Your high school graduate may be dragging his feet on the college decision, and it’s not hard to figure out why. During this corona-crazy time, you’re trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. Your teen may be struggling to a degree you can’t even fathom. 

His life has flipped upside down — arguably even more than yours. (Did you withstand a worldwide epidemic that required you to kiss prom, graduation and the senior state track meet good-bye? Of course not.) You might feel a tiny whirl of relief to know that your child may not have to decide on a college until July 1. Whew! (Some schools’ deadlines are still May or June 1, however. If your child had a pile of schools with June 1 or July 1 deadlines, never fear. Most schools still have openings past the deadline.) 

Your child might be a bit fearful of the future. As a parent, these changes have crushed you too, and you might be grieving the loss of “what should have been.” Here’s how to help pilot your college-bound child through the next hurdle (with baggage nobody could have anticipated).

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Listen. Talk Less. Rinse and Repeat.

I worked in college admission for 12 years and I heard so many parents say, “It’s my child’s decision, not mine.” I never loved that response because I always knew students wanted their parents’ input when it came to making such a big decision. Now more than ever, your child needs to know that you’re there to help.  

Furthermore, your teen could be taking cues from you. Do you watch the news on a constant loop or fret about the future?

Remember that it might be hard for your teen to articulate everything he’s feeling — kind of like when he was two and couldn’t explain that his shoes were too tight. 

Create a safe communication environment and listen when your child talks. Don’t forget to check your own fears about what’s coming down the pike.

Let your college-bound teen know that you’re there to help him through the decision. Just remember, teens want their parents to help them with this decision, particularly when they’re struggling. Talk about how life can be uncertain but things will get back to normal. 

Take Advantage of Colleges’ Extended Deadlines

Carnegie Dartlet, a marketing services company that specializes in higher education institutions, surveyed 4,848 high school seniors about how current events have impacted their college search. The survey found that many students want an extension to the traditional May 1 National Candidate Reply Date — the national deadline for making a college decision.  

In fact, 67 percent of students surveyed say they want an extension, at least until June 1 or July 1, and those numbers jump to 74-80 percent for underrepresented minority populations and students with higher financial need. 

Breathe! As you can see, your child isn’t the only one who feels this way. 

Many colleges have complied with students’ wishes and extended the deadline to accommodate these needs. Take advantage of the extra time — and be proactive. Launch a pros and cons list. Dive even deeper and do a heart/gut check. Don’t be afraid to take a trip down memory lane with your child. Remind him about the awesome college visit at College ABC last fall where you snagged a picture of him beaming during his college visit.

Ask What’s Holding Your Child Back from Making the Decision

What’s holding your child back from making the decision? Is it all the changes combined — summer orientation changes, school delays and extensions? Is it the distance from home? Maybe it’s you? (Again, you may be unwittingly showcasing some anxiety yourself.) 

Get to the root of the problem. Ask straight up, “Is there any reason why we can’t put down a deposit for School X right now? It’s the school you’ve been talking about all year.” Then listen carefully to your child’s response.

Here are some common reasons that might be holding your child back.

The Coronavirus (or Worry in General)

Everyone’s plans have changed and it could also cause your child to question everything. It’s up to you to be a calming influence. Try to help your child gain some perspective on his college choice. Try as hard as you can to be a positive, uplifting influence. 

In some cases, you may recognize that COVID-19 has aggravated anxiety in your teen and it may be a wise decision for your child to stay closer to home or make a different decision altogether. If necessary, seek outside help.

Distance from Home

The majority (56.2 percent) of public four-year college students attend an institution under an hour’s drive away. Nearly 70 percent attend within two hours of their home, according to the latest Higher Education Research Institute’s CIRP survey.

Your child might be feeling a tad unsettled about making a decision to attend school 10 hours away. Ask if that’s an issue and whether there’s a school that appeals to your high school graduate that’s closer to home. Note: Your child would not be the first one to change his mind at the last minute. It happens — and it’s okay. It’s better to realize this now instead of later! 


Is your cost-conscious child close to choosing a college with a hefty sticker price — which would require a handful of loans? If so, that could be what’s holding him back. (And you might be nervous, too.)

There are lots of ways to remedy this situation. Now that COVID-19 has happened, your financial situation may have changed considerably. If it has, let the college know. You may be able to fill out the college’s special circumstance form, where you can indicate a job loss or some other changes in your financial status, including excessive medical bills or another type of serious expense. 

