Choosing a College

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I recently stopped by my friend's house to say hello and found the family, with three teenage sons, engaged in an intense conversation about choosing colleges. Knowing how happy I was with my choice of undergraduate and graduate schools, they turned to me to ask for my advice on the topic. As our conversation progressed, I thought also of the varsity level athletes I coach that are faced with the same challenge and are balancing their remaining high school years with preparation for the next step. High school students across the country are struggling with the decision that will define their professional careers and and will fondly be looked back on as the best years of their lives.

For families going through this selection process for the first time, choosing colleges to apply to can be especially overwhelming and confusing. How do we find the "right" school? Do graduates of certain schools have an advantage in the job market? What happens if she gets their and hates it? Guidance counselors can certainly help match your child's academic goals with schools accordingly but no one knows your child as well as you do. You are the one who will be traveling all over, visiting colleges, nagging your child to get those essays finished, and paying all the application fees. These tips help you guide the conversation about colleges with your child before you head out to look as well as help you keep your perspective while engaged in the search.

Factors For Your Child to Consider

Academics You obviously want to match your child's academic strengths and goals with various colleges she is considering. Keep in mind that we are asking an eighteen year old to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Consider a number of options when investigating academic programs. Maybe she is a great writer but also enjoys biology. Find a school that has strong programs for both, in case she changes her mind about becoming an English teacher and decides she wants to be pre-med. It happens more often than you think.

Location Teenagers often express the desire to leave their hometown and go far away. Keep in mind that teenagers have a limited perspective on how far "far away" really is. Tell your child that even if he is just an hour from home, he is away from home. Remind him If he wants to come home for the weekend to do laundry and get a home-cooked meal, a five hour drive or a plane ride can be exhausting. It's common for freshmen to be restricted from having a car on campus so be honest with your child about how often you can go pick him up or pay for a plane or train ticket home. Also factor in any family events or special occasions your child may miss if he attends a school far from home.

Size Your child says "I want to go to a big school." Teenagers often use college as an opportunity to reinvent themselves, but consider all the factors that come into play regarding the size of the school. If your child is confident, expresses herself well, and is a good problem solver, she may do well at a large school, which can be difficult to navigate. The same child may not enjoy a small school as she is looking for more opportunities to meet people, take a variety of classes, and enjoy different social activities. If your child prefers routine, enjoys a small group of friends, and finds comfort in smaller circles, she may enjoy a smaller school. Some large schools have extensive bus systems to get to and from classes. Some schools are far away from shopping and entertainment. Take time when you visit colleges to check out the layout of the school and the transportation available for students.

Weather Moving from Florida to Wisconsin makes for a huge difference in climate. This should be an important factor for your child when choosing a college. If he is used to warm weather and enjoys warm-weather activities, he may not look forward to learning to ski. This may seem like a minimal factor in choosing the right school but think that your child will essentially be living in this town or city for the next four years. There are certain things about a school you can maneuver around but, as you know, the weather is beyond anyone's control.

Social Climate Some schools are known for their athletic teams, greek life, or on-campus social activities. Making sure your child's social interests match those of the school he attends is important. Although you hope your child will spend all his time studying, he will engage in social activities while away at school. College is an important time for your child to learn time management and part of that includes engaging in enjoyable activities during his down time so he is more efficient while studying and attending class. Visit colleges while they are in session so you can get a feel for the social climate. Take the tour offered by colleges that is often run by current students or alumni. Ask that person questions about the social climate of the school.

What Parents Need to Remember

Your child is under a lot of stress As nervous as you may be about sending your child away to school, remember that your child is faced with a huge decision. He is expected to choose a college that will shape his last school experience and prepare him for a career. All this is happening while he is taking his SAT's, playing in the big game, and managing friendships. He has a lot on his plate and needs you to be the calming factor in his life. Approach the topic of college early and when you have time to talk about his options and visit as many schools as possible. Read your child's stress levels and discuss college when he has time to talk. Start the conversation in your child's sophomore year and plan on visiting schools in his junior year of high school.

Transferring is always an option Your child may think she's picked the perfect school and find she was wrong. Transferring to another school is a possibility and although the credits she took the first semester may not transfer, her happiness is important in the long run. This may not be the ideal option but it is comforting to know that there is an option if Plan A doesn't work out.

Put your dreams on hold Although you have been dreaming about this moment since your child was born, remember that this is his life and his choice. You would love him to attend your alma matter but is it truly the right fit for him? You love going to football games at the state university but will be really be happy there? Let your child be the guide and follow his lead. Your dream should be that your child is happy and confident in his choice of college, not that you can brag to your friends about the schools he got accepted into. Your child is about to embark on the most exciting adventure of his life and he is going to look to you for support from the moment he fills out the admission forms until he gets his diploma. If he is happy, comfortable, and productive he's made the right choice.

These tips can help you narrow down your options before you go out and visit schools, which ultimately, is the best way to choose the right school. When you go to visit each school, encourage your child to stand quietly on campus for a few minutes and look around. Watch his body language. Talk about his comfort level at each school. Listening to that little voice in your head telling you what feels right is the best tool you can teach your child as he looks for a college. Hopefully he will take that tool with him as he ventures out and starts to make his own decisions.

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.