Here’s something I witnessed in the admission office many, many times: Parents playing an active role in the college search. It’s natural, right? We worked with families, not just students.
What happens when the student wants you to do it all? I saw a lot of this:
Parents who called me in the admission office (not their student).
Emails from parents with questions (I never heard from their kid).
Parents who filled out applications for their kids (it was sometimes obvious!)
Now, to be fair, students sometimes messaged me. The occasional student even talked to me on the phone.
One mom, Mrs. Bach, left me this voicemail: “This is Mrs. Bach, Emily’s secretary. Emily refuses to pick up the phone, so I’m calling to ask questions about your college’s music scholarship.”
It made me smile, but I also know Mrs. Bach was slowly being driven crazy by her daughter’s reluctance to handle her own college communication.
What should you do when your kid wants you to be a helicopter parent? (Maybe not even consciously?) I know you’ve probably heard this term before, but just in case: Helicopter parents before college hover and take care of every part of their child’s life. On the other hand, lawnmower parents mow down any person or obstacle that stands in the way of anyone or anything that causes their child discomfort or frustration.
Here are a few tips to set expectations, goals and work together. You may want your child to do most of the work but you may also know there are things (like the FAFSA) that may require you to lend a hand.
1. Set Clear Expectations Up Front
Make sure your child knows your comfort level with helping in advance. For example, you can tell your high schooler you’re definitely on board to assist during the college search process but you’re not going to do everything for him. Explain your reasoning and explain your limits way before the college search begins.
Remind your high schooler that completing college admission requirements, scholarships and more doesn’t mean he’s overburdened. Instead, explain that he’s gaining the mental strength he needs to get ready for college.
2. Divvy Up Responsibilities
Decide ahead of time who will handle specific parts of the college search. For example, you might decide you can handle the following:
Go to scholarship events at the college (if applicable)
Talk through financial aid awards
Obviously, you can pick and choose which tasks make the most sense for each of you. Your child may be completely fine with scheduling college visits on his own and doing robust scholarship searches.
No matter what, figure all this out ahead of time and gently hold each other accountable.
3. Set Goals Together
Setting goals together is different than splitting up responsibilities. Setting goals during the college search is a great way to make sure you’re on track. The beauty of goal-setting is that you can kick start it at any time, whether you’ve got a year left in the college search process or three. For example, let’s say your child is a junior in high school. You can map out goals over the next two years. Let’s say you’ve got twin eighth graders. Why not set some loose goals for the next four years?
Make sure your goals are specific, detailed and indicate when you’d like to accomplish them.
Let’s say one of your high schooler’s goals is to get into a prestigious university. He could even write it down: “Get into Carnegie Mellon.” But would that actually help him? Nah. A general phrase like that won’t help your child (or you!) hone in on exactly what you both need to do in order to make that happen.
Instead, research what it will take to get there. For example, let’s say you look up Carnegie Mellon’s requirements for the School of Architecture. You find out that your child must:
Apply Regular Decision before January 1 during senior year using the Common Application.
Submit a portfolio of creative work for admission to the school of architecture.
Complete an on-campus review of the portfolio submission.
What will it take to get there?
Here are some targeted goals your child could write:
Take an architecture software class at the local community college by May of sophomore year.
Talk to an architect in my community who can advise me on how to put together an architecture portfolio and assist with a project by June of sophomore year.
Design several small buildings using this software during junior year.
Design my aunt’s new home that she’s planning to build during junior year.
Create a portfolio that showcases design creativity and technical expertise in several types of architecture software like Grasshopper or Rhino3D fall of senior year.
Did you notice goal No. 1 on the list? It’s a goal that allows your child to take immediate action. Taking an immediate step toward a major goal makes it more real and builds momentum toward the ultimate goal.
Here’s a way you can apply it in another way. Let’s say your child has always wanted to travel to Europe with a friend, spouse orother family member. What’s one immediate step she could take to make it happen?
Call a travel agent today and discuss your future plans.
Request a brochure from a travel company.
Set a date within 24 hours. Why not?
See how doing those three things can make something seem so real for your child?
Your child can set small, realistic, specific and attainable goals that lead to the big goal in the end — getting into Carnegie Mellon. Or achieving a specific scholarship — or whatever that goal may be!
4. Write Down Those Goals!
Encourage your child to write down his or her goals. There’s such power in writing down goals! Put them in a place where you’ll both see them every day, whether they’re on a Post-it Note stuck to the bathroom mirror or a printed-out list on the refrigerator (as long as your child doesn’t see them as a constant nagging reminder!).
Trello, a free service, is a great way to handle scholarship applications or college applications. It could include categories like this:
Scholarships to apply for/ Applications to complete
Ready to submit
Trello is a great way to keep track of progress and all family members can use it to aid the college search.
5. Acknowledge Steps Taken
Once you and your child have set those goals, it’s time to tackle them. Now, what happens if your child finds that his or her goals are difficult to achieve?
Break them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. This might take a little more planning but it’s always better to make sure goals are achievable. Otherwise, it would be really easy to give up on them. Be flexible with due dates if it’s an option.
Every time your child achieves one of his or her goals or mini-goals, celebrate! Acknowledging achievements goes a very, very long way during the college search.
6. Pivot When Goals Aren’t Met
What happens if a goal slips right past your child because he just didn’t feel like doing the work or is unable to complete it in the allotted time?
For example, what if your child doesn’t want to do the work to get into Carnegie Mellon’s architecture program?
It might be time to go back to the drawing board and figure out whether that’s really your child’s best path. Maybe committing to an architecture major at 18 isn’t the best option! Get to the root of the problem — have some serious conversations with your child and decide what you’ll do next.
So what do you do?
You move forward with the next plan. Maybe the next goal is to apply to Carnegie Mellon using the Common Application after August 15. Maybe the new goal is to get into Arcadia University, closer to home! Break down those goals, write down the new goals and move forward.
