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Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock

Writer & Blogger

My name is Melissa and I’m a longtime admission professional, personal finance writer, editor  and parent of two (very!) busy kiddos. I couldn’t make it all happen without my husband, Steve.

I hatched my site because I’ve heard so many head-scratching questions from parents. I’ve journeyed in the footsteps of hundreds of families, trekked to dozens of college fairs and even weighed the (billions?) of college savings options for my own two kiddos.

First Child Going to College? How to Handle the College Search

by | Nov 1, 2020 | Ask the admission office | 0 comments

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I met with hundreds of college-bound students and their families as an admission counselor. 

One thing I always noticed about second-timers: Easier conversations. 

Usually.

When parents had a second child going off to the same college (we had an unprecedented number of sibling pairs at our college), conversations sometimes went like this: 

Me: “Did you get a good look at the residence halls?”

Student: “I stayed with my sister in her residence hall 34 times last year. We made a Jell-O tower the last time I stayed.” 

Me: “A Jell-O tower?”

Student: “Yep, that’s why she had to scrub the lounge. You know, because the whole thing exploded from the vinegar.”

Parent: Rolls eyes. “Let me get you a check for the deposit. Let me see, if I remember correctly, that’s $200, right?”

Me, still with a million questions about the residence hall lounge Jell-O/vinegar volcano, checking the time: “Do you guys have any questions? You’ve only been here for 15 minutes.”

Student: “No, I’m good.”

(I know, this conversation was borderline ridiculous.)

At any rate, when you’re going through the college search for the first time, it’s daunting. It’s like looking into the end of one of those pool noodles (you can’t quite see the light at the end). You may worry, have a million questions, convinced you’re not sure what you’re doing when your first child heads off to college. 

Here’s what you can do to lighten your mental load.

1. Ask a billion questions. 

Your child might think you’re there to slloooowly give her signs of a stroke when you’re on college visits. You pester the admission counselor, the dean of admission, the professors, the security personnel. You make best friends with Clara, the cleaning professional in the all-female residence hall and vow to get in on the jazz professor’s next gig — as the drummer.

You’re just doing your job as the first-time parent. If you have another child, you’ll barely utter a peep the second time around. 

Your second-born will say, “Mom, the admission counselor just asked if you have any questions. Can you take your sunglasses off and uh… look like you’re into this?”

Ha!

All jesting aside, check out my overly long list of questions if you’re not sure what to ask: 202 questions to ask on a college tour… (Too many? I’m so sorry.)

2. Visit campuses.

You know you need to visit campuses, but where should you go and when? A lot depends on your student. Some sophomores are nowhere near ready to visit colleges and others are. It depends on maturity level, drive, etc. Gauge your student’s readiness. Even if you’re ready for a full tour of New England colleges, your child may not give a toot. At all. 

Trust me — I’ve seen the kids who aren’t ready for college visits! They act just like you imagine they would. 

Once you figure out when, you need to determine where. “Where?” is a fun — and stressful — question because you have so many choices. Big? Small? Four years? Trade school? Parents’ alma mater? In state? Out of state? 

You don’t know until you start visiting. There are no rules here. Just pick a school your child’s interested in and go. Simple as that.

First child going to college? Get the guide!
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3. Meet the people. 

Really get to know the people. Not just the students. Not just the admission staff. Everyone. While there’s no way you can meet all 10,000 people on campus, you should be able to get a feel of what the campus means to the people you do meet. Try to get people to say, “I wish campus offered X…” or “I love X about our campus.”

Find out whether students love the things that matter — the relationships they develop or the opportunities they’ve been given. If all they can talk about are the beautiful buildings, the rad parties they attend or other surface-level stuff, it might be a red flag.

4. Get organized. 

You may have no idea what you need to organize when you’ve got your first child going to college. Here’s a spreadsheet I put together — without the fluff you don’t need to know.

You can copy that spreadsheet and save it for yourself. It’s definitely nothing fancy but is super functional. It includes things like distance from home, tuition and fees and heart/gut test (feelings after the visit). Encourage your child to maintain this sheet.

5. Activate the heart/gut test after every visit.

As I alluded to in the previous point, you need to make sure your child “takes” the heart/gut test. The heart/gut test is not really actually a straightforward test. It’s actually a litmus test for how your child “feels” about the college search. You can ask a few questions to probe a little bit for how your child feels about a college. Ask:

  • How did you feel when you were on campus?
  • Can you see yourself going to college here?
  • How do you feel about the students/professors/admission staff, etc.?
  • What was your gut/heart initial reaction to this college?

