Education Blog

Parents and the College Search: How to Guide Your Teen

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If your teen is set on going to college, their junior year of high school hits hard. They’ll be concerned about SAT and ACT prep courses, taking APs for college credit, and trying as hard as they can to look like a bright, well-rounded young person. The college admissions process is likely to be one of the biggest stressors in their life so far, but it’ll all be worth it for a chance at a four-year degree.

But where, exactly, should they go? There are literally thousands of colleges to choose from in the US alone, each one offering a unique experience to its students. College is by no means cheap, and the college years will play a massive role in who your teen grows up to be. Putting down a deposit for a university is a gargantuan investment for parents and teens, so it’s crucial to find a college that’s as close to perfect as possible for your grown and flown teenager. Here’s what I know you and your teen can do to trim down the extensive list of possible universities and colleges at the beginning of the application process.

Look for Specific Programs

Some teenagers already know what they want to study when they begin applying for college. Future doctors know they should major in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or another hard science to look appealing to future med schools, and some colleges even offer specific pre-med tracks. If your teenager is set on engineering or computer science, some schools are renowned for their global influence and innovation. Other schools, like many liberal arts colleges, focus more on forming well-rounded thinkers across a variety of subjects like philosophy, literature, mathematics, and the social sciences instead of pigeonholing their students into one area of study.

Before beginning the college search with your teen, have a conversation about what they want to gain from their degree. If they’re set on a future career, it’s not a bad idea to search for colleges with especially good programs. If they don’t know what they want to do (which is totally fine), it’s probably better to look for large schools with lots of opportunities or for liberal arts colleges that foster a broad education and skillset.

Cost is a Factor

I’m sure this isn’t news to you, but you need to make sure your teen understands the role financial aid and scholarships have on their ability to attend specific colleges and exactly how student loans will impact their post-college life. They may be itching to move out of state, but for many teens, this simply isn’t an option financially without a significant scholarship.

Don’t sugarcoat this; talk to your teenager about the cost of colleges and show them the numbers. Some private universities cost up over $50,000 a year, and out-of-state tuition for many public universities reach incredibly high numbers, too. Being realistic about finances is a great way to trim down the college search, and it’s also an awesome way to motivate your teenager to improve their academic or athletic performance in the hopes of being granted a scholarship. If your teen insists on an expensive education, make sure they understand how student loans work, be up front about how much you’re able to assist financially, and help them search for scholarships that could alleviate some of the costs.

Size Matters

When you see your teen at college, do you picture them doing better in a massive lecture hall, learning independently, and using their resources to connect with leading researches and academics in their field? Or do you see them happier in a smaller class with a tight-knit group of faculty and students? Either answer is okay, and teens need to know what to expect from large and small colleges during their search.

Some universities are more like small cities, their student bodies made up of 60 or 70 thousand graduates and undergraduates each year. Other colleges are smaller than some high schools. Large and small schools offer unique advantages and disadvantages you and your teen need to consider. Is your teen especially social, excited for the partying aspect of college, looking forward to tailgates, and good at making themself feel at home in large crowds? Then a large college—one that promotes more independent learning and offers extensive academic and social resources—is probably right for them. But if your teen values connectivity, forming close relationships, and truly getting to know their instructors, a small school might benefit them.

The good thing about large schools is there’s usually something for everyone. The bad news is, it might be hard to find the perfect group of friends, academic niche, or on-campus community with so many options to choose from. While small schools might have less to offer, it’s easy for some teens to feel at home quickly and find exactly what they’re looking for from their college experience.

Consider Location

If going out-of-state is a possibility for your teen, you need to talk to them about the cost of travel, the responsibility that comes with living far from home, and how their school’s location will influence where they settle after graduation. Your teen might desperately want to go to school in California, but what weight will that school carry if they plan on moving back to the East Coast after graduating? And if they play on staying, do they know how expensive it is to make a living in a place like California?

Ask your teen where they see themselves after college. If they have a specific region in mind, it isn’t a bad idea to look at schools in that area. It’s true that most colleges have extensive alumni networks that cover most of the country, but it’ll be much easier for your teen to make future connections in Pennsylvania if they went to school in Pennsylvania to start. Cost of living, weather, and cultural differences are also very important aspects to consider when looking at colleges.

Ditch the Prestige


Yes, some schools are known for being especially “good,” but at the end of the day, just about every college has something valuable to offer its students. Your teen is probably already stressed enough about the admission process, and harping them about the street cred of their future home won’t do anything to help. During the college search, make sure you’re focusing on finding a school that’s right for your teen. No matter how prestigious a school is, it might not be what your teen is looking for, and it would be a shame to send them somewhere they felt unhappy.

Start Searching!

Now that you have a good idea of what to ask your teen and how to narrow down the college search, it’s time to get looking! Check out sites like Cappex, Unigo, and the College Board for comprehensive overviews of schools. With these kind of sites, you and your teen can find majors offered, alumni achievements, student demographics, and student testimonies to pin down exactly what colleges are right for your teen!

Author Bio:

Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of, ghostwriter at, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.