Nip Helicoptering (or Lawnmowering) in the Bud
Your child may be used to your heavy helping hand (remember that science fair project? Yikes!) but now’s the time for your child to start learning how to move independently. Recognizing that deserves a huge round of applause.
One more quick tip: It might not help to air frustrations during this time. You want to be as positive as possible during the college search and you want to be your child’s partner during the process. Remember, your goals may not be the same as your child’s goals. It can be tough to wrap your head around (and tough to accept!) alternative decisions.
I loved move-in day at our college. As admission counselors, we’d walk around the campus with our list of students. We’d find them in their assigned residence halls and welcome them as they lugged their futons and TVs from the car. We shook hands with their grinning dads and teary moms and even wore shirts that read, “Put Box Here” so families would, indeed, put boxes in our arms.
It was so exciting and always felt like a real celebration.
I can’t help but imagine the booooorrrrring move-in day this year. What’s it going to be like? Masks instead of “Put Box Here” tees? No more cookies and lemonade? Sanitized residence hall keys? (Well, actually, yes, I hope all of those things happen.)
Fall semester normally happens around Labor Day, and for many schools, that’s still the case. Of course, this year presents some stickier situations. You may have painstakingly helped your child make a college decision pre-COVID-19. Now, are you sure it was the right one?
One mom of a soon-to-be first-year student said to me, “My daughter heard from her university that they will have staggered eating times in the dining hall and they’re looking into possibly staggering the days of the week that kids attend face-to-face classes. I’m not sure whether the school itself is making the right decisions. I’m tempted to have my daughter sit out for this whole year, but I’m not sure that’s the best approach, either.”
Here are some truths:
Nobody really knows how this virus will behave over the coming months.
You may not know what to do.
It’s really easy to feel uncertain when you read expert opinions that explicitly state that it’s a mistake to go back to college in the fall. (There are some out there!)
Two-thirds of colleges are planning to welcome back students in person, while only seven percent are planning to hold classes only online, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the plans of lots of institutions.
Let’s say the school your child is planning to attend intends to open per usual. Should your child go? Luckily, there’s more than one option. You may have strong opinions (and so might your student!) which may require lots of family discussions.
Option #1: Your Child Can Attend College as Originally Planned
Your child can certainly attend the school he originally chose as a high school senior, but life on campus will be very different. He might not even realize how drastic the changes might be. Here are some changes you can discuss with your soon-to-be first year (though all of this might be hard to visualize):
Temperatures will be checked daily.
Students may have to sign a housing contract and anyone who signs may not get a room.
Your child may be required to wear a face mask indoors except in residence hall rooms or bathrooms.
Your student will be required to physically distance from everyone.
Anyone who doesn’t comply with the rules may face ejection from campus.
Gatherings and extracurricular activities will be banned or limited.
Dining hall food options will be only for grab-and-go items and there will be no bunched groups in any cafeterias. You may see staggered meal times.
Social distancing will be imposed between professors and students.
Students will only be allowed to enter and exit in certain doorways.
Commons areas will be closed.
Not everyone may go back to campus. Some campuses have discussed only having freshmen and seniors back on campus.
In an effort to prepare, some schools have even mailed special coronavirus kits to students, complete with face masks, thermometers and more.
For those that will open, when is fall semester in college this year? Your child may not start till October or later as colleges and universities work to prioritize the health and safety of students, staff, faculty and their communities.
Option #2: Your Child Can Opt for Online Classes
If the school your child plans to attend is open and teaching online, your student can choose to stay home and take online classes.
Note that while colleges and universities should be commended for a quick shift to online learning this past spring, the majority of that transition happened quickly. In addition, most students had already been on campus for a half of a semester and those students were familiar with the professor and how each class was being taught.
In other words, online learning may not be a great start to a first-year experience. It’ll be more difficult for students to tap into writing, tutoring, career counseling and other resources instrumental to student success. This can be a major hurdle for vulnerable students.
Furthermore, studies have shown that students who attend video lectures on the internet end up with a lower average test score, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. One particular study showed that Hispanic students, male students and students with low ACT scores and GPAs didn’t fare as well.
Option #3: Your Student Can Choose a Different, Less Expensive College and Do Online Classes There
The benefit to this is, of course, is that it’s cheaper! (A great reason to celebrate, right?!)
The danger of this option (in my opinion) is that your student might never go back to the school he or she originally chose. This may be unfortunate if your family carefully chose the original school.
The less expensive school may have wonderful programs and have every bit as wonderful of resources as the original school. However, make sure the following are available:
A high four-year graduation rate
High retention rate after freshman year (in other words, do students go back after freshman year?)
High internship and job placement rate
Transferable AP and college credits (particularly if your child wants to transfer back to the original college) — you’ve got to do deep research here!
Quality of online instruction may need to be evaluated
More elite (read: more expensive) colleges aren’t always better. I always chuckle when I come across this older study, from 1999:
Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale compared students who entered Ivy League and similar schools in 1976 with students who entered less prestigious colleges the same year. Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a moderately selective school.
Here’s the kicker: These students had the same income 20 years later as the elite college grads. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income “varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.”
The student was responsible for the success — not the school.
I think that’s a great reminder in this context.
Option #4: Your Student Can Take a Gap Year
I’ve never actually been a huge fan of taking a gap year between high school and college. I always considered a gap year to be a great way to lose focus and never go to college. Several of my work-study seniors would take a gap year between college and graduate school and that’s a different story. I loved it when they did that because they already had their degrees.
This year, my opinion changed. If there was any other time to take a gap year, this is it.
By the way, what’s the techy definition of a gap year? In short, it’s a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school, usually prior to postsecondary education, to deepen professional and personal awareness.
Aaaand, what’s the No. 1 thing you usually associate a gap year with? Yep, travel. Gap years usually mean backpacking Europe, mission trips to South America and more. That probably won’t happen this year. So, here’s what your child’s gap year could look like this year:
Learn a new language. (Admittedly, you could argue that you can do that in college.) If your child wants to tackle it, he can check out courses on Udemy or Coursera.