As you can imagine, this is a little unnerving for some people. It takes out the facts — how many students get a job after graduation, successful alumni, internship stats — and puts feelings front and center.

But it’s so good when you get it right.

6. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk about money.

Talk about money until you get a scratchy throat. Of course you have lots of questions about money. How much will each school cost? How much merit aid does a college offer? What scholarships can my child receive from searches? (By the way, check out the Scholarship System for the best way to look for scholarships that I’ve found anywhere!)

Here’s what you want to find out from every college your child’s interested in:

  • The amount of merit aid he or she will receive from that college.
  • Whether your child can apply for other scholarships.

Don’t forget to talk about how much you can reasonably afford to help your child pay for college. You don’t want your child to have unrealistic expectations about what you’ll be able to help pay. (Imagine that your child thinks you’ll pay for the whole thing — but you can’t. It might be a nasty shock when your student tallies up the loans for her first year alone!)

7. Avoid talking too much about major.

Whaaa? 

Yes.

Here’s a quick fact: Three out of every four students enter college undecided or change their major at least once.  

You may already know that. But that still might not stop you from searching the internet for “best colleges for pre-optometry” or “best pre-med universities.” 

A true story about a past student of mine: Jessica began looking at colleges as a junior in high school. She knew she wanted to be a pre-med major. In fact, she was so determined to be a pediatrician that she even shadowed her own pediatrician. Jessica chose her college (in this case, a large state university) based on the university’s high percentage of undergraduates who got into medical school.

Guess what happened. Jessica started taking biology and chemistry classes and realized it wasn’t at all what she’d expected. In fact, she realized she didn’t even like the school she’d chosen at all. She ended up transferring and switched her major to marketing instead. 

About three quarters of all college students change their major plans at least once. Your student will most likely change his major (because he either discovers something new or learns that he’s not well-suited for his initial choice). So don’t go into the search on a mission to find the best school for the best [insert major].

It’s easy to ask college reps, “Can I major in X at your school?” 

It’s much more difficult to ask other, less-defined questions, like “What does it feel like to be a student on campus?” (See heart/gut test.)

8. Don’t spend too much time looking over your shoulder. 

If your next-door neighbor already applied to 36 colleges and your child thinks he’s good with two college applications, don’t compare. What’s right for neighbor Billy Bob may not be right for your child at all. 

If you’re struggling to file the FAFSA but your neighbor Mary filled it out in two seconds flat, relax. As long as you meet required deadlines for each college your child’s interested in, you’re doing great. And if you need help, get it.

9. Check college’s requirements — then follow the deadlines. 

All the different requirements and deadlines at schools can slowly drive you crazy if you let it happen. One school may have a November 1 application deadline. Another school has a scholarship interview deadline in February. Grab my spreadsheet and make sure you clearly denote each deadline. Put your head down, get your child on board and meet the deadlines of all the colleges on your list. Make sure you ask about: 

  • CSS Profile deadlines (usually only required at more competitive schools)
  • Application deadlines
  • Scholarship deadlines
  • Testing requirements for the ACT and SAT (many schools don’t require them now) — and find out whether your child needs to do the written essays or the SAT subject tests
  • Deadlines and requirements for letters of recommendation
  • Resume requirements 
  • Deadlines for final transcripts

10. Follow up.

Make sure colleges get your child’s transcripts, test scores, recommendation letters and other requirements. It’s a good idea to make sure your child’s file is complete well before deadlines approach. 

Don’t skip this step. There’s nothing worse than thinking everything’s ready to go, then realizing with horror that something didn’t get turned in on time.

Check a month before everything’s due if it’s feasible. That way, your child has plenty of time to submit transcripts or scramble for another recommendation if needed.

11. Consider revisiting.

Did your child not feel the heart/gut test magic the first time around? That’s normal. 

Sometimes your child just needs a second visit, particularly if it’s been a year or more since your family made the trek to a particular college.

Keep going till your child can see himself going to a particular school and can envision success there as well.

12. Talk about your insecurities.

It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Isn’t it like that the first time you do something new, no matter what it is? Think about the first time you booted up the internet. The first time you drove a car. The first time you went off to college yourself. Learning about the college search is an involved process. Luckily, I’ve created a timeline and checklist that explains exactly what you’ll need to do at any step in the college search, called the Grab ‘n Go Timeline and Checklist for the College Search. Check it out!

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First Child Going to College? You’ll Get There!

You really will get there. The entire process may feel as foreign as learning how to drive on snow when you’re from Florida (and maybe this will actually happen if your kid’s looking at colleges in, say, North Dakota!) but the good news is there’s no one way to complete the college search. 

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