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  • Try your best to be objective when helping your child put together their list of prospective colleges. Remember: Their interests might differ from yours, and that’s okay!
  • Research the colleges your child is interested in so you can give them an informed opinion, and help them weigh the pros and cons of each school.
  • There are a lot of resources to help your family get a better sense of each college, from virtual tours to a college’s social media accounts. Encourage your student to explore some of these independently.

As a college-bound parent, one of the biggest challenges is being able to step back and let your teen make the ultimate college decision. That can be hard, especially if you aren't exactly on the same page regarding what you think is best for your child. Your guidance is important, but your input should be just one factor among many that your student uses to make their choice.

Here's how to guide your child throughout the college process, without telling them what to do.

1. Offer objectivity

Help your child work through a checklist that hones in on what's important to them. Some questions to ask include: Large university or small college? Dorm or commute? Big city or college town? Whatever the answers, resist the urge to be judgmental if your preferences happen to be different.

2. Do your homework

If you plan to share your opinions on various institutions, you should know what you're talking about. Read up on the colleges in which your child is interested so you can have an educated conversation about the pros and cons of each. The effort will show, and your teen will be more likely to consider your take.

3. Have them take a career quiz

If your child isn’t sure what they want to study at college, encourage them to take a career quiz. At the very least, it could help you both determine what areas your teen is interested in academically, which can help narrow down the search to schools that have programs your child might be interested in.

4. Use online tools

College is a big investment, and you want to make sure it pays off for your student. Online tools, like My College Plan, can help you compare different schools, majors, and careers, and show you how they can affect your child’s potential salary and student loan debt.

5. Think about your teen, not yourself

You might fall in love with a particular college based on your own allegiances, especially if you always pictured your child following in your footsteps. While those feelings are valid, remember that your teen has a unique personality and set of interests. Try to picture the type of environment in which they are most likely to thrive and offer assistance in looking for the right match.

6. Compare costs together

Now is a good time to discuss finances with your teen. Regardless of your means, it’s important to set expectations about what you can and can’t afford to contribute, and how much they may need to take out in loans. Make sure to discuss the breakdown of college costs, like tuition, room and board, and travel, and come up with a plan for how your child will contribute, and how they might cut the costs.

That said, while how to pay for college is a huge consideration, it doesn't have to dominate every college conversation, or keep your teen from applying to a dream school. In fact, sticker price doesn't always tell the full story since it doesn't take into consideration any financial aid, including grants and scholarships. Once the award letters arrive and you know how much each school is offering and what you are expected to pay out of pocket, you will have a better opportunity to weigh your options together.

7. Make time for touring

If possible, go with your child to check out their top college picks in person. You'll be able to get a better sense of the type of campus that your student prefers. Seeing the campus in person and what it has to offer can help ease your mind that they are making the right choice.

8. Discuss location

While you may want to keep your teen close to home, there are advantages to attending a school further away. Use this time as an opportunity to discuss what type of location your child thrives in, what the career outlook is in the area they’re thinking of going to school, and what the cost of living might be. Make sure to weigh all these factors in your discussion, so you can make the most informed decision together.

9. Bring in outside experts

There are a lot of voices outside the house that can help your child with their college decision. Some of these include:

  • Current and former students: Encourage your child to reach out to others who have attended the school to get a better understanding of the campus culture, as well as the college’s potential merits and drawbacks. Social media is a great tool for connecting with alumni and current students.
  • College advisers: If your teen’s high school has a college adviser on staff, encourage them to set up a meeting to go over their options. College advisers often have insider knowledge that can help narrow down the list of potential schools.
  • College faculty and advisers for your teens’ prospective major: If you want a better picture of academic life at a particular school, consider reaching out to a member of the faculty. They can give you insight about what to expect academically, and might have expertise about programs related to your teen’s area of interest.

By positioning yourself as a trusted confidant—rather than trying to sway your child toward the college you think is best—your family will be able to get through the college selection process without any surprises.

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