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    The Right College Choice for Your Teen

    How you can help your child make one of the biggest decisions of his or her life.

    edited by Mark Moring

    It doesn't seem all that long ago when you were in college, and now your little girl or boy is almost ready to begin those four exciting years—or at least to start thinking about it.

    You've always tried to help your son or daughter make wise decisions, and now it's time for one of the biggest decisions of his or her life—the college choice. What's your role in this process? With so many good colleges and universities out there, how can you help your child make the best selection?

    What are colleges looking for?

    If your child is a high school senior, she's likely already in a groove with her academics and extracurricular activities, and it won't be long before she starts applying to colleges. But if she's younger, you can help her make some college-wise decisions along the way.

    College-bound teens often focus on their grade point average and, later, their SAT and/or ACT scores. But these things are only part of what colleges want to know about your teen. They want a more complete picture.

    Colleges are interested in school activities, community service, church involvement, spiritual development, work experience, even family life—anything that has shaped your student.

    Leadership is also important, whether in extracurricular activities, at church, in the community, or at a part-time job. A leadership role shows colleges that your student is willing to commit time and energy to something they care about.

    Colleges will want to know what others say about your child. As your child gets involved in various activities, get to know the adults who work with him—because they might just end up serving as references later.

    When should the college search start?

    Many experts suggest students begin the search during their sophomore year in high school—certainly no sooner, and no later than early in their junior year.

    Before you begin the logistics of the search, kick off the process by praying together with your child. Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions your student will ever make. Ask God to lead every step of the way.

    Your student's guidance counselor is a vital part of the process. Encourage your teen to regularly meet with their counselor, who can advise which high school classes still need to be taken; whether your student should take the SAT, ACT or both; and where to look for college and scholarship information. It's also good for you and your teen to meet together with the counselor; the more you know about the timeline and the process, the better equipped you'll be to support your child.

    Next, you'll save a lot of time if your student first narrows their search criteria. Have your child make a list of general qualities they want—and don't want—in their college. Certain factors may be very important, while others might not matter much. For instance, your child might not care about the size (number of students) of the school, but finding a school close to home may be important.

    What should my student consider when looking at colleges?

    Here are some factors you and your student should consider:

    • Distance. Does your child want to stay close to home, or are they willing to go far away?
    • Location. How does your child feel about schools located in big cities, the suburbs, or sparsely populated rural areas? And consider the climate; if you're in Florida, for example, would your child enjoy winters in Minnesota?
    • Size. Some Christian colleges have thousands of students. Some only have a few hundred.
    • Admissions requirements. Colleges vary greatly in their requirements for admission; some are very selective, taking only the top students, while others are more open—and thus easier to get in.
    • Majors. If your student knows what they want to study in college, this is a key factor. If not, don't worry about it. At most colleges, it isn't necessary for students to declare a major until they've finished almost two years.
    • Cost. Parents are often most concerned about this factor. But keep in mind that families rarely pay a college's full "sticker price." Financial aid—from the government, private sources and the colleges themselves—is available. After your student has applied to colleges, your family will receive a financial-aid package from each school. This will give you a better feel for what you can—and can't—afford.
    • Denominational affiliation. Many Christian colleges are officially related to a particular church denomination. If this is important to you and your student, you'll go a long way to narrowing down the list of prospective schools.
    • Spiritual climate. Schools will provide information about student fellowships, the campus chapel, nearby churches, and service and missions opportunities. Also, most Christian colleges have a "statement of faith," which tells what its faculty and administration believe about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, salvation, and other important issues of faith. Another thing to consider is the college's "code of conduct agreement," which spells out certain behavior expectations. Many codes include regulations regarding sexual activity and the use of alcohol and drugs. Many codes also include regulations on social dancing; some even have rules about playing cards. Read the codes carefully; if your teen reads anything in the code that they feel they can't abide by, cross that school off the list.

    These are some of the main factors. Your student may come up with more specific things to consider, such as the presence or lack of a program, activity or resource.

    How can we get information about specific colleges?

