Helping your son or daughter navigate choosing a college can feel like a high-wire act. You want to share your experiences and opinions, and your top choice may not match their own. You also want them to feel happy at the college they attend. So, how can you find the right college for your child? You don’t have to. Instead, your role is to be a sounding board and provide guidance to your child so they can make the best decision for them—and for your family. To navigate this complex conversation, here are expert tips for parents to help their teen make a solid decision without taking over.

Listen 75% of the Time

“Talking to your teen about college is 75% listening and 25% asking open-ended questions without giving away your opinion,” says Jennifer Dromgoole, a college admissions consultant at the Dromgoole Center for Admissions. “Parents’ preferences often stem from their own college experience, which is why I really try to ask them to set those aside.” Dromgoole reminds parents that this decision is about their child finding their own college experience and shouldn’t hinge on how they feel about the college.

Talking to your teen about college is 75% listening and 25% asking open-ended questions without giving away your opinion.

Jennifer Dromgoole

Be Honest

Your personal college experiences and thoughts shape your opinion. You may have strong feelings about one institution’s reputation over another. Maybe you prefer that your child is within driving distance to your hometown. Or you’re concerned about being able to afford a college’s price tag. 

Maybe you went to a school in a rural town and feel you missed out on opportunities available in larger cities. Or perhaps you wish you had the opportunity to attend a prestigious college and want your teen to do so. Whatever the reasons, explain your rationale and discuss your concerns together.

It can also be good for both of you to seek objective opinions. Nudging your teen to talk through the decision with people beyond parents—such as a relative, close friend, school counselor, or a favorite teacher—can help bring in different perspectives that they might not have considered. Talking to friends whose children have been through the process already can be invaluable. Don’t be shy about soliciting opinions on the process and hearing how other families have worked through their decisions.  

Help Prep Your Teen to Maximize College Visits 

Once your child narrows their list down to two or three schools, let them visit each campus, doing overnights, if possible. While there, Betsy Woolf of Woolf College Consulting says they should ask pointed questions. Some questions for your teen to consider:

  • How much harder is it than high school?
  • How big is your biggest class?
  • What’s the workload like?
  • How many hours a day do you spend studying?
  • What do you do on the weekends?
  • What do you wish you had known before you attended?

Also, encourage them to sit in on a class and stay after to talk to the professor. If your child has a sense of their major, figure out if they can connect with faculty in that department to talk about details like credit requirements and internship support. You can facilitate these visits for your kid and help them develop a list of questions that targets their main interests and concerns.

If you’re going on the college visit as well, let your child take the lead in asking questions. Some colleges provide parents-only info sessions, where you can ask more detailed questions about academic and emotional support that your child may not want you to ask in front of their peers. As you explore campus, you’ll likely have observations that are different from what your child noticed. Be mindful how and when you share them; you may find your child is more receptive to your opinion after they’ve thought through their own pros and cons lists.  

Get Real About Money

If your child isn’t taking cost into their decision, have the money talk with them. Your child may say they’re willing to take on debt personally, but it’s probably hard for them to understand what this commitment looks like. Dromgoole recommends putting money in terms they can understand. You can use the price of something they know well, like a car, as a metric to measure the costs of college. “I have gone as far as using Monopoly money, just so they can reach out and touch it,” she says.

Help your child understand the full scope of their college costs—including room and board, travel home, books, supplies, and the unexpected. Talk to them about budgeting logistics. For example, if they want to attend a school on the opposite coast, how many flights home will be reasonable? Will your child be responsible for certain travel expenses? These conversations can help them determine which school makes the most sense for their plans and expectations. 

Discussing potential career paths and typical starting salaries can help put debt into perspective, as well. Figure out a budget on an anticipated salary and how much of their future income might go toward loan payments. Don’t forget to factor in the impact of graduate or professional school, if relevant. 

We like to give the students a vote, the parents a vote and us [college counselors] a vote.

Jennifer Dromgoole

Give It a Vote

You obviously have a voice in your child’s college decision, especially if you are planning on contributing financially. A good way to get your opinion heard without having the final word is holding a vote. “We like to give the students a vote, the parents a vote, and us [college counselors] a vote,” Dromgoole says. “The school with the most votes isn’t necessarily where they go, but it at least unwraps any conversations that haven’t happened yet.” Be honest about why you’re voting for a school and prepare to explain your rationale. A compelling explanation of your opinion could lead to a compromise with your teen or an eye-opening perspective shift for them. 

Ultimately, if you do everything you can to help them understand the decision they’re making, you’ll enable them to choose wisely—both now and in the future.

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