How to choose a college: Tips from me and my kid

March 11, 2014 · 17 comments

in Money issues, Relationships

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If you’re hunting for a college, my daughter and I want to help. BOTH of us are here to share what we went through to find her school. It’s not often that you get the parent and child perspectives at the same time!

Our side-by-side thoughts are below. We are happy to report that we navigated the insane pressure of the hunt without driving each other berserk. To stay on track, we had one goal: We had to find Gabi’s people.

So if you ask us, that’s what choosing a college is all about. My baby girl had to find her people, her community, her home away from home. We were looking for her extended family.

Here’s what we learned…

The parental process of letting go starts now, big time.  

Gabi: Kids have to understand that applying (and leaving) for college is an extremely exciting yet daunting experience for both themselves and for their parents. For this reason, many parents want to share the experience and engage in it to the same extent that it is the kid’s job to do this.  Our parents only want the best for us and to ensure that we’re doing the right thing!

The important factor in situations like these is to have a balance. Kids should be open-minded and maybe visit a few schools that their parents want them to see, because this will satisfy their parents and maybe they’ll find a liking where they didn’t expect to! But at the same time, kids and their parents have to understand that ultimately, the college experience is about the kid, not the parents. Our parents will be proud of us as long as we’re succeeding and are happy, regardless of where we end up going to school.

Me: One of Gabi’s high school guidance counselors gave the best advice ever. She said that whatever college you want, your kids will want the opposite. It was very, very hard for me to leave Gabi alone. But when I did, she made the fantastic decision to go early decision. This means she filed in November to her top choice and was notified before the end of the year — with the condition that she would definitely attend.

So while most of our friends were going the regular route and nail-biting through the winter and spring, our problem was simply an early, severe case of senioritis. Thank goodness she had a steady babysitting job that kept her busy after school; the gig gave structure to her life outside of the classroom.

Applying for colleges can get nuts, really fast.   

Gabi: A parent’s desire to be involved in the application process can be stressful on us kids, especially if we feel that we have to accommodate their wants into what we’re looking for in a school. If parents and kids want the same things, then this is an optimal situation and will probably be easy sailing for both parties. But say, for example, that our parents are pressuring us to apply to schools that we’re positive we aren’t interested in. For me, these were schools like Harvard and Princeton…

Me: Ooops, sorry! I went to a public school (Baruch College) and lived at home. While I received a fine education, the college environment was next to nil. My parents always wanted me to have more and be more than them. When I became a mother, I wanted my daughter to have more too. And I just reflexively reached for the Ivies. It took me a while to back off. But once I did, there was less tension in our house.

College tours are super-helpful. 

Gabi: For myself and for many of my friends, there was a definite sense of feeling at home when visiting the college that we knew was “the one.” In the fall of my senior year, I took my first tour of Wesleyan University with my mom. I remember not being able to suppress the sense of warmth that I felt, quite literally, inside of me.

Before visiting Wesleyan, my mom and I had toured a handful of other schools. Some of these tours deterred me from applying to those schools. Others emphasized qualities that I really liked, but left me feeling like there was still something missing — I didn’t feel the  strong desire to have to be there. But as soon as I stepped foot onto the Wesleyan campus, it was completely different.

Me: By September of Gabi’s senior year, I was panicking. We didn’t know where to look. We also made things worse by comparing ourselves to parents and kids who were much more organized. They had booked flights to visit colleges; some of them had already started going on tours months earlier.

But then we bought the 2013 Fiske Guide to Colleges. It’s a big paperback book with one-page summaries for hundreds of American schools. Updated every year, it clearly describes what each school is best known for, the academic requirements, range of activities, tuition, etc. We scanned the book like a shopping catalogue, ripping out pages we liked. From here, we narrowed down where to visit and took the torn pages with us on the tours.

Figure out your priorities.  

Gabi: I wanted to go to a school that has students that are academically driven. But it also had to be a school that focused on individuality, extra-curricular activities and personal growth outside of the classroom setting.This can be hard to consider in the moment, especially if a mom keeps dropping hints about how great it would be if we applied to X school because they have such a great pre-med program, or dad keeps talking about how he’d be honored if we went to Y school because he’s an alumnus.

