Finding the Right Fit: Your Teen and College

Find a college that meets the academic, social, and career goals of your student

You can check out all of the slick college brochures, college Web sites, and college-planning resources you wish, but choosing the right college for your teen boils down to a few things: primarily personality and goals.

For many teens, it seems to be an easy choice—they just want to go to the nearest college or the one their friends are planning to attend. However, finding a college that’s the “right fit” often isn’t that easy. It takes a lot of homework and legwork, and your teens may need your help.

The secret is in finding a college that meets the academic, social, and career goals of a student. So, what should you consider when choosing a college? According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, the top qualities college freshmen seek in a school include:

  • Academic reputation
  • Availability of financial aid
  • Job placement success
  • College size

In today’s brand-conscious world, academic reputation has become important to families. But just because a college has a stellar academic reputation doesn’t mean it’s the right one for your student. There are thousands of colleges that provide students with a quality education even if they don’t make national ranking lists. Your student needs to answer many questions before a decision is made, and the decision should be based upon solid information.

A good place to start—the college’s location. This will affect the number of choices you have. Is the college close enough to home? The newly independent student might still want the family close enough for weekend visits.

The size of the college may be a factor. One of the reasons students drop out of college is because they don’t feel as if they fit in. A small-town student who graduated from high school with 100 seniors may suffer from culture shock in a large university—or he might enjoy the educational or cultural offerings never experienced before.

When considering size, look at the instructor–student ratio. How accessible are the instructors? Do they take an active interest in their students? Also, class sizes vary greatly. For example, at a large university, a freshman American history class might have 300 students, while at the same institution, a freshman English class may be limited to 30 students.

Does the school offer academic support services for students, particularly freshmen who are adjusting to college courses? Also consider the rigor of the courses taught. College is an adjustment for all students, and you need to know the level of academic challenge your student is ready to handle. Visit with your school’s counselor for more information.

Academically, it’s important that the college has a strong offering in your child’s chosen major. Find out the academic requirements for that major and what learning opportunities are available. What job-placement services does the college provide?

And, of course, teens will be interested in the nonacademic and social life. Are there social and extracurricular activities that appeal to your student’s interests? Find out the availability of athletic, social, academic, and recreational clubs.

Last, but not least, consider cost. College is expensive, but almost all colleges have scholarship awards, loans, work-study, and other types of aid to help ease the financial burden. Contact the college’s financial aid office for more details.

Before applying to a college, visit the campus. It’s the only way to get a true picture of the atmosphere and to answer some of your questions. Talk to current students (and graduates, if possible) and faculty members, look at housing, attend some classes, and spend some time in the community. College catalogs, websites, and videos are fine starting points, but they won’t tell you if the school is known for a party atmosphere, if students leave campus on the weekends, or if there is diversity among faculty and students, or if the town is welcoming to students.

Colleges want to recruit students who will thrive on campus. Armed with the right information, your child will make a good choice.


This article was written by Rose Rennekamp

Rose Rennekamp is the chairman of the board for the Iowa College Access Network and the former vice president of communications for ACT. She is a mom and has a Master of Education in guidance and counseling.

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