Become more familiar with a subject your child has always wanted to know more about. Now’s the time to become self-directed.
Cultivate soft skills! Oh, my goodness, soft skills are so important. Cross-cultural communication, problem-solving, adaptability! Why not build and nurture soft skills during a gap year? Emotional intelligence looks splendid on a resume — why not work on it?
Launch those entrepreneurial endeavors. Why not encourage starting a business? If you’ve noticed that your child is entrepreneurial by nature (remember how he sold or traded his snacks at summer camp and came home with a really great baseball glove?) you might encourage those entrepreneurial skills. There’s no question that COVID-19 has been terrible, but it’s also provided more opportunities than ever for entrepreneurs. Now’s the time to figure out what people are missing and need.
Chill out from academics for a while. This can be a good thing if your child’s not going to do well with online learning. Remember, it can be more difficult if you child can’t tap into a writing center, tutor (or flesh-and-blood instructors!) and other resources instrumental to student success.
A gap year can give your child the opportunity to learn about opportunities. Why not learn at an early age that life is so goooood?
Making the Decision
So, knowing all this, what should your child do? How can you help your student decide?
It’s really going to be important to have lots of discussions. You may have one idea about how this fall will go in your head and your child might have a completely different idea. “Mom, I signed up to go to this college — why don’t you want me to go? I’ll wear my mask!”
On the other hand, your child might say, “I don’t want to go to school there. It’s not going to look the same at all as our visit.” In that case, your child will be totally right — but you still might want him to go to college because you’re not sure if he’ll have the same motivation a year from now.
What to Do if You Clash Over a Final Approach
Contact the college if you, your child and your family are having a hard time making a final decision about what to do. The college wants to know what your concerns are and wants to do whatever it can to help you.
It’s okay to get help beyond that. Talk to your spouse or partner, parents, friends, a mental health counselor. Remember one of the truths I listed at the top? Here it is again: You may not know what to do — and that’s okay.
Start a lengthy conversation with your child and listen. Listen, listen, listen. Remember, whatever decision you make doesn’t have to be permanent. Your child can still go to the college he originally planned to attend, even if it’s just a little later on.
It’s almost senior year! What an exciting time to get started on the college search!
I’m getting questions from families about whether it’s too late to launch a full-scale college search right as a rising senior. (Grrrr… COVID-19!) (By the way, I used to use the term “rising senior” all the time when I was in admission… so much so that one kid stopped me to ask, “What is a rising senior?” and I had to laugh.)
Anyway, repeat after me: It’s definitely not too late. Trust me, I used to counsel second-semester seniors who still weren’t sure where they wanted to go to school!
For example, meet Grace. She decided during the tail end of her senior year that the school she’d originally chosen wasn’t the right one for her. Terri, her admission counselor at our college, texted and emailed her often, dazzled Grace and her parents during the college visit and connected her with about a dozen people who worked at the college.
Grace could see herself succeeding and thriving and signed right up. She made the best decision ever and is now the marketing director at a regional hospital.
The goal is to make the right decision the first time. If your child wants to transfer, here’s what happens in an exhausting swoop:
You have to help your child figure out where to transfer.
You’ll need to go on visits together all over again.
You’ll have to cross-check which credits transfer.
The stress! It’ll involve double the amount of yoga you usually pay for.
Trust me, it’s a headache — and I always think of the student who transferred six times. (I’m not even kidding.)
This guide will help you get your child prepared for college starting today. Here are the steps I recommend taking.
1. Talk with your student.
Have as many conversations about college as your teen will allow. It’s a great idea to get on the same page as soon as possible. You might find:
Together, you’re in total agreement about where your child wants to go to school.
I’m constantly reminded of my dentist’s experience with her son. She wanted him to look at schools far away.
He ended up looking at one college in town and a university about an hour away. (I haven’t had a chance to talk to her to find out where he went.)
Make sure it’s a family discussion! You want to launch the college search with a well-intentioned plan. When you don’t have a plan, it’s easy to start bouncing around like a pinball. It might not take too long before you start feeling disorganized with the college search.
2. Come up with a plan.
What’s the plan? You might not have any idea, and that’s okay. But how much better do you feel when you have a plan? I know I do.
In fact, I have an intense personal interest in goal setting. I really like to have specific goals for pretty much everything, whether they’re daily goals, weekly goals or even goals 10 years from now. Here are some great visit goals you and your child may want to put in place:
Come up with a short list of schools to visit by July 15.
Contact admission counselors at each of these schools with your child by July 30.
Visit those schools in person by October 30 (pending visit restrictions due to COVID-19, of course).
Other things you might want to map out: Application goals. Scholarship goals. Can you think of others?
3. Sign up for the ACT or SAT. (Or maybe not!)
Breaking news! The ACT or SAT might not be a requirement for the class of 2021, thanks to COVID-19. Many admission experts believe that SAT and ACT scores predict academic success less often than high school academic performance. In addition, ACT and SAT scores typically skew favorably toward families with higher income and create opportunity gaps for African American and Latino students.
What does this mean? It means that admission offices could forever change admission entrance requirements. This is big news!
It’s officially possible to get into half of all Ivy League institutions, high-ranked liberal arts colleges, almost all universities in Virginia and all universities in California without an ACT or SAT score. Harvard University recently disclosed that it won’t require test scores from the class of 2021.
The June ACT test was cancelled, the SAT’s next offered test date is August 29, and it remains to be seen whether that test occurs. Check FairTest to find out which colleges require the test, whether it’s optional or flexible for all or many applicants who recently graduated or will graduate from U.S. high schools.
You could also contact admission offices at the schools your child’s interested in to learn more.
4. Start planning for college visits.
How many college visits should you plan for?
