10 tips to keeping the peace and your sanity during the admissions process.

I have worked with some amazing students the last few years. But the stress of selective admissions, standarized tests, COVID, and transitioning from high school to college on top of all the normal teenage hormones and angst can be too much for both parents and students. There are behaviors during the admissions process that makes this much harder. Here are ten tips to navigate the process and keep your sanity–hopefully even helping the relationship between parent and child.

  1. Know your budget and how much you might be willing to borrow. Sit down as a family and talk realistically about what you can afford for college. Most colleges will allow you pay the annual costs (tuition, fees, room and board) over 11 payments each year. You will also need about $1200-1500 a semester for books, and will have to get to and from school on breaks (plane fare is high during breaks). How much have you saved? Are other family members (divorced parents, grandparents) contributing? How much on top of that can you realistically cash flow a month (knowing you have one less person at home eating groceries if they are away at school)? Then discuss if you are willing to take on student and/or parent debt and how much. You don’t need to rule out schools based on price tag, as they may give aid (see below). But having a sense of your budget will make the process easier. Having to tell a child once they are admitted that you can’t afford somewhere is a very difficult situation.
  2. Research the aid schools offer and use the Net Price Calculator (NPC) on each school’s website. The federal government requires colleges to publish a Net Price Calculator. These take time to complete. You answer questions about your parent and student finances (much of what you will also put on your FAFSA) and it gives you an estimate of the need-based aid (based on your family financial situation) you might receive. Some schools also include merit aid (scholarships and grants based on students’ grades or talents), some don’t. Some schools publish their merit aid ranges or even charts with exact dollar amounts–some don’t. But having a sense of net/out-of-pocket costs before you apply, will make it easier to create a list of schools that are affordable. Applying, then discovering you can’t afford somewhere a child loves, is a very difficult situation to be in when emotions and stress are already high.
  3. Don’t get fixated on one school. So many students and families come to me saying they want to attend X school. Often these schools are big names with low admission rates (they deny way more students than they admit). Students may have all the right classes, great test scores and wonderful activities and still get denied, because 90+% of applicants to that school get denied. You want a list of many colleges where you will be happy.
  4. Create a list of 5-8 schools you would be excited to attend. There are hundreds of colleges in this country–big, small, religious, secular, selective, non-selective, etc. If you apply to a group of schools that are all a good fit–then you will be happy to attend anywhere you are admitted. This will create less disappointment if you don’t get admitted everywhere you apply.
  5. Start your college search process early and make time for it. The earlier you start looking at colleges (even online) the better. It will help make sure you are on track for admission. They can make sure you understand courses needed to be admissible and timelines or deadlines. It also gives time to research different majors, explore the curriculum and understand how colleges are different from one another (and how they are similar–which helps find several you like). And you can research the aid available (see above). Schools need to be an academic, social and financial fit for everyone to be happy.
  6. Visit a variety of colleges in-person. Looking for a college is a lot like looking for a house. You have to visit in person to see what you like and what you don’t. As you looked for a house, you discovered things you loved and had to have like a third car garage or bathroom in the basement. But you also discovered things you didn’t like or would be a nice option but not a deal breaker. College is the same way. The more you visit, the more you will start to understand what you want, what you need and where you will accomplish your goals. Websites are great, but just like an online listing for a house–they don’t show down side of the place. Family vacations are important memory making opportunities but you might need to use those school breaks for trips to colleges (starting spring of sophomore year and junior year). Don’t try to cram all your visits into fall of senior year. You want to be able to use senior year for applications.
  7. Social media can be helpful and damaging at the same time. The world of instagram, tiktok, reddit, and youtube has created a wealth of information about colleges–many from a student perspective that is more honest than the college’s own marketing materials. But no one is vetting these for truth. Lots of misinformation, rumor, and negativity circulates. While it can be helpful to see past essays from students who were admitted to a specific school or read their stats, holistic admission means colleges are reviewing all candidates to create the most interesting class they can. And applicant pools change each year. A college might win a championship that results in tons of new applications. Take what you see on-line with a grain of salt. Always get the most accurate information from the college’s website and admission staff.
  8. Don’t make your child apply anywhere they don’t want to go. College is expensive. Only 60% of students finish in 4 years at the majority of schools. Forcing someone to go somewhere they don’t want to go, isn’t going to be helpful. If you think they might like a school, visit. Then if they don’t, let it go. This is their education (even if you are paying for it). It is hard to not live vicariously through our children but you have to trust them.
  9. It is ok to be an English major. Liberal arts majors get jobs. Not everyone wants to be an engineer. But engineers are great, too. What is important is finding a college that helps them connect to marketable skills, internships, and employment opportunities. Everyone will publish a stat that says something like “96% of our graduates are employed within six months of graduation”. But they could be employed anywhere and it counts. What you want to ask about is how that particular college’s career preparation and support functions, how faculty mentor students to connect them to career opportunities and do most graduates report being satisfied with their employment after graduation (Gallup has a survey that asks this if you are curious).
  10. Guide, don’t push. Remind, don’t nag. The college admission process has a lot of steps, deadlines, forms and applications, and even more steps once you are admitted. Much of the info will come directly to your child which can be annoying if they don’t share (bonus tip–if you start early enough you can create a general email for all college material that both parent and student can access for all college related material). Set up a specific time each week you are going to talk about college and stick to that appointment. Review schools, materials, work on applications. This will prevent frustrating hallway hijacking…your child is headed into the bathroom and the parent randomly asks about an application or form that needs to be submitted-or the parent has just sat down to a netflix show and the child asks for an application fee. Set clear expectations and deadlines. If you know you and your child will fight about this process, bring in a professional college counselor to help you manage the process.

Hopefully these types will help keep the peace and help you both enjoy the last few years of high school.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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