Ask These 3 Questions to Make the Right College Decision (Roots + Wings Series)


As the May 1st College Decision Day approaches, high school seniors everywhere are finalizing their plans. The essays have been written, the tours taken, the forms filled out and now it’s time to choose. It’s a momentous and exciting time, but it can be a daunting one as well. Here is what you can do to help support your son or daughter in making the decision that’s right for them. And if they’ve already made their decision? These questions can still help ensure it’s not only the right decision, but that you’ve talked through all of the important pieces. 

Making An Informed Decision

While the best decision is the most informed decision, the posts, forums and reddit threads devoted to the topic, along with the opinions of well-meaning friends and family, can lead to overwhelm and anxiety. For kids who like to do their research and weigh all of their options, this information overload may confuse the process and leave them discouraged. They may try to predict the outcomes of their choice based on the experiences of others. Even typically confident, assured kids can become stressed by the pressure to make the right choice. And you may become frustrated as you walk the fine line of guiding them through the path to an answer without engaging in a battle along the way. 

Be encouraged, you’re almost to the finish line. There is hope and a kinder way to work through making the right college decision with your high school senior. But first, it’s important to know above all else that this decision is not the end. While we want to impress on our kids the importance of making a thoughtful decision, we also want to allow them the space and grace to figure things out and pivot if needed. Most often it’s not making a decision that causes stress, but the fear of making the wrong one. Once our kids know we’re behind them and with them in their decision, they can in turn make their decision more freely, cultivating a spirit of confidence as they journey forward.

The Accidental Venn diagram 

In working through this process with my senior son, I noticed our conversations centered around three main areas, and in the middle of those areas, the common ground, is where his answer would lie. Essentially (and accidentally), I mapped out a Venn diagram of sorts and it has been our north star in all of our conversations. Even our more emotionally-charged discussions have come back to these three priorities and provided a framework for my husband, my son, and I to diffuse our emotions, empower healthy discussion, and engage the process with a more holistic approach. 

This simple formula applies from the least to most complicated situations, and the entire spectrum in between, because it is personal. If you’re looking for someone to tell you what school to choose, you won’t find that here, but what you will find is that you’ve likely had many conversations around these topics and just need some help pulling all the pieces together. If your son or daughter is still looking for their place to land, this process will help them find it. 

The first question (and circle) in our College Decision Venn diagram is likely the least complicated, Where do you want to go to college? Yes, this question should include those dream and reach schools, but also open the door to new and different opportunities. With a decision deadline looming, at this point, I would include only the schools with an offer of admission. (High school juniors just coming into this process can include a robust list here of all schools they are considering). 

Keep this question simple. Begin here because it gives your child the chance to declare their options up front. We’re not asking where you want them to go to school, we’re asking where they want to go to school. Let them give their reasons in their own words without influence or making the face you do when you disapprove (we all do it!). 

The second question, Where will you thrive?, is one to dig into a little more. It’s more substantial in the sense that it encompasses not only wants, but needs, which is what also makes it different from the first question. Thoughts to consider can include the following: 

  • Is the school financially smart for you (and your family)? 
  • What clubs and groups you can plug into? 
  • How will you assimilate if you’re OOS (out-of-state)? 
  • Do they offer mental health services? 
  • Is it realistic to be so far from home? so close to home? 
  • Do you know anyone going there? 
  • If you have had the opportunity to visit, how did you feel on campus? 

This question does best with candid and open conversation where you can explore quirks and non-negotiables that are personal and specific to your child. If you’re into spreadsheets, this is a great question to unpack in that format. You could even assign a number of importance to those things you know will really set them up for success in all areas. If your child will help take on the financial burden of their education, then what are the parameters? How much debt are you (or they) willing to take on? 

In this circle, the conversation should include you and it can include others you trust. Put all the research you’ve compiled together in this question and take an honest look at what’s important. You’ll likely want to be thoughtful with the way you word your insight and try to offer only the essential things that only you could know. Think about the things they are ready for and the things they still need some support on. Is there a way you can offer that support? For example, if the school is far from home, are there friends and family in the area that you could call on? If the program your child is looking at is rigorous and intense, do they have experience with this kind of coursework? This is a good opportunity to embrace the quirks and questions and get real about it all. The school may be prestigious and beautiful, but can they really see it as home for the next four years? 

The last question is one that may be underrated in all of the excitement of being accepted, but it’s important to note, Who’s pursuing you? Throughout the past several months our son has received a few clever and creative things from colleges hoping to get his attention. Sure they are often smaller, less flashy schools, but as a parent (and one who is always on the lookout for witty marketing), having a giant pretzel show up at your door or school flag already declaring you as one of their own, speaks the language—you matter to us. Even if your child is not impressed by these gestures, I would still encourage paying attention to who is paying you attention. The “safety schools” that want your child can be dismissed a little too quickly. And at a large university where you may run the risk of “being a number,” what are they offering you that sets them apart? This doesn’t have to be a full-ride, it could be research opportunities or living and learning communities. It could be the games and school spirit or the opportunity to continue playing the sport you love. At the end of the day you want to be at a school that celebrates you, wants to get to know you, and sees you as more than just a number. 

Applying the Formula 

As you work through these questions, be patient with your child (and with yourself). They’re deciding the next four years and it feels…substantial. They’re excited but nervous too. You’re nervous. Everyone needs grace. Trust the process. The school standing in the center of the diagram should be one they want to go to (even if they’ve made some concessions), a place they think they’ll thrive (even if there will be some adjustments), and a school that wants them on their campus (even if they will have to work for and seek the opportunities to stand out). No school will be perfect, but there is one school that will be left standing that feels like home. 

Find more posts like this in our Roots and Wings series:

Dear Son, As You Wait to Hear if You’ve Been Accepted

Overwhelmed by the College Decision Process? Here’s What You Need to Have Figured Out Right Now

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