Simple! As many schools as your child is interested in. I’ve known students who visit up to 15 schools and others who visit one. My recommendation is to visit one small, one medium and one large school to get a comprehensive overview of all of your choices.
By the way, the goals I listed above will work great! Just adjust the dates as needed:
Come up with a short list of schools to visit by July 15.
Contact admission counselors at each of these schools by July 30.
Visit those schools in person by October 30, pending visit restrictions due to COVID-19, of course.
One question I get a lot is whether your child should visit a school before or after he applies, and the answer is that it doesn’t really matter. An application doesn’t commit your child to a school unless your child has applied to a college early decision. Early decision (ED) plans are binding. Your student must attend the college if he is accepted as an ED applicant. (The application deadline is usually around November, though schools may have changed their policies due to COVID-19. Make sure you check!)
5. Have the money talk.
College seemed a long way off when your child was a toddler, didn’t it? If the years have flown by with not a lot of savings under your belt, that’s okay. You can still build a financial plan that meets your future needs.
I talked with the very talented Ksenia Yudina, founder and CEO of UNest. She recommends taking a good look at your current expenses and spending with your child. “It’s likely changed through the pandemic. Establish a realistic dollar amount that you can set aside each month,” she says. (Yes! You can still save even if college is just a year away. Every penny counts.)
Yudina suggests getting your other family members involved, too. “Don’t keep your family financial goals and aspirations a secret,” says Yudina. “Share them with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and have them contribute to your child’s savings plan. Dollars invested in your plan will go way further than gifts like clothes!”
She also says to teach your kids the value of money. “We’ve all heard it: ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees.’ It may be a cliche, but it is a good starting point in building a solid set of values in your kids. Getting the balance right can be challenging. Go overboard and your kids could become obsessed with money. Being too lax can lead to kids that don’t appreciate the sacrifices you have made, and that don’t know how to budget or spend money wisely,” Yudina adds.
It’s a good time to talk about loans — how you feel about them and what they can do for your child’s future.
By the way, if you and your child will need to borrow, there’s good news for student loan borrowers. Federal Direct student loans may continue to dip for student borrowers. The Federal Parent PLUS loan and private student loans may continue to lower.
6. Communicate with your child’s school counselor.
Are classes ready to go for this fall? (You know, despite that uh… abrupt end to junior year?) Make sure you and your child touch base with your teen’s school counselor. You can share which schools your child’s looking at to make sure your child’s classes are right on track. Here’s a general guide — but check with the colleges on your child’s short list:
It’s highly recommended to take four years of English classes, so encourage your high schooler not to skimp on that last year of literature! Any class where your child will study writing and literature is a bonus because just about every career will require your child to write well. English classes also encourage reading, analysis and communication skills.
Same for four years of math! Your child might find that she’s more successful in college if she takes four (not just three) years of math. It’s easy to forget certain concepts and a bit of momentum if your child doesn’t carry on through year four. Math classes should include at least four of the following six classes (in order):
Algebra II or trigonometry
It’s okay to squeak by with three years of laboratory science classes but a fourth year is still a bonus. Make sure your child’s taken the following:
Most colleges require two years of social studies, like world history and U.S. history. Other social science options include:
Lots of colleges require a minimum of two years of language study while in high school, and it doesn’t matter which foreign language your child chooses to study.
A small number of colleges require one year of visual or performing arts prior to admission.
Next, take a look at your child’s credentials with the school counselor and learn the colleges’ admission rates, median GPAs and SAT and ACT scores.
Does your child have a reach school on his list? A college should be considered a reach for your kiddo if his test scores and GPA are below (or at the lower end of) what a college typically accepts.
Does his GPA align with that of accepted students at colleges? Bingo! You’ve identified a target school!
Finally, a safety school is one that accepts a high percentage of applicants. Your child’s GPA and test scores go above and beyond the qualifications for a safety school.
You may want to start a handy spreadsheet to identify these schools and continue to add to the list. The college and career counselor at your child’s school might be able and interested to help you add to the list. When colleges visit your child’s high school, many of them take time to sit down with the school counselor and help them understand what that school offers.
Here’s a quick checklist of conversation topics you can bring up with your child’s school counselor:
High school schedule for senior year
AP or college credit classes
Colleges on your child’s radar and any others that the counselor would recommend
College admission questions
College application timeline questions
Scholarship and financial aid options — particularly local scholarships
7. Get your teen excited about scholarships!
Don’t forget to ask about local scholarships when you talk with the school counselor. School counselors are the first people many local businesses alert when they decide to create a scholarship. For example, let’s say a local dentist creates a scholarship for students who plan to go into dentistry. The dentist usually calls up the school and the call gets transferred to the school counselor.
Finally, don’t forget to check into the numerous scholarships available at just about every college in the United States. You’ll want to ask detailed questions about scholarships and how to get them when you do your visits. You don’t have to wait until visits, though. You can do lots of research now. Call or email the admission office and ask about scholarships so you know what to expect.
It’s never, ever too early to start applying for scholarships. Summer before senior year is a great time to make that happen.
8. Create your FSA ID.
What’s an FSA ID? It’s a username and password you must create if you want to file the FAFSA. It gives you access to Federal Student Aid’s online systems and can serve as your legal signature.
Now, you can’t officially file the FAFSA until October 1, but you can still create your FSA ID. Put “filing the FAFSA” on the calendar! You’ll also need to gather up the following:
Social Security numbers for you, your student’s other parent and your student
Alien Registration numbers (if you’re not U.S. citizens)
Your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money you earn, ,though you may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This makes pulling in information from your FAFSA really simple.
Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
9. Start reaching out to people.
Reach out to an admission counselor, financial aid officer, coach — even if visits aren’t officially happening right now. Call admission offices and ask whether you and your son or daughter will be able to visit with these people using tech options. Make a list of questions you and your high school junior would like to ask, including:
What are the majors and minors the college offers?
