Helping Your Teen Choose a College

written by Roberta Whitney Hughes, Founder of PeaceFull Living and PeaceFull Living TV

COVID Cancelled College Visits Last Spring

Noah is a senior in high school. A year ago, we had a trip booked to visit five colleges in California. We were booked on a flight departing Denver on March 14, 2020. On March 12, things started shutting down. I knew how important it was for Noah to see the schools he had interest in attending. So, I held off as long as I could before cancelling our trip.

Two days before our trip, I received an email from Noah’s high school. The school was closing and cancelling all of the service trips they had planned for Spring Break. I made the call to cancel our trip. Noah was so disappointed. I was disappointed, too, but I knew the decision was for the best.

Making Up for Lost Time

Now high school graduation is right around the corner. I am doing my best to make up for lost time. Noah has applied to 16 colleges. (I encouraged him to apply to every school he was interested in attending). Now that the acceptance letters have come in, we are planning to visit his top picks.

The only problem is that because of COVID, many colleges are not offering in-person tours. Lucky for us, a few of his top school are offering tours. Last month, we flew to Santa Barbara to visit Westmont College. This month, we will fly to San Diego to visit Point Loma of the Nazarene University. The other school he would love to visit is Notre Dame, but they still are not allowing in-person visits.

Remembering How I Chose My College

As I walk through the steps of taking Noah to see colleges, part of me wishes I had spent more time looking at colleges before making a choice. I was the first in my family to go directly to a four year university after graduating high school. Community colleges did not appeal to me at all and I only considered three in-state schools. In Arizona, the three schools are NAU, ASU, and the U of A.

Growing up in a small town an hour southeast of Tucson, I wanted to travel further away from home. NAU was a small college and was six hours away. ASU was a big college and was three hours away from home. I chose big and was excited about moving to The Valley of the Sun.

I Made it Through College

As I look back now, I tell Noah that I made it through college. I don’t recall any profound connections with professors, except my journalism professor and my yoga teacher. I don’t think it is coincidental that those are the two professions that had the most impact on who I am and what I now do for a living.  In college, I managed my classes, worked part-time and got a degree. None of my classwork inspired me to seek deeper meaning, become a better person, or learn how to make difficult decisions. I tell Noah that if he can get those three things from his college experience, the world will be his. He will not only find success in the career he chooses, he will live a life of joy and purpose.

Tips to Help Your Teen Choose a College

If you happen to be in the place where you are helping your child choose a college, or if that time isn’t too far away, I want to share a few things that have helped me.

Read Looking Beyond the Ivy Leagues by Loren Pope.

Even if your child isn’t considering an ivy league school, much of the information will help you compare big universities to smaller universities.

Read Colleges that Change Lives by Hilary Masell Oswald.

This book helps you distinguish between curriculum, extracurricular activities, and the role faculty play in different college environments. After reading this book, you will have great questions to ask your teen to help them articulate what experience they want from a college.

Take your teen to visit a variety of colleges.

There is nothing like having “feet on the ground” and walking the steps they might walk on campus one day. The books I have recommended support the idea that a teen needs to choose the college that feels like the best fit for them.

Consider a liberal arts education.

When I read the books above, I was astonished to learn that a liberal arts education is the foundation of many professions. This actually blew my mind! When I went to ASU, the Liberal Arts College was known for the people who wanted to be dancers and artists and weren’t really smart. I now stand corrected!  

The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

Now that I am older and wiser, I understand the benefits of a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education has value because…

  • a well rounded adult will be successful in any profession they choose.
  • knowing who you are as a person and being able to work alongside people from all walks of life is a skillset that is sought after and much needed in corporate America.
  • it puts less pressure on the student so they can develop as a human being (shocking, right?).
  • many doctors and lawyers had a liberal arts education in their undergraduate studies and were accepted into medical school because their applications stood out from others.
  • students who attend smaller liberal arts colleges have direct relationships with their professors.
  • professors at liberal arts colleges have the ability to mentor students and help shape them as adults.

What I Want for Noah and What He Wants for Himself May Not Match

As Noah prepares to choose the college he feels is best for him, I remind myself (quite often) it is his choice and not mine. While I now know that the four years of undergrad are the most formative years of a person’s life, I cannot let myself get too preachy. I often have to remind myself that what I want for Noah and what he wants for himself may not match. So, my role, as I see it, is to help him consider the entire picture. I can help him fill in the blank spots, gather information, and choose from a place of being informed and prepared.

Questions to Ask Your Teen

Over the past year, I have collected a few questions that I have asked Noah. My hope is that these question will help him consider his own needs and how to meet them in his college experience. I hope these questions will help you guide your teen as they prepare to choose their college:

  1. What does the school feel like to him? 
  2. Which school will support what he needs from his education? 
  3. What does he want and need from his undergrad experience? 
  4. What are the financial obligations for the schools he wants to attend? 
  5. Is he ready to make the financial commitment?
  6. What does he want his social life to look like in college?
  7. What does he want his academic life to look like in college?
  8. Does he want to know his professors or does he want to be in a big lecture hall and meet with Teaching Assistants on occasion?
  9. How will he balance academic rigor and social life?

Wherever Noah chooses to go to college, I want his experience to be all he hopes it to be for himself. As his mom, all I really want is for the college experience to shape him, support him, and help him succeed. I also want his college experience to be his transition from high school to leading a joyful and purposeful life as an adult.

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