How to Help Teens Choose the Right College

by Eric J. Furda & Jacques Steinberg

Image credit: FG Trade/Getty Images

With limited opportunities for high school seniors and juniors to visit college campuses this fall, leaving them reliant on a range of virtual experiences, families have to be even more vigilant and diligent in their research.

As a digital substitute for in-person tours and information sessions, many institutions have seemingly overnight created a range of new resources for prospective applicants, including interactive walks that enable online visitors to duck into buildings and take the measure of the campus green, as well as Q&A sessions with professors in individual academic departments and students involved in a range of activities.

As parents or caregivers seek to guide their children through these experiences as part of the assembly and then narrowing down of a College List, we recommend they consider the following priority: aligning the qualities of a prospective college or university with what matters most to them as individuals.

college convo
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In doing so, you as a parent (or in your role as a mentor or other adult in a child’s life) might encourage them to consider and evaluate a college’s characteristics using a rubric of Five “C’s”: Culture, Curriculum, Community, Conclusions, and Cost. Similarly, as they look inward, they might reflect on the Five “I’s,” including their: Identity, Intellect, Ideas, Interests, and sources of Inspiration.

The intersection of “C’s” and “I’s” through this exercise can not only help yield a list of schools to which they might consider applying, but also provide guideposts to help young people identify what is important to them and which colleges and universities can best deliver on those expectations.

While parents or caregivers and their children should feel free to create their own versions of these checklists, and to draft their own definitions, parents or caregivers might find the following “I’s” helpful as a conversation starter to support children on the pathway to self reflection:

  • Identity: How do you see yourself, and how do others see you?
  • Intellect: How do you approach the acquisition of knowledge? Do you delight in the challenge of doing research and lose track of time while reading?
  • Ideas: What do you think about, and what are some of the opinions you hold most dear?
  • Interests: What do you like to do with your free time?
  • Inspiration: What really motivates and moves you, and whom do you admire?

As you engage in this exercise with a child, you might encourage them to consider recording their rough reflections in response to these prompts on an oversized index card, legal pad, Word or Google Doc, or even using a memo app on their phone.

When you present this exercise to your child, we suggest you not do so as if you were administering a proctored exam. There are no right or wrong answers, of course, since what they are writing here are effectively notes to themselves. You might advise them to view the exercise as a journal or diary entry and to decide later how much of what they have written they ultimately wish to convey in a college application or to a college admissions officer. Encourage them to consider their answers to be a living document, augmenting our proposed headings as they see fit, and to leave plenty of space for additions or corrections, as well as thoughts that may come to them over time — including during a morning jog or even upon waking in the middle of the night. Defer to your child as to whether they wish to share their self-reflections with you, or with anyone else. The most important objective is that they be open and honest with themselves.

So, armed with the results of that self-reflection, how can you and your child use those insights to comprehensively assess and analyze the DNA of particular colleges and universities? Before you can generate a list of schools you might consider — as well as a list of those you may consider visiting, virtually or otherwise — you need to first have a framework to evaluate individual institutions and then compare them to one another.

In a separate conversation, perhaps after a bit of time has passed, you might encourage your child to engage in a similar exercise intended to brainstorm characteristics and qualities they are seeking in a college or university, which we have grouped loosely as the five “C’s” we mentioned before.

Here are the first four:

  • Culture: What is the history and mission of the institution? How does that mission resonate with your child, as a potential applicant, today?
  • Curriculum: Beyond a mere listing of majors and programs that a school offers, or even whether certain courses are required, what is the design and aim of the courses your child might take over a span of several years?
  • Community: Who are the people who make up the campus, and what are the physical spaces that they occupy?
  • Conclusions: What are some of the outcomes (such as readiness for graduate school admission or career opportunities) that your child envisions at the end of their college experience?

Here again, you and your child should feel free to tailor those categories and definitions to their specific needs, and to then use this framing as a road map at each stage of their research. These prompts can most usefully serve as a reminder of your child’s preferences as they explore each college.

Now to our fifth “C”: Cost.

Before embarking on the initial assembly of a college list, the subject of money — including how much you and your family can afford to pay for a college education — should be addressed. Financial considerations are every bit as important as an institution’s culture, curriculum, and other attributes.

This may be the first time that you as a family have talked seriously about money, including your earnings and the savings that you have on hand to spend on college, as well as what you are willing to pay and your tolerance for borrowing. Also up for discussion is what you’ll expect regarding your child’s own financial contributions — be it working part-time while in college or contributing their personal savings.

For those of you who will need some form of financial aid, take comfort in the fact that there are likely a number of resources you can draw on — whether from the federal government, your state, the institution itself, or outside scholarships.

As with all of the aspects of the college conversation, the college counselors at your child’s high school can serve as an invaluable guide to online and other resources that can supplement and inform family discussions on the costs of higher education, and potential options to mitigate them.