You can also ask the admission office if there’s still money on the table. Ask:

  • Are there other scholarship opportunities available? Find out whether there are additional scholarships your child can still apply for. There may be some new ones that have popped up since the last time you talked with the admission office! 
  • Is work-study available? Work-study is a federally-funded program that can help your son or daughter pay for college. Your child will work on campus (sometimes off campus) and earn money just like in a regular job. Your son or daughter may not have been awarded work-study at all, and this is the time to ask whether it’s available. If work-study is already plugged into the financial aid award, ask if more work-study money can be added. 
  • Was my FAFSA information correct? Ask some deeper questions about the FAFSA — you might have filled it out incorrectly! Was your expected family contribution (EFC) inflated due to one-time income? (EFC is an indicative number that colleges use to determine how much financial aid you’re eligible for.) Did you include an IRA or 401(k), which isn’t required for the FAFSA? 

The bottom line: Ask the admission office good questions!

Don’t forget to communicate with colleges about changes in your financial situation. If you or your spouse has lost a job, tell the colleges on your child’s short list. Talking about financial changes could change your college-bound teen’s financial aid awards — in a good way.

Seek Answers to Objections

Help your child get the answers to what’s holding him back from making a decision. For example, if he’s worried about the strength of the engineering program between two schools, reach out to the admission counselor at each school to get some more data. Reach out to a professor. Ask more questions! Draw on those relationships you’ve built throughout the process to help your child make a final college decision.

Maybe your child’s holding back because his friends or his girlfriend are all headed to the state school down the road and he’s been planning to go to a school on the opposite coast. (I hated it when this came up when I was an admission counselor!)

If he’s starting to get cold feet, remind him why he initially chose that institution. (There were likely some good reasons!) It’s important that he chooses the best school for him.

Once you’ve gotten answers to everything, sit back and relax. In most cases, you still have time, even if the deadline has passed. When push comes to shove, every student does decide.

Do the Heart/Gut Test

The heart/gut test is something that a former college president of my alma mater used to talk about all the time. He’d explain that it’s not enough to take numbers into account. College isn’t a transactional experience — it’s about people! It’s not just about pretty buildings or the number of electives you have to take. He used to urge students to take into account the feeling you’d get — did your child feel like he belonged at a particular school?

Which campus did your son thrive on during the visit? Did he seem to come alive as soon as he met the tennis team? Withdraw when he met the abrasive engineering professor at your alma mater? Did your daughter light up when she met her admission counselor or the quirky communication studies professor with “Citizen Kane” posters plastered all over his office? 

You get the idea. Don’t be afraid to go deep on this. Also, don’t be afraid to share your observations with your child. Say, “I noticed you loved the tour at College X and chatted animatedly with the tour guide. Do you think you felt just as comfortable at College Y or not?”

Look for the academic, social and financial fit — and do the gut and heart test. Ask your child where he or she felt most at home.

When you know, sometimes you just know.

If your child hasn’t gotten that “feeling” anywhere by now, go back to the drawing board — there are still openings at schools across the country. Another visit might be in order over the summer, though without students on campus, it can be tricky to feel the same energy.

Communicate with Admission Counselors

Contact admission counselors at the schools your child’s still considering. Trust me, my experience as an admission counselor tells me that colleges want to hear from you and build relationships. They don’t want you to go through turmoil alone.

Explain what’s going on and why there are some concerns. Most colleges have trained their admission counselors on how to communicate their college’s COVID-19 response. Talking with admission counselors is also a good way to evaluate how well a particular college has handled the crisis!

Colleges should make your teen feel better about the situation, provide a real human connection and help your child make a final decision.

A Different Decision May Be Necessary — and That’s Okay

Your teen may not be able to stomach leaving to go to college 1,000 miles away at this point, no matter how many times you remind him about his last wonderful on-campus experience. 

This crisis has changed everyone. Tell your child that it’s okay to stay closer to home. Spend time thinking about what other options are out there. Remember, just because your child feels more comfortable with a semester at the local community college, it doesn’t mean he will never go to College ABC. He could be saying “See you later!” 

Take a Deep Breath and Be There 

Sometimes, it takes the good ol’ pro and con list to finally make the final decision. Sometimes seeing the solid “pro” column helps. 

What happens when the “pro” side is a mile long for one school but your daughter really feels the fit more at a different school? Hey, it’s proof that the heart/gut test works!

Teens can feel their parents take an emotional and financial hit during this downturn and need more reassurance and guidance than ever. Support your teen through this all-important decision-making process. Remember, this could very well be the very first really big decision your child has ever made. Think positive: COVID-19 could make you (and your teen’s) decision making processes stronger than ever!

Good luck! I’d love to hear about your child’s final decision!

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