Any parent who’s helped their child through the college application process can tell you how they’d change things the second time around.

But few parents get to see one child through the college application process, go off to college, and then start their career before getting a do-over. That is precisely the position Leigh Ann Newman finds herself in, as she and her husband help their younger son navigate the college application process 11 years after helping their first son. 

Newman’s younger son will graduate from high school this year, and she and her husband have had plenty of time to reflect, regroup, and reroute their course of action to make the experience more effective and meaningful. They also had a lot to catch up on. The college application process is forever evolving and there’s been a marked shift in the last decade. 

Applying to college used to be a straightforward operation spearheaded by the student. Now, it’s a more complicated and time-consuming journey that often involves the entire family. Below Newman explains what she did the first time, what she regrets, and what she’s changed the second time around.

Although my husband and I both have college degrees, we felt like rookies in the admissions process.

Leigh Ann Newman

How Our First Son Chose a College

My older son graduated from high school and then attended a community college in a neighboring state. Although my husband and I both have college degrees, we felt like rookies in the admissions process. There was a constant feeling of uncertainty. We didn’t talk to him about what he thought would make him happy in the long run—both in his college experience and later in life. My older son wound up making his college choice based mostly on what his friends were doing and what he thought we could afford. 

What Happened When He Got to College

Our son started college with a general studies major, but he did not graduate. A couple of years in, he realized that, despite liking his school, college wasn’t the right path for him. Once he dropped out, he went into welding and was quite successful. He’s since transitioned into a sales career.

What I Wish We’d Done Differently

I wish we had spent more time asking him about the full picture and what he really wanted to do as a career. Then, we could have helped him choose a college and major that would have served to achieve those goals—or saved him the time and money he spent going to college. Instead, we let peer influence take the lead. We also should have talked to him about money in a meaningful way. We essentially avoided the topic and, as a result, he struggled not only with setting a direction for his studies but also budgeting his finances. We also weren’t able to plan our resources effectively to help him achieve his goals.

How We Course-Corrected for Our Second Son

Because of our first experience, we have had countless discussions with our younger son about his interests while helping him gear his high school activities toward those interests. He’s known for a long time that he wants to run the family farm with his dad and work in the agricultural field. We’ve encouraged him to participate in his high school’s Future Farmers of America program and invest time and talent into creating a nationally recognized Supervised Agricultural Experience. He even started his own herd of Morgan horses with our support. 

We also encouraged him to apply to multiple colleges to see what each had to offer in the way of financial aid and educational programming. His list wasn’t long—about four schools—because he was very focused on strong agriculture departments. We’ve talked about money and spent many hours on scholarship applications. 

How We Avoided Taking Over the Process

Even with a greater degree of involvement, we made a point of letting our son be in the driver’s seat and make his own decisions. We saw our role as providing guidance along the way. He has completed all his own applications, communicated with the colleges independently and selected what he wants to study. My husband and I asked the in-depth questions we missed with our older son and then made ourselves available to have conversations and offer advice.

Not all parents have the chance for a do-over, but the lessons Newman learned can be adopted by any parent helping their child navigate the college application process. Newman says the keys are to start early, listen, and help your child with a big picture financial and academic strategy, as opposed to managing smaller choices. Following these steps should set your child on a path to college with several exciting options.

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