How to take the stress out of planning for college
When it comes to researching, selecting, and applying to college, it’s easy for students and their families to get derailed by three big misconceptions, says Elizabeth Hamilton, founder of the full-service academic planning, college counseling, and life coaching company U Ahead Consulting.
1. Students and families think that the only acceptable colleges are big-name schools. “Here in Central Texas, we see a lot of pressure for students to go to the University of Texas,” says Elizabeth, who works with college-bound students across the United States to help them analyze their strengths, identify colleges that best match their interests and aptitudes, and navigate the college application process. “UT is a great school, but it’s not the only great school, and it’s not the right school for everyone.” Some students who may be capable of getting into the University of Texas would do better at a different school—perhaps one that is out of state, has a different campus culture, or maintains smaller class sizes, she says.
2. Parents mistakenly assume the college application process is the same today as it was when they applied to college. “Often students will start too late because when their parents applied, they didn’t apply to college until January and February of their senior year. Now students are applying in July and August of their senior year,” says Elizabeth. She advises students and their parents to start the college exploration process during the student’s sophomore or junior year of high school.
3. Applying to college has to be a stressful process. “All too often, I see families that—rather than enjoying this last year of their child at home—end up in conflict because everybody is putting pressure on everybody else. ‘Have you done your essay? Have you done this, have you done that?’ And that strategy doesn’t work well,” says Elizabeth. “It’s much better if parents and students will agree to talk about college at one set time during the week. And that’s it. No talking about it every night at dinner or every time they see each other. That puts too much pressure on everybody.”
While the college application process has become more difficult and complicated over the years, Elizabeth knows first-hand that getting parents and their students on the same page, formulating a plan, and managing the application process early can take much of the pressure off college-bound students and their families.
Like the old “how to eat an elephant” joke, it’s important that parents and their college-bound children dig into the application process one bite—or task—at a time. For students, that series of tasks may include taking diagnostic tests to discover potential careers and majors (Elizabeth recommends the YouScience aptitude assessment, which students can take online for $29), figuring out what lights them up, planning campus visits, taking their SAT and ACT exams, and applying for scholarships.
Parents, meanwhile, should talk to their kids about the process earlier rather than later, be upfront with them about financial considerations (and not bank on the big scholarship), and have clear conversations with their children about what’s expected of them when they go to college.
“Where a student goes to college is usually the first major life choice they’re making themselves, and it’s usually the last major choice that parents have significant influence over,” says Elizabeth. “This can be an exciting time of exploration for both parents and students. Just be mindful, parents, that this is your child’s college experience, and not yours. Listen when your student tells you what they like and dislike. And pay attention to that particular lift in their voice when they talk about something they’re passionate about.”
Pro tip: In order to get applications in on time, college-bound juniors should register for the ACT and SAT exams by January at the latest. Visit www.youscience.com to learn more about career diagnostics.