College application time: Encouraging your student to look at many options

Woman pointing on map.

A list of considerations as you start the college search.

Students may start their college search with a set of preconceived ideas. They may have their heart set on a prestigious college, or they may simply want to attend the nearby school where their friends are headed. Neither choice is necessarily wrong, but during the college search, one of the most important things you can do is help your student consider all of their possible choices.

Choosing a college is a big decision, and probably one of the most significant your student has undertaken so far. Talk over the following topics with your student and challenge any assumptions they might have about certain schools or types of schools. The idea is to ensure your student has thought through all their college options, not to change their mind about any one school or the other.

Big school vs. small school. If your student is strongly in favor of one school size over another, ask why. Talk about the pros and cons of each—one isn’t necessarily better than the other, it’s more about which is the right fit for your student.

Is it an academic match? For any school your student is considering, this is important. Of course the school should offer the major your student wants to pursue, but what’s the coursework like? What approach and philosophy does the school take? What are the professors like? These are questions that will require some digging and talking with both students and professors at the school. You may be able to find some answers online, or by emailing people at the school, but it’s also a primary topic to explore when you and your student make a campus visit.

Is it a social match? This is a little tougher to get a handle on, but is critical to your student’s success at college. Do the campus and student body offer an atmosphere that feels comfortable to your student? Does it feel like a place where he or she can make friends? Pursue extracurricular activities?

What’s the cost? If the cost of tuition is a concern to your family—and it is for many families—be sure to let your student know early-on that price may be a deciding factor. That doesn’t mean your student has to avoid looking at private schools or even colleges with higher tuition. You never know what financial aid packages you may be offered. But be sure your student understands that cost is an important consideration.

Location, location, location. Geography is another key consideration. Some students look forward to going a college far from home, others want to stay nearby, maybe even live at home. Again, it’s important to look at the pros and cons of each option—going to school far away means adventure and independence, but also increased transportation costs and possibly fewer trips home during the year. Living at home may save money, but would your student benefit from the independence of living on campus? There is no one right answer for every student—it’s important that your student consider the possibilities and all the options available.


As your student continues the college search, keep in mind that there is no set formula for choosing the right school. But working through the above questions can help your student work out which school to choose — it may mean they’ll end up considering a school they never would have before, or perhaps circling right back to their original choice. Either way, you’ll know they’ve considered a variety of options first.

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