Cancel Forgot Password?

Choosing Colleges and Universities: What Parents Should Do

By Peterson's Staff updated on Wednesday, January 23, 2013

When students are looking at colleges and universities trying to find the right match, it can be a stressful time for parents as well. The advice and experiences of other parents may help you navigate the process a little easier.

College search takes time and energy

Set aside time for the college search process. While you want to let your child drive this process, you should also be there as a guide to make sure they stay on track.

"The search process is wonderfully haphazard and unpredictable, and students can make very good choices for what seem (to their parents) like all the wrong reasons. Having narrowed the field to two top choices, our daughter applied Early Decision to the one in the mountains as opposed to the one on the prairie I was certain suited her better. In fact, it was an excellent choice. Our second child, worn out by the exhaustive search we'd undertaken with our first, refused to visit any colleges at all. He confined himself to reading college catalogs and to e-mailing instructors and current students with questions," remembers a college-professor mom who is now braced for the search for graduate schools.

Linda, a super-organized college employee with terrific sons lamented, "What I thought was going to be a new and exciting experience for our family turned out to be two long, tedious, dragged-out, stressful years. For each of our three sons, everything was done at the last minute and decisions were made at the very last date acceptable. We couldn't even discuss schools during their junior years. The boys were too busy with sports, practices, and friends. When they did get a day or weekend off, they slept late and became couch potatoes. Checking out schools was the last thing they wanted to do. It was only in the fall of senior year that they started even thinking of colleges, never mind visiting them. Thank God for the guidance counselors who kept us on track to meet those haunting deadlines. I tell friends going through the same thing to hang in there, because everything will work out."

Finding the right match among many colleges and universities

There are lots of great schools out there, and you shouldn't always rely on college reputation or a school's status in a college guide. Look for a place that is a good fit for your child.

"Some parents equate their children's happiness and/or chances for success too strongly with a college's place on the pecking order or its overall prestige," observes Michael, the father of two recent college graduates. "Those who get beyond that seem genuinely interested in the 'right match' — the school where a student will be challenged but not overwhelmed and will grow in both knowledge and self-esteem."

Let college information stand on its own initially

Allow your child to get impressions of schools based on their own reactions and the college info that is presented to them, not based on your influence.

"I think that one of the things that parents must remember — which I have tried to teach since my eldest daughter went through the college search — is that kids need time to react to schools their own way without any input from parents," suggests Phyllis, an educational consultant. "A gentle 'ah hum' or 'huh' or a terribly unobtrusive neutral sound is far more effective than a comment. I think parents need to trust their kids to do their own reacting and hold off on input until all those first impressions have had a chance to settle in. A parental response, either positive or negative, can produce an oppositional response simply because of adolescence and not because of a school."

Anticipate surprises
Sue remembers, "I was surprised where my children ended up going to school. I thought I had a good idea of what their choices would be and where they might head geographically. After all, who knows children better than parents, right? Wow, was I way off the mark!"

It's okay to have options
Try not to allow the search for the right fit to become too focused on one school that ends up being the only choice. It's okay for your child to be comfortable with several colleges and universities and have options for where to attend.

Betsy, a college librarian and mother of two, counsels, "I think it's important for students not to focus on just one school, especially if that college is highly selective. The daughter of a colleague was totally focused on the one, perfect choice. She hadn't considered any other options. Fortunately, she got in Early Decision. If she hadn't, I don't know what they would have done. My daughter applied to ten colleges and likes them all."

Get as much as you can out of visits
Campus visits are a great time for you and your child to get lots of useful college information directly from the source.

"At every school I visited as a parent, I went to the student newspaper office or library and procured as many back issues, as well as the current one, and poured over them in an effort to read between the lines," remembers Donna, mother of two and an experienced admission interviewer. "Also, I recommend, if there's time, stopping in town for a Coke or gas and having a chat with a few local people about what they think of the college."

Let your child make the decision
While it's important for you to offer guidance and support, in the end, the decision about where to go to school should be your child's. No matter what a college guide says or what college info you have, ultimately it is the student who will be living with the choice, so he or she should be allowed to make the choice.

Judi, the mom of a son, suggests, "Do remember that it is your child who is going to college, not you. And unless there are major financial considerations, allow him to make the selection. Most young students can tell when the fit is right for them and should be allowed to go with their instincts. Once there, let your child determine his own major; please don't push your child into a major you think he should pursue (or, as is more often the case, you wish you had pursued)."

"It's not necessary to apply both to the colleges that your child wants to attend and the ones you want him to attend. It's sufficient to apply to the ones he wants to attend. This strategy saves time and money," warns David.

John, a high school counselor, confides, "My daughter is a happy freshman at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. I took the college search very seriously and felt that we needed to carefully research each of the 12 to 14 colleges on her list. After visiting St. Olaf, she disappointed me by saying, 'Dad, I don't want to look at any more colleges. I've found the one that's right for me.' Although there were many more on my list, we stopped looking because it was her search after all. She has been in pure heaven ever since."

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

More articles by this author
Find a college that's right for you!
1Choose a state

2Choose a major
3Choose a degree type


Colleges you might like...

Hamline University
St. Paul, MN
  • Type Private
  • Setting Urban
  • Size 2,211 students
  • In-State $35,710
  • Out-of-State $35,710
  • Acceptance Moderately Difficult
View Full School Profile
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, CA
  • Type Private
  • Setting Urban
  • Size 6,392 students
  • In-State $40,996
  • Out-of-State $40,996
  • Acceptance Moderately Difficult
View Full School Profile
  • Type Private
  • Setting Urban
  • Size 9,703 students
  • In-State $27,156
  • Out-of-State $27,156
  • Acceptance Moderately Difficult
View Full School Profile

Advanced Search Options

Search your needs below, and view information about the schools that meet those needs by clicking "Search."
Step 1: Select Subject Area(s)
Step 2: Select Major(s) that Interest You
Complete step 1 before selcting a major
Step 3: Select Degree Level
Search

Forgot Your Password?

To reset your password, simply enter your email address in the field below and click the Reset Password button. You will receive an email with a link and instructions to reset your password.

Check your email.

Please check your email and click on the link provided in the message to reset your password.