We can’t completely put our parents’ wishes out of our minds, but when deciding where to spend the next four years of your life, it is most important to listen to your own hearts while still being respectful of your parents’ wish to help.

Me: During our early stages of the hunt, Gabi indulged me by visiting some nearby New York schools. Meanwhile, I kept my mouth shut when she kept talking about studying in California. We visited campuses in NYC, Connecticut, Chicago, Massachusettes and Los Angeles.

By the time we finished window shopping, Gabi knew exactly what she wanted: a small-ish (but not tiny) school with a somewhat urban campus (town or city nearby). We both felt a 50-50 ratio of boys and girls was important. In the end, the advice of one of her high school guidance counselors came true: You need to know your child and if she’s a family person who is likely to get homesick, stay within driving distance. That’s exactly what happened. Close enough but far enough!   

Choosing a college is about more than academics.

Gabi: What first attracted me was the diversity of the Wesleyan students giving the tours. There was a heavily-bearded neuroscience major with bright yellow sunglasses, and a petite female sociology-and-English double major who was wearing the chunkiest and most retro boots I’d ever seen.

I decided to go on the tour led by a junior film studies major. My attraction to the campus was reinforced by seeing so many eclectic students walking around, as well as listening to my tour guide talk about the variety of groups, majors and activities. Variety is important to me, and I could tell that this school had it.

Me: When we toured Wesleyan, all I could think was, I wish I could go to school here! Part of me felt jealous and sad for myself, that I had never gone away — I have to be honest with you about that. But at the same time, it’s a blessing to live a bit vicariously through Gabs.

Once we were on the Wes tour, we looked at each other and knew. These were her people. I’d never seen so many different types of afros and Jewfros on kids of so many different races! Other pluses: strong in the art and the performing arts; gay and straight guys galore; fabulous film and psych departments. And, the food is fab. The campus cafeterias have strong vegetarian and vegan options; seniors still eat on campus, which says a lot. There’s also good eats in the nearby town and strip malls.

Since food is where Gabs tends to get the most homesick, finding comfort in the eats was a huge bonus. By comparison, some of the schools we looked at were dreary in the food department. While we never nixed a place based on food, looking back, it definitely made even potentially great schools less appealing. So be sure to eat on campus during the tours that matter to you most.  And check out the closest town too.

Let yourself enjoy the process. 

Gabi: In the span of a 90-minute tour, I felt a real sense of community and of belonging at this place. I loved the layout of the campus, and students looked genuinely happy — as opposed to the sense of stress I perceived from students at other schools, based on the amount of creased foreheads and tense postures I’d noticed. I remember being able to truly envision myself living at Wesleyan for the next four years.

The crazy amount of smiles and positive eye contact my mom and I exchanged during the tour told me that she felt the same way. This isn’t to say that everybody finds a college that they know is “the one” before actually applying. I have a handful of friends who ended up going to schools that weren’t necessarily their dream schools and they are so happy now and don’t regret their decisions at all. But for me, something inside definitely clicked. I felt that Wesleyan was the place for me, and that I would find “my people” here. And although I may still be searching for more of these people, I love my school and am confident that there’s definitely no place I’d rather be.

Me: The schools each set up such distinctive tours and outreach marketing programs. At Wesleyan, there’s a tremendous effort to involve parents. Every week, I get friendly, well-designed emails updating me on campus activities, alumni in the news (and some requests for donations too, which is to be expected). No matter what happens in the years ahead, I will always be at peace about Gabi’s college decision. The way we handled it has also been good for our relationship. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Even though we still annoy each other and squabble, we are also sharing new adventures. This is a photo of us in September, during registration. Gabi, the freshman! It was very, very exciting.

Registration begins!

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In the end, looking for a college was a rite of passage on many levels. There’s so much more that goes into this process, from dealing with financial aid to the reality of not getting a first choice. If you have questions, reflections or more advice for college hunters, please drop a comment. Let’s make this post helpful for the parents and kids who are losing their minds right now.   :)

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