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We are straddling our mountain bikes at the trailhead, miles of single track winding out in front of us — a network of options to explore. “Where do we begin?” my son asks, knowing full well that he will get a “dad response” worthy of eye-rolling. He is correct, and predictably I suggest we “start where we are.” 

New Hampshire, where we live, is blessed with a wealth of great places to bike, but this is one of the most well-marked trail systems we have ridden. At every split in the woods, there is a laminated map with that helpful arrow telling us where we are. It was a good excuse to stop and catch my breath periodically as my son raced forward, but also to have the reassurance that we were on the right track.

Halfway through our ride, we stopped to check our progress on a colorful map, and I couldn’t resist. Being the parent and college counselor I am — The Admission Fool — I commented on how the search for a college would be so much easier with a similar guide mapping out where we stand and how to get to where we are going. His sideways “not today” glance suggested that I not mix business with pleasure, so I let it be. But as I attempted to keep up around the precarious hairpin turns, I couldn’t help thinking about this metaphor and how we approach college admission as parents.

In the first installment of The College Admission Fool series, we considered when to begin the college search with your student and now we will explore where to start. 

Wonder why

It is tempting to approach college admission asking where to go and how to get in, but that is putting the cart before the postsecondary horse. I am already slipping into this with my son, wondering where he might end up and how I can help make this happen. First, however, students need to ask why. If they do not, we as parents and caregivers ought to ask them and provide the space and resources to consider this question. Why college? Is it because we are encouraging (maybe forcing) them to go? Is it because their friends or peers are applying? Do they have a specific goal or career in mind? Are they just on the education treadmill and have yet to think intentionally about what experience they want to have after high school? Is college simply a placeholder for a lack of other options? Exploring these fundamental questions is the best place to begin, as they will inform the where and how

Thorough self-reflection before heading down the trail to find a college will help guide the search. While this can be achieved by thoughtful conversations as a family, you might also want to use a tool like YouScienceStrengthsFinder, or another aptitude, personality, or career assessment to help identify unique strengths and interests. My son heard about YouScience from a friend and asked me if he could try it. He found it engaging, and I took it as well, which led to a great conversation about our different results, their accuracy, and what it all meant.

Money matters 

Like clockwork, it happens every spring, and as a high school counselor, it is heartbreaking. After college admission decisions are released, inevitably, a newly admitted senior arrives distraught at my office having realized that they cannot afford any of the colleges they want to attend. At that point, it is usually too late, as colleges have exhausted their financial aid budgets. 

It is best to have honest and open conversations about family finances at the very beginning of the college search. Just like you would not set out to buy a car or house without considering affordability, it is unwise to search for colleges without awareness of how costs will factor into the decision. This can be an ideal teachable moment about financial responsibility and an opportunity for young adults to understand the various demands of “real life.” Open up the books for your student and talk about family expenses (car payments, mortgage, insurance, utilities, food, etc.), savings needs (retirement, etc.), and sources of income. Within this context, you can then discuss how educational costs factor into the bigger financial picture and together consider what is feasible. Part of this conversation should be establishing what the student will be responsible for contributing and what restrictions may exist based on family resources. This will help initiate a college search that is not destined to end in disappointment. After all, why fire up a Ferrari when you can only afford a Ford?

Beware of bias

As parents, we have a deeper history of lived experiences to pull from than our children. While this can often be an asset, it can also be our Achilles heel. We can fall into the trap of basing our perspectives and decisions on outdated information. A lot has happened in the 30 years since I applied to college. Consider the changing selectivity of many colleges. For example, students applying to Colby College in 1989, had a 46% admit rate. In 2019 only 10% of those who applied were accepted. For the University of Chicago in those same years, the admit rate was 69% and 6%. These are extreme examples, but you get the point, things change. Check your assumptions at the door to this experience. The college that might have been known to be a party school or regional institution when you were a teenager might now be transformed in significant ways. As parents and caregivers, it is important for us to model an ongoing examination of our biases in so many ways, and college is no different. Keep an open mind and a willingness to embrace progress.

Recycle rankings

Want to know where NOT to start? With commercial college rankings like U.S. News and World Report. Will my son and daughter be guaranteed more success or fulfillment if they attend a college that is ranked #29 than if their school is #92 on the “best colleges” list? If a college drops three spots in the rankings year-to-year, does that mean the education there is worse this year than it was last? During over two decades as a school counselor I have seen graduates attend universities ranked among the top ten in the country and be miserable, and students enroll at colleges that are outside the top 100 ranked schools and receive an amazing education. Experience has allowed me to see that student engagement is what really matters and that rankings are arbitrary and sometimes misleading and harmful in conducting a college search.

Launch local

Follow the motto of “start where you are” in the most literal sense. If you live in New England, no need to initially travel to Florida or Oregon to learn that small, rural colleges are not of interest. Begin by visiting schools close to home, even if your student feels quite certain that they want to study far away for college. Explore a large school, a small school, a city campus, a rural campus, a school that is liberal arts-focused, and a more specialized institution, or university with distinct colleges. Students should keep good notes about what excites them and what concerns they have about each school. When you leave campus or log-off the virtual visit, students should write down five pros and five cons for each school. Your child should consider interviewing at a local school that might not be high on their list to get comfortable with the process. Your job as a parent or caregiver is to help them access these opportunities, empower them, and, by all means, to withhold comment.

Go green

The easiest mountain biking is usually identified by green markings. Even if one is an expert, it is best to begin to work out the kinks and ease into the ride on the more gentle trail. The same holds true when searching for a college — I would advise not starting at the greatest level of difficulty. Setting out on the most challenging path, or visiting the most selective school on the list to begin your search, is a dangerous approach. If your student first experiences, and attaches to, the colleges with the least likelihood of acceptance, everything else runs the risk of being pale in comparison. Start with schools that have greater acceptance rates and then introduce the more difficult route. 

We have now explored when and where to begin on this journey into college admission. In the next installment of The Admission Fool will move to the more practical approaches of how to conduct a college search with our child. Until then, as you look into the woods of college admission and consider the many trails ahead, remember, you are here, so embrace your parental foolishness and stay healthy as we launch into a new academic year like none other.

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis