How to Help Your Child Choose a College

Helping your child choose a college can be a great experience. Keep reading to learn how to support your child in the college decision process.
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The staff writers for BestColleges collaborate to deliver unique, student-driven content on topics such as career development, college life, and college planning....
Updated on May 23, 2023
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Editor & Writer

Tyler Epps is an editor for BestColleges. He writes and edits content about higher education, specializing in degree planning and college rankings. He is passionate about helping students prepare for college and navigate their educational journey. He...
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  • Students must ultimately make their own decision about which college to attend and what to major in.
  • Not all students follow the traditional education path.
  • Parents and guardians who overstep boundaries can create more anxiety for their child.

Helping your child choose a college can be a wonderful bonding experience. But when done incorrectly, it can also increase anxiety and put more pressure on students.

Parents and guardians who navigate this process properly can build confidence and decision-making skills in their children — benefits that will serve them well in choosing a college and beyond.

Keep reading to learn the do's and don'ts of helping students navigate the college decision process.

How Involved Should Parents and Guardians Be in the College Decision Process?

In an ideal world, parents and guardians of students preparing for college primarily provide emotional and possibly financial support.

Sometimes, however, parents get too involved in the process to the point they start making decisions on behalf of their child rather than letting them draw their own conclusions.

Helping your child navigate the college decision process can be challenging — after all, students are in the middle of transitioning into adulthood while also making decisions that can affect their lives for years to come. Instead of taking over the process, parents and guardians should play a supportive role to empower their child.

6 Ways to Help Your Child Choose the Right College

Helping your child choose a college can feel stressful for both you and your child, but it doesn't have to be. These six steps can make the process beneficial and enjoyable for both.

1. Create a List of Schools With Your Child

Creating a list of schools can help students better understand what they want to get out of their higher education experience, be that academically, personally, or socially. When creating a list of schools together, it's important to really listen to what your child needs and wants and take time to understand their preferences.

For instance, some students may want a college that prioritizes academics above all, while others may feel they need a robust social component to truly enjoy the experience.

2. Don't Rule Out Alternative Education Paths

For many parents and guardians, having their children earn a four-year degree ranks high on their list of hopes and expectations for them.

That said, not all students want or even need to follow the traditional path. Some learners may be better served by trade schools or community colleges, while those considering jobs in the digital sphere may find that a coding bootcamp best fits their needs.

Rather than imposing your desires on your child, bolster your child's confidence in choosing an alternative education route by supporting them during the process.

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3. Talk Openly About Location

While some students imagine themselves moving across the country to start their higher education journey, others prefer to stay close to home.

By talking about location early, parents and guardians can help students consider decision-making factors like in-state vs. out-of-state tuition and how costs differ between public and private colleges.

Other factors students should consider include the size of the city where a school is located, how long it takes to travel home, and the cost of living in their new location.

4. Discuss Affordability and Compare Financial Aid Offers

Start talking openly about the cost of college early in the process, especially if you won't be providing your child substantial financial support for their education plans.

When looking at schools, take time to compare tuition rates among colleges to help students understand how those numbers add up. Discussing affordability can help manage expectations in addition to teaching students about financial literacy and management.

Once financial aid offers arrive after you and your child have submitted the FAFSA, sit down to figure out how much you and/or your child will owe after taking out all available funding.

5. Visit Campuses With Your Child

Visiting campuses as part of the college decision process can help students solidify their top choices and start to imagine themselves attending. Being part of campus visits with your child emphasizes your support and provides the opportunity for you to ask questions your child may consider.

When visiting, try to empower your child to gather information, either independently or collaboratively with you, rather than taking over the process entirely.

6. Provide Emotional Support

Making a final decision about where to attend college, waiting for acceptance letters and financial aid offers, and transitioning from high school to college can be a stressful time for students, often leading to anxiety.

Parents and guardians can provide emotional support and a listening ear during this process, helping students talk through their options and fears.

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Helping Your Child Choose a College

Despite good intentions, parents and guardians can sometimes make mistakes during the college decision process. Here are five common errors to avoid.

1. Taking Over the College Search Process Entirely

Parents and guardians who micromanage the college search process deprive their children of the opportunity to explore a variety of schools and learn how to narrow their options based on available information. Helping your child choose a college should be a collaborative process that brings together their excitement with your wisdom.

While it's perfectly acceptable and normal to offer guidance and advice when asked, try not to provide too many opinions without prompting.

2. Pushing for a Specific School or Major

You may have specific ideas about which college your child should attend — and even which major they should declare — but pushing your agenda can be damaging for prospective students.

This is especially true for potential legacy students, or those attending college on the basis of familial relationships to alumni. Pushing your preferences can make the student feel as though they need to bend to the desires of someone else rather than forging their own path.

3. Ignoring the Financial Side of College

Attending college represents a serious financial investment, so failing to discuss the financial side of earning a degree is a massive mistake.

Parents and guardians who don't take the time to talk about college costs and compare financial aid packages can cause financial burdens for their child later on. This is why it's so important to hold frank and honest conversations throughout the process.

4. Assuming You Know What Your Child Is Looking For

Just because you might have raised your child doesn't mean you necessarily know what they need and want out of their college education. Ultimately, students must decide what they want their future to look like, including the type of degree and career they pursue.

Try to make sure you're not pressuring your child to make decisions based solely on a school's ranking or reputation, as this can lead to regret later on.

5. Making the Final Decision for Them

At the end of the day, it's up to students to decide where they want to attend college — and parents and guardians should not try to make the final decision for them.

Even if you're contributing financially to your child's education, make sure you let your child weigh their options, consider their financial situation, and make a decision based on their needs, wants, and goals.

When College Decision Day comes around, parents and guardians can lend their support and encouragement but should refrain from offering unsolicited opinions and exerting pressure.

The Importance of Not Overstepping Boundaries

When parents and guardians become too pushy or get overly involved in the college decision process, their behavior can prove detrimental to their child. Ultimately, both you and your child may end up feeling anxious and unhappy.

As much as you want to be a resource and support, students must make their own decisions in the end.

If you catch yourself overstepping boundaries, make sure to acknowledge it by telling your child that you recognized your behavior and will try to empower rather than influence them in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions About Helping Your Child Choose a College

How do I help my child choose the right college?

Parents and guardians can do a lot to help with the college decision process. In addition to helping students compile a list of potential schools, they can discuss the pros and cons of each, ask students insightful questions, and make sure they understand the financial implications of their decision.

If you maintain proper boundaries and act as a support system throughout the process, your child will likely feel empowered in their decision. Ultimately, the right college for your child is the one that aligns most with their academic goals, meets their personal needs, and is financially attainable.

How do I talk to my child about money if I can't afford their top-choice school?

For parents and guardians who want to provide financial support but can't afford a pricey college, honesty is the best policy. If the child feels determined to attend a particular school but your budget doesn't stretch that far, let them know.

Tell them you can provide a certain amount, but they'll need to consider other financial aid options if they have their heart set on attending the more expensive option.

How can I help my child if they are rejected from their top-choice school?

Getting rejected from their dream college can be difficult for students, but remind them that it's not the end of the world. While providing space for them to express themselves, let them know how proud you are of their efforts and that other options exist.

When they're ready, encourage your child to consider the schools that did extend offer letters and help them see the benefits of attending one of those institutions. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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