Four Questions to Ask When Starting the College Search


My oldest child just started his junior year of high school. That means it is time to get serious about the college search. Because he had no idea where to start, we have taken a few college tours nearby just so he could get a feel for the type of school he might like – large or small, rural or urban, liberal arts or STEM-focused, state or private. With over 4,000 colleges to consider in the U.S., it is easy to get overwhelmed with information and options.

As we begin searching for the right college for him, we are trying to answer four important questions first.

Where do you want to be? I mean this in the physical sense. Will he be miserable being too far away to drive home for a weekend? Would he prefer not to be in the same city where we live? What kind of weather does he love and hate? Is he always longing for the mountains, ocean, big city life, small-town life?

What do you love? I think it is too early for many teens to choose a major or career, but now is a great time for some self-reflection on what is important to them in general. Consider the things that they are passionate about. My son loves all things computers so, of course, we are eliminating any school that doesn’t have a computer science or computer engineering program. But other considerations are important, too. Whatever your kid loves – from singing to politics to cooking to ping-pong, there’s a college where they can do it. Those schools are the places to focus first.

What about school culture? This question also requires some self-reflection from your teen. Is diversity important, and what does that mean to you? What size of school feels comfortable? (It helps to have gone on a couple of tours to determine this, but talking to friends, classmates, relatives, and a school counselor can help, too. At the most basic, do they want something larger, the same, or smaller than their high school?) How much academic rigor do you prefer? Are religious affiliation, Greek life, particular campus housing options, honors programs, travel abroad, or other options important to you? Not all will matter to everyone, but if there is something in particular your student cares about, it can help narrow the college search.

What about cost? There are so many factors affecting the true cost of college that honestly, I still have not wrapped my head around exactly what we can afford. At this point, we have a vague idea of how much we can pay based on college savings, income, and what we expect our student to contribute by working part-time. (Congratulations if you have figured out more than that!) Still, with the many ways financial aid can change the equation, there is no clear answer until much further down the road. That means we are keeping any college on our list that might fit our budget and erring on the high side for now. If some schools have to come off the list later due to affordability, that is ok, but we are currently keeping options open.

The long road of parenthood doesn’t end at college, but this stage sure feels like a final exam to me. Some hardcore studying and preparation that will end in the big test – our child getting into college and hopefully, fingers and toes crossed, finding out that it is the right fit for him. With some thoughtful preparation, we might not get perfect scores, but we will pass and move on to the next stage.

Please drop your tips, hints, and knowledge in the comments if this is not your first rodeo. The rest of us will definitely appreciate them!


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