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Choosing the Right College for Your Teen, Part I

How To Prep and Help Your Teen Choose the Right College

"It is all so overwhelming...leaving your childhood behind and entering the adult world of college," says Judie Smith* from Arkansas, mother of a 17-year-old daughter. "I just never realized how...the emotions would be in seeing your child make that transition." Judie, like millions of mothers every year, realized that in entering college, her daughter was no longer a child but an adult-in-the-making, ready to meet the challenge of college head-on.

As emotionally turbulent as it sounds, preparing to enter college can be taxing in ways other than the transition from child to adult. In addition to dealing with emotional upheaval, the admissions process can be overwhelming. Judie's daughter was lucky; she knew exactly what school she wanted to attend and what she wanted to study. But many kids and parents don't even know where to start when choosing a college and beginning the application process. Even for students who have narrowed down their options, filling out the applications, interviewing and applying for financial aid can be trying. But as with any educational endeavor, a little organization goes a long way.

"The guidance office is a great place to begin," says Patrick DeBenedictis, senior admissions counselor at Gordon College in Massachusetts. "Most counseling centers have access to a computer database that can select schools based on major, size, location, religious affiliation, sports programs, etc.," he says. After coming up with a list of schools, a student can begin looking for details that will narrow down the search. Students who have not decided on majors, size or locations of choice would do well to visit at least three local colleges, says DeBenedictis.

"Families need to think about the type of school that will be best for their teen," says Amy Rosenstein, director of admissions programs at Kaplan Inc. "Families fall into the trap of applying only to 'big name' schools, thereby failing to discover that there are many lesser-known schools that have exceptional programs and opportunities and might be a better fit for the student." She suggests students use a search engine such as the one on the kaptest.com Web site. Students and families can later do more thorough research through:

  • books
  • software
  • online services
  • speaking with friends who are or were enrolled
  • speaking with high school guidance counselors

Michael Weiss, now a student in Columbia University's bio-engineering program, knew that he wanted to study something in the science and engineering field. After restricting his options to a few schools that he thought would offer what he wanted, Michael began talking to friends he had in each of the schools he chose. "I thought I would get a good idea of what the schools were really like by speaking to people who actually attended," he says. "They don't try to sell you on the school, and they don't expect you to sell yourself to them."

Campus visits are also a good idea. They give the prospective student some perspective on what college life is like at that specific school. "I would not recommend that a family invest in something as important and expensive as a college education without first setting foot on campus," says DeBenedictis. Some colleges offer programs to provide transportation and tours during campus visits.

Weiss visited the Columbia campus before enrolling. He lists his visit as one of the major deciding factors in his selection. "I was able to get a feel for what it would be like there," he says. "Plus, I noticed that most of the people at the school seemed happy. It sounds funny, but that really made an impression on me. The students enjoyed being there -- you could tell."

* Last name has been changed

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