What are the results we can expect after majoring in X? What’s the employment rate/graduate school acceptance rate?
How are semesters divided up? Do you have a May term or traditional semesters?
What are the opportunities within athletic programs?
What are your social and extracurricular opportunities?
How does my child get plugged into internship opportunities?
What’s the total cost of attendance? How much financial aid do students at your school typically receive?
What’s campus life like (including meal plans and housing)?
What are your admission requirements?
Can you explain the application process (including whether that will change due to COVID-19)? When are your application deadlines?
This is a great exercise because it may be necessary for college applications and it also helps your child build his elevator speech for college interviews.
Many colleges encourage your high schooler to interview with an admission representative or alumnus during the application process, either on campus or in the area in which you live. The interview is an important part of the application process for some schools and certain colleges and universities even have a very specific timeline for them. This may have changed during COVID-19, so add that list of questions for the admission office: “Where, when and how will admission interviews take place?”
You may want to help your child proof his resume before he ships it off to schools.
11. Start those applications!
This is the slowest summer on record and now that everything’s cancelled (no baseball games, no summer camp counseling duties!) your child might find some quiet time to sit down with several applications.
Check with each college your student is interested in and find out about each college’s application deadlines.
Target applications at schools your child’s reasonably sure he’s interested in. Remember, in most cases, applying to a college doesn’t mean your high schooler must commit to a school. Think of college applications kind of like sending a resume to jobs. Apply if there’s a serious interest!
Tackle One Task at a Time
Feeling overwhelmed by what’s on your rising senior’s plate? It’s okay. It’s okay to feel like you’re behind because you weren’t able to get to go on college visits this past spring. Your child may even be feeling down in the dumps because he missed out on junior year track — and therefore couldn’t boost his times for college coaches.
Just remember that everyone’s in the same boat. Take a look at the list of goals you put into place during Step 2 and put some time into crossing off each item on the checklist. Also, don’t think you have to take on all these steps in the order I’ve listed them. Your child might want to tackle all of his applications first — and that’s great!
It’s easy to see which prospective students and families have had great tours in any admission office. In fact, I vividly remember one very satisfied family coming back from tour. Here’s what happened, all at once:
Dad high-fived the tour guide.
Mom looked thrilled (and relieved) and gave the tour guide a hug.
The prospective student grinned from ear to ear and added the tour guide’s personal cellphone number to his phone. He said, “I’m really excited to be here next year.”
Dad asked for our current student’s business card.
I knew that kid was sold, and that’s what the tour should look like!
You just knew each personality was a perfect fit. The student did a perfect job fielding the parents’ questions, addressed the student’s felt needs and connected all the dots for everyone.
Anatomy of a College Visit
So, let’s back up a bit and discuss exactly what happens during a college visit. A college tour is just one component of a college visit. A personal campus visit can involve the following:
Lunch with a student
Meeting with a professor
Financial aid meeting
Meetings with other organizations or people on campus you and your child specifically request (like a dietitian, academic support personnel, etc.)
On the other hand, you and your child can also attend group visits, which are very different from personal campus visits because you do everything in a group setting. You may do the following:
Specific meeting requests after the visit day
Sure, you’ll want to sit down with your child and think through exactly what you’d like to do while you’re on your visit, but notice what I included on the first bullet of each option? Yep — the college tour. It’s typically the highlight of the campus visit experience. And if you have a fun, knowledgeable student tour guide, that can make or break a college decision.
A fantastic tour of campus should include a stop at every one of these locations:
Classroom or lecture hall
Student center or lounge
These locations could be added — at your request! (The best tour guides veer from the script and go where your child wants to go):
Student resource center
Greek life and other organizations
Campus chapel or other religious center
Athletic facilities or workout facilities
Other locations on campus
And add the glue — an amazing tour guide! — and you’ve got yourself the best college tour ever. How do you get that kind of college tour at every college?
Answer: You plan for it.
How to Plan the Best Ever College Tour
Plan at least a week ahead (two weeks is even better!) so the campus visit coordinator in an admission office can schedule your visit. The campus visit coordinator is the person who puts together your visit. At many small colleges, the campus visit coordinator may even carefully put together a (sometimes complex) schedule that depends on current students, admission counselors, financial aid advisors, coaches and more. Needless to say, this type of careful planning doesn’t just happen in a matter of minutes!
Get on the Phone with the Campus Visit Coordinator
Many admission offices often have set times for tours and information sessions, but it’s okay not to know what those are before you call. Just get on the phone with someone from the front desk of the admission office. I’d encourage you to have your student to join in on this call as well so everyone’s on the same page. Do not schedule a visit online. The best college tours don’t sprout from an online form. Trust me.
Note: You can also schedule this visit on the phone or via a series of emails with your child’s admission counselor or the campus visit coordinator.
Ask for a Personalized Campus Tour
Some schools may claim they don’t offer a personalized campus tour, but ask if an exception can be made in your case. A personalized tour is ideal because your child will get to visit the areas of campus he or she wants to visit. There’s nothing worse than being on a group tour and spending 25 minutes of the tour in the gym because it’s what the other people in the tour group want. Your student is more likely to get the tour he wants if it’s a personalized tour.
Ask for a Tour Guide Who Has the Same Interests as Your Child
Now, this could get tricky. Asking for, say, a female tour guide who’s an English major might involve a lot more work on the campus visit coordinator’s behalf, but remember, you’re the customer. You want to make sure your child has a stellar tour experience and this is an excellent way to make sure it happens.
One time, we paired a really shy prospective music major with a current student who was also a music major. Our current student happened to have a super high EQ and empathized really well with the student and her family. The parents were so impressed by the intentional tour pairing that they brought a box of cookies to the admission office before they left town. (Kudos to the prospective student’s admission counselor for that — he knew his student well.)
