Updated: May 11
Introvert strengths can make this process a reflective and bonding experience
Our journey is over but yours may be just beginning. My son and I did a socially-distanced College Road Trip this past week and a half. He graduates high school this May. He narrowed his choices from dozens to five and we really wanted to see each campus before making such a life-changing decision. In the end, as he made his decision, I toggled between relief and grief at the culmination of our multi-year project.
I would consider my son, Noah, a bit of an ambivert. He does like his time at home but also enjoys social time with friends. I, on the other hand, am definitely an introvert. I love project planning so I was ready to dive in early and often!
I think introverts are well equipped for this process - generally structured curious learners, reflective and balanced in analysis.
It's an exciting and overwhelming time. filled with emotions. Students often just want to enjoy their last years of high school and not think about college. Parents try to balance academic objectives, and the social realities of college, overlayed with budgets.
I determined my role was to help structure our process and prompt Noah to think about a variety of scenarios in order to flush out his interests and preferences. Noah's role was to participate, share, and ultimately decide on the college of his choice.
Our process started years ago. Generally, as a good introvert, I love to plan and like to arrive for appointments early. So we planned the process and started early - very early. But this advanced timeframe provided me with a sense of comfort which translated into a more relaxed approach with Noah (although he probably thinks I went OCD on him!).
We attended a college fair and joined 1-2 local college tours just to get familiar with the process. We developed a list of his activities and club roles which was updated throughout high school.
We started talking about some key variables:
Proximity: close to home, where friends are going, near relatives, or far from everyone, in which case what regions are interesting - north, south, midwest, west coast, deep south...? He wanted to go up north.
Environment: Noah favored a green campus (suburban or rural) over steel (urban)
Size: small (<10,000 students), medium (20-30,000), or large (40,000 plus). Noah was indifferent.
Culture: campus diversity, sports, clubs & activities, studious or party/Greek. He favored a diverse campus with lots of clubs and activities, rigorous but not too competitive.
Experience: study abroad, internship/co-ops and where they may want to live since 75% of students tend to stay in the geographic region of their school upon graduation. Noah wants the full experience, including study abroad and interning.
Career: what would they like to do? Best not to think of roles and titles as much as tasks. What hobbies and interests do they have? What work environment is of interest? This took a bit of consideration until Business w/ Music minor developed his Junior year.
Students likely won't have answers to many of these questions as a sophomore, but teeing them up helps so the answers come into focus in the next couple of years.
HS Junior (Fall)
Time to start getting serious. Take the ACT/SAT and develop initial thoughts on the 6 variables above. Take some personality and career interest quizzes online to help narrow career ideas. Consider the family budget but don't constrain yourself because school-sponsored merit- and needs-based scholarships, along with federal grants and loans can expand your budget considerably.
HS Junior (Spring)
Aim to identify major program interest (Business, Engineering, Communications, Arts, etc) and if there is a strong interest in a minor or additional major. Create a spreadsheet with key criteria you are interested in (see the 6 variables above) plus costs (tuition plus room & board). Fill out a row for schools of interest from internet and school resources. Our list started with over 40 schools. Your list may be considerably shorter, especially if focusing on local schools, or longer if you are looking coast-to-coast. Parents, control your frustrations of the indecisiveness at this stage and the temptation to make choices for your child. It's hard for a 17-18 year old to be able to make such life decisions as career path and home for the next four years. We should be patient and continue to expose them to different things through trips, tours, career tests, and chats with relatives about their careers, and then gauge the student's response. Even the smallest response from reticent teens can be a good indicator.
HS Junior/Senior (Summer)
This is a perfect time for more college tours. If the list is already small, try to go to most. If it is long, choose from a variety of sizes, regions, and environments to help narrow the list. Be sure to categorize schools as stretch, target, and safety based on ACT/SAT scores and GPAs and aim to have a good distribution of schools in each grouping. Work to narrow to 5-10 schools at this stage. You may need to ask questions of your HS or college advisors and conduct more thorough online research and touring. We dedicated dozens of hours to narrow 40 to 10 by August. Common Application (which is suitable for the vast majority of schools) opens August 1st. Best to complete this in August, along with a draft essay (drafted by the student and edited by parent and school counselor/teacher in September). Make the most of the summer before school gets busy again.
HS Senior (Fall)
Ask a counselor/teacher to review your essay(s) and provide 3-5 letters of recommendation for your application. I recommend Early Application which is due November 1st and usually provides a decision in December-February. Early Decision is usually due at the same time but is binding; ie, if they offer you a spot you must take it and decline all other schools. Regular Decision is due in January and provides a decision in March-April which is cutting it close since most schools require a decision by May 1 (and often housing applications are prioritized from April 1). We chose Early Application to get the work done by November 1st and still have time to consider options once offers are made. Everyone should also submit a FAFSA (Financial Aid application) with school applicationsso you are considered for school scholarships and federal grants and loans, the results of which could impact your final decision considerably.
HS Senior (Spring)
School admittance and Financial Aid/Scholarship awards will come in and decisions must be made by May 1. If you haven't visited your short list of schools you may want to do so during Spring Break or long weekends.