    Thanks to the Internet, you can learn plenty about colleges online. Just search for the colleges you're considering and check their websites. If you don't have Internet access, your student can go online at school or at a library. She can also get contact information from her guidance counselor or out of a college directory, then call college admissions offices to request more information.

    College fairs are another great resource. At these events, which often include Christian colleges, representatives from each school are available to answer questions. There are also fairs that feature only Christian colleges: The National Association of Christian College Admissions Personnel (NACCAP) sponsors a number of them every year.

    What about all that mail from colleges we keep getting?

    At first, be slow about throwing anything away—at least until your child has narrowed down his choices. To keep all this stuff from getting out of hand (or lost), help your teen get organized. Buy a cardboard filing system, and organize the files in whatever way your student deems best—alphabetically, by size, location, by specific majors or programs, whatever is most important to your student. Or, your student might simply put their top five choices in the first folder, the second five in the second folder, and so on, and then reprioritize them as needed.

    How can my student narrow down their choices?

    Your student should begin narrowing down their choices during their junior year. Start by considering the factors (location, distance, majors, cost, etc.) that are most important. Rate each of the factors on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being "not very important" and 5 being "non-negotiable." Also, your child might think about why they want to go to college—if they can put the why into words, it will help them choose the type of school they're looking for.

    During the first semester of your student's junior year, keep the list of possibilities to 10-15 colleges at the most. Learn as much about these schools as possible. During the second semester of the junior year, narrow it down to five or six schools. The process then becomes much more subjective. Opinions, advice and even intuition matter at that point; maybe your child has a "certain feeling" about a particular school or schools. That's good; sometimes that's just how God speaks to us.

    What about college visits?

    If possible, families should try to visit the student's top 3-to-5 choices. Colleges, like people, have personalities, and a visit is the best way for your student to see if a particular college "feels" right.

    To get the most out of a campus visit, your student—not you—should call the admissions office at least two weeks in advance. This will give the college time to make a schedule of classes and events that would interest your teen. Your child also might ask about meeting with a professor, especially if they're interested in a specific major.

    During the visit, it will be helpful for your teen to attend a class, go to chapel, eat in the dining hall, walk around campus and spend a night in a dorm—while you spend the night in a local hotel. Your student should try to talk to as many students, faculty and staff as possible. This is the best time for your child to try to picture how they might fit on this particular campus.

    How many schools should my student apply to, and how much will this cost?

    Most experts recommend applying to about five schools. Applying to more than that is an unnecessary expense, and applying to less can be risky—especially if your child is applying to the more selective colleges. Even if your student is at the top of their class, they shouldn't assume they'll be accepted at their top choice, or even their second or third choice. Different schools look for different qualities in students, and some schools simply have a lot more applicants than space. If your student is applying to some highly competitive schools, it's a good idea to balance these with a couple of schools that tend to admit more of their applicants.

    Each college's website will have information on how to apply; usually you can apply online. Some applications have no fee, but most charge $25-50. If the application fee is difficult for you, contact the school; sometimes, they reduce or even waive the fee.

    When should my child apply?

    By the fall of your child's senior year, your student should know which schools she'll actually apply to. You'll need to know the application deadlines, which vary from school to school. Along with basic information, like your child's high school transcripts and a list of activities they've been involved in, most applications require an essay or two and a couple of letters of recommendation. There may be a few different items that will take time to gather, so it's a good idea for your student to read through each application right away, even if it's it not due for months.

    If you previously purchased a filing system, use it to keep track of application materials—even those you've submitted online, because you'll want to keep printouts. One folder might contain applications that have been filled out, another might be for applications that need essays written or recommendation letters attached. Be sure to make copies of everything your student sends to colleges, and note when each application was submitted, whether online or via snail mail.

    When will colleges tell my student if they've been accepted?

    Your student should check each college they're considering to see when applicants are notified of the college's decision.

    In the meantime, pray with your student. The process of choosing a college is a great chance for your child to see God at work. Ask God to guide your student, to give them discernment and wisdom—and to give you wisdom when your child seeks your advice. Read Proverbs 2:1-11 together, which promises that "if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, God will enable you to make a wise decision."