Ask for Extra Time
So, how long are college tours, anyway? It depends on the college! They usually hover in the hour range. You might prefer to find out how long campus tours generally are and ask for an extra half hour or 15 minutes. I know the trickiest part for most tour guides was making sure the tour lasted the specific amount of time — usually an hour. There was just so much great stuff to talk about. Instead of rushing through the tour, wouldn’t it be better to make sure you spend the perfect amount of time doing exactly what you and your student want?
By the way, I wouldn’t recommend trying to cram two campus visits into one day.
Find Out if Specific Buildings or Other Features Can Be Included
Ask what the tour includes and find out whether you can get your child’s favorites included in the tour. There’s nothing worse than going through a college tour that isn’t relevant to your child. I remember giving a group tour once with two athletes, an art major and a kid who wanted to see the biology labs. Needless to say, I was torn in different directions and offered to take one student and his family to the art building after the visit day was over.
When to Do a Tour
Think about the time of year! Now, COVID-19 has changed this a little bit, but if you can select the best time of year to visit, you’d be amazed at the difference that makes. Visiting a college in Maine in January or a college in Florida in August might not set you up for success. Again, COVID-19 has changed this, because at this point, you may just need to sneak in a visit when you can.
This may not really be something you can do anything about, but if you have the flexibility, choose the best weather day to go. Rain puts a damper on a college visit. If you can’t change your visit date and the weather isn’t going to be great, make sure you have the right weather gear: hats, gloves, winter coats, umbrellas, hats.
Visit When Classes Are in Session
During regular times (not COVID-19 times), visiting when classes are in session is best. Let’s say you visit during the summer. You can definitely learn about admission and financial aid processes and see campuses but you and your student won’t experience the same hustle and bustle you would when school’s in session.
Choose the Right Time During High School
A popular question is this: “When’s the best year in high school to visit?”
This question is a fun one because there’s no “right” year to visit. Here are a few truths:
You and your child will have to get started sooner if she has 12 schools on her list. If she only has two, you’ll obviously spend less time on visits.
A popular time is to visit spring break of your child’s junior year.
A good rule of thumb is to visit one large, one medium and one small school.
It’s a good idea to consider your child’s maturity level and excitement about visiting schools. Some freshmen in high school are ready; some juniors aren’t ready at all.
It’s not a bad thing to get a “taste” at a young age. Some high schools do school trips to colleges during freshmen year. Some students tag along on tours with older siblings. It’s a great way to launch the college search!
During Your Tour
Student tour guides have a prescribed tour route for prospective students and families. Make sure you:
Let your student interact with the tour guide as much as possible. Don’t dominate the conversation!
Ask to see things. If something looks interesting, ask about it and ask to go in the building.
Focus on people! Buildings aren’t going to connect your student to alumni after college or help you make friends in the residence halls.
Encourage your student to talk to as many people as possible — everywhere. Students, dining hall workers, tour guides, even faculty sitting in their offices. (Your student may not feel comfortable doing that, but the more people you all talk to, the more robust your visit will be and the better overview of the college you’ll get.)
Find out what’s going on. Look at bulletin boards, campus events and pick up a campus newspaper.
Watch students and get a feel for how they interact with each other. Are they engaged and friendly? Aloof? Do they seem friendly to your student in general?
Think of other details. What are your specific needs and expectations?
Do You Have Concerns About Walking on Campus?
Worried a bit about your ability to get around? It might be hard for you or someone in your family to hoof it around campus with a group. If so, this is the time to speak up! Tell the campus visit coordinator ahead of time if you’ve got some health issues, your child’s broken her foot — whatever it is!
The admission office will make accommodations for you. They might put your whole family on a golf cart or abbreviate the tour to meet your needs. Colleges are used to accommodating families and they do it happily. Don’t be afraid to ask for physical accommodations.
Need a Wheelchair-Accessible Tour?
Explain to the admission office that you or a family member are in a wheelchair. Admission staff members will often have a specific wheelchair-accessible tour mapped out ahead of time. They’ll also ensure that your tour guide knows how to give a wheelchair-accessible tour.
Need Other Accommodations?
Think of other accommodations you might need. This could involve:
Sign language interpretation
Accommodations for a blind family member
What if the Tour isn’t Awesome Even After All that Prep Work?
Okay, so everything you do to prepare for a college visit still might not end up jiving. Pinpoint what it was that wasn’t great. Was it the tour guide who kept checking his phone? Did a professor turn you off? Was an admission counselor less than enthused?
Once your child has narrowed the college list, you may want to make return visits to schools. Your child can also do overnight visits. On these visits, plan to go to classes and interact with students. (Some colleges even offer spring programs for juniors and fall programs for seniors. Check online or contact the admission office.)
Keep a list of people’s names you interact with and let the admission office know what turned you off about the visit. If possible, have your child communicate that.
Contact anyone you know who has connections to the college to learn more about it. Maybe it was just a tiny “glitch” and the college deserves a second chance.
You Can Help Your Student Build the Best College Tour
You can sign up for a college tour online, but remember that it’s harder to make your unique needs known. In the end, you might end up disappointed. How would admission personnel know Grandma’s tagging along if you don’t tell them?
I know you’re terribly busy and registering for a visit online is a way to save time. But the nuances of your needs can get lost if you or your child don’t communicate. Get on the phone so you get as many details ironed out ahead of time. That way, you and your child will have the best college tours (and visits!) ever!
I signed up to be part of a study: The Mayo Clinic GENERATE (GENetic Education, Risk Assessment, and TEsting) Study. Here’s a snippet of the cheery email that appeared in my inbox:
We are very excited to share that the study is now open to anyone who has a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, regardless of genetic testing status. You can read more about our updated eligibility criteria at https://generatestudy.org/participation/.
Basically, if I get accepted, I’ll undergo genetic testing which will tell me whether I have the markers for pancreatic cancer.
My mom developed pancreatic cancer at 55 — the same year my daughter was born. I remember thinking, “I refuse to raise my daughter without my mom around. I can’t do it!” But the odds were stacked against us.
