The Parent Guide to College Planning

Today, college planning is a team effort that involves students, parents, and school professionals. There are many reasons students need the extra support: College costs are skyrocketing, admissions are increasingly competitive, and schools set high expectations in terms of essays, test scores, and extracurriculars. In this climate, it's understandable why students turn to their parents for help.

This guide is intended for parents who are just starting the college planning process. Using our 2019 Parent College Prep survey, along with insights from education experts, we break down the data you need to make informed decisions about both the financial and nonfinancial aspects of getting a college education.

College is an exciting milestone that can help define your child's future. By reading this guide, we hope you come to see college planning as a gradual, collaborative process that doesn't have to cause stress for you or your family.

About the Parent College Preparation Survey

We conducted our 2019 College Prep Survey with the participation of 246 parents. They come from all over the United States, and either they are helping their children prepare for higher education or their children have recently transitioned into college. The students' ages generally fall between 16 and 18 years old, and 70% of them are planning to attend four-year colleges; the remainder plan on attending community colleges, tech or trade schools, or military academies.

Icon - Quote We conducted our 2019 College Prep Survey with the participation of 246 parents. Icon - Quote

Before you dive into our data and insights, it's important to know that our survey questions were broadly divided into two categories: financial aspects of college planning (e.g., savings plans, loans, and financial aid) and nonfinancial aspects (e.g., academics, extracurriculars, and college prep resources). Some parents may focus exclusively on improving their child's academic performance, while others are actively involved in financial planning. No matter how you decide to help your children, you can benefit from exploring the most common questions and expert advice in these categories.

Identifying Trends

In our survey, we included an open-ended question asking parents to identify some of the greatest challenges that they and their children have faced as they prepared for college. Unsurprisingly, we found respondents shared many of the same concerns. After sorting through their feedback, we were able to group almost all of the respondents' answers into the following categories:

Using these initial insights to help inform some of the broader topics covered, we split our guide into four sections that we believe represent the major aspects of college planning and preparation throughout the admissions journey: Saving for your child's education, college preparation in high school, finding and applying to colleges, and your child's college transition.

The Role of Parents in College Planning

We'd like to make clear our belief that when it comes to college planning, there is no set role for parents. In fact, some parents choose not to actively assist their kids during this process. This is not a criticism, as there could be many reasons why parents take a more hands-off approach, such as teaching children self-sufficiency, a lack of financial resources, or a belief that college isn't the right choice.

All of these are valid reasons. However, if you're reading this guide, you are probably considering getting more involved, which makes you like the 34% of our survey respondents who said they were "at least slightly to somewhat" involved in their child's college planning and preparation.

Parents who aren't able to contribute financially can still help their children through the college preparation process in other significant ways. "It is hugely important for parents to emotionally support their children throughout the college admissions process," according to Virginia Ruehrwein, a college admissions consultant and Harvard graduate. With many years of experience in school counseling, she recommends that parents "communicate about the process on a regular basis, and help their children with it as needed." Ruehrwein's specific recommendations include the following.

  • Communicate Openly: Ask your child what they need and develop a mutual plan. Remind them of deadlines and make sure you're always on the same page.
  • Define Parameters: Spell out how you can help, whether it's financially or with specific aspects of the application process (e.g., research, test preparation, or brainstorming for college essays).
  • Keep in Touch With Counselors: Seek information from guidance counselors, who can inform you about college information sessions, deadlines, financial aid, and campus visits. Be sure to monitor school calendars for events.
  • Use Trusted Resources: Some sources are more reliable than others. When researching schools, websites like BestColleges, the College Board,, The Princeton Review, and — if your school offers them — Naviance and Scoir are helpful.
  • Ask for Help: Aside from guidance counselors and other professionals, you can ask other parents how they guided their children through the admissions process. If all else fails, college websites usually contain the information you need.

If there is one thing that can make or break a college application, it's the essay. Ruehrwein suggests students may benefit from their parents' help in this arena: "In college essays, students should describe an experience that has given them pause for great reflection and perhaps even changed the trajectory of their development or their future. Some parents opt to get help from professional college consultants throughout the process or just to review essays."