree.

Using the List

Once your child has compiled this list you can start researching colleges to match it. The College Board’s College Handbook is a comprehensive list of schools and what they offer. You may find many schools match your attributes, so at this point you’ll want to look beyond the surface, comparing schools to narrow your choices.

Your child can order catalogs to get more detail about what schools offer, and she can ask questions of admissions officers to find out more. Good information to know includes the percentage of students who graduate from the school, the percentage who get jobs in their fields of study, and how long it takes on average to get a degree. Your child might also want to find out about special opportunities, such as an honors college or overseas study.

It Costs What?!

Now that he has a lot of information, your child should be able to narrow his choice to half a dozen schools. Finances have not come up at this point, a qualifier many parents would put at the top of their lists. But many experts recommend selecting a range of schools to apply to regardless of financial considerations.

Options for financial aid are available – so many that hundreds of guides have been published to help you. Your child’s high school guidance counselor can point you in the right direction. In general though, it’s good to keep in mind that the initial price tag may not tell you everything. More expensive private schools often offer extensive financial aid to qualified students.

Hit the Road, Jack

Remember those great family vacations of yore? It’s time to take another one, visiting as many schools of interest to your child as possible. Without a visit, it’s tough to get a real sense of a school and make a final choice. Schools offer tours to prospective applicants, a good way to get a guided overview. You and your child should also wander on your own; check out the student union, the library, dorms, classrooms, labs and computer facilities. Try to visit at a time when school is in session, so your child can get a feel for the place “in action.”

The Envelope Please

At last it’s time for your child to send in her applications. And wait. This can be the toughest time for a teenager, and receiving a rejection letter can feel like a devastating blow. You can reassure your child though: Many colleges get more qualified applicants than they can accept, so a rejection doesn’t mean she doesn’t “have what it takes.” Recent studies have shown that nine in 10 applicants get accepted to their first or second choice school, so your child has lots of reasons to look forward to those envelopes rolling in.

And you can feel reassured too. Now that you’ve done all this homework, you know whatever school your child attends will be a place where she can be comfortable and successful. That makes it a lot easier to send your child on this first journey into adulthood.