Despite the fact that everyone told me to stay off the internet, I’d Googled the statistics anyway: For all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20% and the five-year rate is 7%, according to the American Cancer Society.
Fast forward seven years: My daughter still has her grammy. My mom beat all the odds, and she’s a nurse now fighting COVID-19. (Ask me how I feel about that.)
Anyway, as you can imagine, it’s a bit terrifying to think about what the tests will find. And oh, geez, the implications: Will I be around for my kids? If not, what will happen to my husband (emotionally and financially)?
I Realized I Need Life Insurance
Signing up for this study was the club to the head I needed. Nothing like signing up for a cancer study to assist you in realizing your own mortality. Gah. I’d gotten a sizable policy through my old job at the college and I have one through my current full-time job, but it’s not worth much.
The point of getting life insurance is this: What if I die early and can’t help my husband pay for college for my kids? What if I die before our house is paid off? It might not be from cancer, either. I could get in a car accident or fall off a ladder.
How Does Life Insurance Work?
Life insurance is pretty easy to understand. You pay a recurring amount of money, called a premium, to an insurance company. The insurer pays out a tax-free sum of money to your beneficiary or beneficiaries if you die while the policy is active. This is called a death benefit.
Medical expenses or long-term care (Certain life insurance policies offer an accelerated death benefit rider which means you can access a portion of your death benefit if you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness. Doing so while you’re still alive could help with medical or other expenses when you can’t work.)
You can choose from different types of life insurance:
Term life insurance lasts for a set number of years before it expires.
Whole life insurance is a permanent life insurance policy. It offers a death benefit and a cash value — a tax-deferred cash value account that accrues interest at a predetermined fixed rate. A certain portion of the premium you pay goes into the cash value of the policy, which offers a guaranteed rate of return.
Universal life insurance is also a permanent life insurance policy. It also has a cash value, but you can use the cash value to pay the premium, or let your accrued interest pay your premium each month.
Variable life insurance has a cash value and is similar to investing. Money that you pay in goes into a series of accounts like mutual fund accounts. You can gain or lose money, depending on the markets.
Variable universal life insurance lets you adjust the premium and death benefit amount while investing the cash value in the policy’s cash value.
Final expense insurance covers the cost of anything associated with your death, which could include medical costs, a funeral or cremation.
Group life insurance is exactly how it sounds. You purchase it through your employer.
Simplified issue life insurance allows you to get insurance without a medical exam, but you do have to fill out a questionnaire.
Guaranteed issue life insurance allows you to get insurance without a medical exam or a questionnaire.
I Chose Simplified Issue/Term Life Insurance
In my opinion, I firmly believe that term life insurance is the best option for most people. First of all, the point of term life insurance is to cover you while you still have dependents, a mortgage, etc. Eventually, our kids will be grown and the house will be paid off. My husband and I may not need life insurance after that. Plus, because term life insurance expires, it’s cheaper than whole life insurance and the rate and payout never change. I liked the idea that we’ll pay the same amount every month and my death benefit won’t change.
I also didn’t want to go through a medical exam — particularly during COVID-19.
I Chose Bestow
One of the reasons I chose Bestow is because I fell prey to the mere-exposure effect. Have you ever heard of that powerful psychological term? It’s when you develop a preference for things merely because you’re familiar with them. It’s also called the familiarity principle in social psychology. (If you’re good at marketing or sales, you know the power of this psychological phenomenon.)
Bestow is one of a million insurance agencies — you don’t have to choose the same one I did.
Bestow offers policies provided by North American Company for Life and Health Insurance®. Bestow only offers 10-year and 20-year term policies and the 20-year term is only available if you’re under 45 years old.
However, I also chose Bestow because there’s no medical exam, Both plans allow you to cancel any time, without paying any fees. You can apply for a plan in a matter of minutes online and get approved quickly. Dust off your hands. You’re done.
Plus — no blood draw? Sign me right up.
Here’s How I Signed Up
The process couldn’t have been easier. First, I filled out some basic information.
I chose 20 years because of my kids’ ages — they are seven and four, so 10 years wouldn’t be quite enough.
Then, I added my address and email address. And created a password:
It took me to this screen:
I needed to answer a few questions about my health, such as whether I have high blood pressure, cancer, etc. I also needed to check the boxes on whether I SCUBA dive, skydive or other types of high-risk activities.
A popup did ask whether a parent of mine had died of cancer or heart disease before age 65. I was able to say “No!”
I added my beneficiaries and my credit card payment. I monkeyed with the coverage a bit, then hit “Enter Your Payment” and I was set. Covered for 20 years!
Peace of Mind for the College Years
Is your child heading to college this fall? In that case, it’s still a good idea to get life insurance if you plan to use a tuition installment plan for college — you may not quite have saved all the money you need for college and plan to do it per month.
Bestow in particular only insures people ages 21 to 55, so look into different life insurance options. Life insurance is more expensive as you get older. Also, the more health problems you have, the higher your rate will be — or you could be denied altogether.
Think about this, though — I’m going to be really straightforward here. It’s totally possible to contract a disease and die within a four-year period, while your child is in college. My reality is that for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20 percent and the five-year rate is seven percent.
Protect Your Family
These days, it doesn’t require a whole lot of effort to get life insurance. And really, if you prefer to find the cheapest option possible, you might want to undergo the medical exam. It could save you some money in the long run.
Getting life insurance is a great way to say, “I love you!” to your family members. It’s one way to care for them the way they deserve — and it’s also a great way to help your spouse or kids do any number of things after your death, including go to college.
That was my friend Sarah’s response to the very kind financial aid lady who walked her through her exit counseling before she graduated from college.
Sarah paid for her entire state university education by herself. When Sarah was younger, a financial planner told her parents, “College will be too expensive when she’s ready to go off to college. I wouldn’t even bother trying to save for it.”
So they didn’t. The expectation was set: She’d be responsible for every dime, with the exception of an occasional tank of gas to get her back to school.
She took out student loans for everything — housing, meals, tuition. Sarah was in debt to the tune of $80,000 by the time she graduated with her sociology degree.
So, get this. Sarah’s much-younger sister visited my office when I was working in admission. Her sister wanted to forgo the big state school experience and go to a private college — she happened to choose the college where I worked.
As they worked through the financial aid portion of the decision, her parents said, “I wish we’d thought to ask about an installment plan when Sarah was in school.” Things might have been different for Sarah — they admitted that they’d simply been paralyzed by the final out-of-pocket costs and turned to student loans “because that’s how people afford college.”
It’s really, really easy to lean on student loans if you don’t know other alternatives exist. A tuition installment plan can make college affordable. Here’s what you need to know and why they’re awesome.
What’s an Installment Plan?
An installment plan, commonly called a monthly payment plan or tuition installment plan (we called it a 10-month payment plan at the college I worked for) lets you or your student break up the total costs. This means that you can attack the remaining balance and pay it over a typical nine- to 12-month period.
For example, let’s say your out-of-pocket costs (the remainder after taking scholarships, grants and federal student loans into consideration) total $10,000. This remaining balance can be spread over 10 months — a $1,000 monthly payment.
Makes a $10,000 out-of-pocket remainder seem much more palatable, right?
Some colleges and universities execute their own tuition installment plans but most use outside providers like the ECSI Tuition Payment Plan (TPP), for example.
Most colleges’ installment plans cover only the direct costs billed by and paid to the college, which includes:
Room and board (only applicable if your child lives on campus)
Books, supplies, equipment and transportation to and from school are not covered.
Most colleges or outside providers will accept either a credit or debit card or a savings or checking account at a bank.
Here are some obvious benefits — and some not-so-obvious benefits — on why installment plans are a gift and a great option for many parents.
1. An installment plan might eliminate the need to take on debt.
It’s easy to shut down when you see a large tuition bill. I remember families focusing so much on that final number. “Whaaaa… $10,000?! There’s no way I can pay $10,000 for one year of school!”
And that may very well have been the case. But what happens when you break it down into smaller chunks? We were always asked to help families imagine the possibilities with us.
“Is it possible to work with $10,000 (or whatever the out-of-pocket amount is) if it’s chopped up?” We’d encourage them to be as creative as possible — cancel some subscriptions, pay off the car or get a side gig to help out.
Imagine the ways you could break it down into manageable chunks! You might just eliminate the need to take on any debt at all.
2. You can borrow and pay on an installment plan.
Still stymied by the idea of paying the full amount on installment? Car payments, mortgage payments, private school tuition, groceries, dog grooming — gah! The costs add up fast.
It always seems like there’s an extra one-time expense every month at our house. (Last summer, it went like this, in this order: Car repairs! Landscaping! A broken air conditioner!) I know how coming up with any extra money can seem like trying to boil the ocean.
For example, let’s say you look at your monthly budget and figure out that you can’t quite swing the $1,000 that the installment plan would require but you can manage, say, $400 per month instead. Take the rest out in loans.
There’s no shame in combining tactics. Think outside the box!
3. You and your child can tackle college payments together.
It may be time to tag-team. Your student may have a job at the local grocery store or waits tables at Applebee’s. You both know you can work together to make the monthly payments. Why not? It can be a “you-pay-half and I’ll-pay-half” scenario.
Now, most installment plans will not let your student sign up alone. However, you can connect your student’s bank account to the service for an automatic transfer every month. (Just make sure your child remembers to keep the account fully stocked before that payment rolls around!)
Paying together is a great approach and a way for both of you to shoulder the responsibility for your child’s education. If your kiddo doesn’t think he can quiiiiteswing a full half, try to work together to figure out an amount that’s fair.
4. You can count on it like clockwork.
Making a monthly tuition installment can become as routine as paying a credit card bill every month or making your mortgage payment. Dare I say that there’s something uh… comforting… about paying a bill that you know will arrive each month?
Remember that the first payment might be most expensive due to fees.
5. Fees are cheaper than student loans.
True, the service fee could add up to three percent to your bill, but an installment plan is still less expensive than diving headfirst into student loans. Tuition installment plans have a small upfront enrollment fee (approximately $100 to $150) and do not charge interest.
That’s still lower than the majority of student loan interest rates. For example, a Parent Plus Loan disbursed on or after July 1, 2019, and before July 1, 2020 carries a 7.08 percent interest rate. This is a fixed interest rate.
Makes a monthly payment plan look mighty nice, huh?
One of the most effective ways to save money is to automatically whisk it from your bank account each month — before you get a hankering to spend it.
Same with an installment plan. It’ll automatically be zipped from your bank account each month. You might not even notice it — much.
The point is, it’s easier than worrying about paying money back later.
Choose an Installment Plan to Break Down Costs
Now, I know the total I chose to use — $10,000 — throughout this blog post may seem way too small. Many families will face much larger out-of-pocket costs. However, the monthly payment plan option still shrinks the cost to a more manageable amount, no matter how you slice it.
Remember my friend Sarah’s story at the beginning? (She’s extremely successful these days, by the way, and student-loan free! She paid off her student loans in a flash, about five years after she graduated from college. She’s amazing.)
One thing that stood out to me about her college journey was that she and her parents didn’t build a relationship with anyone during the college admission process — they did everything online. They didn’t even realize the possibility of a payment plan existed until her little sister went off to college. (See why it’s so important to build those relationships?)
Today, my friend is a huge advocate for talking things through as a family and trying to be creative when reducing costs. She wishes she and her parents would have read through how to handle a disappointing financial aid award before she went off to college, or at least thought through implications of every single option available.
A tuition installment plan can make college affordable — and can even help you feel so much better about the cost of college.