The Parents' Guide to College Planning in Middle and High School

Jan 18 2021

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Although students typically begin applying to colleges during the fall of their senior year, preparation should actually begin much earlier than that. But how early is too early? And how can parents facilitate this process for their child without taking too much responsibility and autonomy away from them? 

As with most other aspects of parenting, the key is to find balance.


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Below, we explore a family’s role in the college planning process and offer tips that parents can use to help their child prepare for college.

A Family’s Role in the College Planning Process

Throughout the college planning process, it’s fine, and indeed encouraged, for parents and guardians to take an active role, but the child should be the one steering the ship. Students will see the most success if parents and guardians are supportive without being overbearing. For families, working together, reflecting, and understanding each other’s goals and concerns is the key to unlocking the gates to the best colleges.

Parents and guardians may struggle to fight their own instincts and lead a child’s college planning process. But it’s important to remember that exercising too much control is not best for the child. Your child will learn the most if each step is taken mutually, with love and support instead of pressure or coercion. 

Educate your child on the importance of a college education and guide them along the process of researching schools and applying, but give them space to make their own mistakes and to have their own goals. You may be surprised by the level of initiative your child can demonstrate once you give them the opportunity to do so!

College Planning Tips for Parents

1. Build strong foundations early.

Focusing on the college admissions process in middle school or early in high school is typically not the best use of a family’s time or resources. Instead, parents and guardians can support their children by helping them develop good habits that will serve them well later on. 

This foundation should include both academic and social skills. Developing solid homework routines, efficient study habits, time management, organization, self-advocacy, and critical thinking skills will serve children well in middle school as well as college. Likewise, developing social and emotional skills (like being able to build and maintain friendships, having a strong sense of self-esteem and self-worth, etc.) all take on added importance later on. 

2. Anticipate future costs.

It’s no secret that college is expensive, and that the cost of earning a degree is only going to continue to rise. Many students will find it necessary to take out student loans to pay for tuition. 

One of the most important actions any family can take in helping their child prepare for college is to anticipate these future costs. Understanding what college is likely to cost helps parents understand how much they will be able to contribute to their child’s education, which will further empower you to help your child understand the various financial aid options that will be available to them. 

By starting to prepare for your child’s future tuition costs as early as possible, you can set realistic goals for yourself that enable you to help your child as much as possible without hurting your own financial standing. You’ll also have much more time for your money to compound and grow. 

3. Visit college campuses and build a list.

Some students will only be able to know if a college is right for them after they set foot on campus. However, you don’t want to wait until the last minute to figure out if a college is the right choice. 

Between the applications, essays, and interviews, there’s a lot involved in the college application process. Starting to tour college campuses during the junior year not only provides more flexibility in a family’s schedule, but it can also help your child narrow down the list of schools based on their personal preferences. 

Most significantly, time is still on your side. You can still plan college tours around prior commitments and family vacations. That way, when senior year begins, you and your child are ready to submit those applications without the added stress and worry of tours.

At the start of senior year, students should be finalizing their list of colleges and beginning applications. At Friends’ Central, seniors have “college application process work days” built into their schedules. These days can serve a number of purposes, one of which could be making one last trip to a college in order to decide where to apply. Taking such trips during this time also means students will be able to see a college campus while classes are going on, offering them the chance to see a true college experience.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has caused many colleges to reconceptualize their approach to campus tours. If your child still has a few years before college, there is no reason to rush ahead with visits now; give the pandemic time to settle, and begin visiting campuses when you’re confident you can do so safely. If your child is approaching the time where he or she will need to settle on schools to apply to, reach out to the admissions office at each college and inquire about options that may be available. You might be able to take a virtual tour, for example, schedule a private tour, or simply plan your visit for a time when fewer people will be on campus.

4. Work with college counselors.

Towards the end of junior year, students should begin having conversations with college counselors. These professionals help guide students through the college application process, helping them to identify potential areas of interest and selecting the college that best fits their needs and wants. 

In addition to helping students understand their options, counselors will often help students apply for scholarships and other financial aid. answer any questions parents or guardians may have about anything from college applications to FAFSA forms. 

Some high schools, like Friends’ Central, employ college counselors whose role is specifically designed to help usher students through the college planning process. In other schools, college counseling may be one of many duties of academic advisors. 

Work Together With Your Child

The most important thing to remember during this entire process is you and your child are a team. Working together is crucial to ensuring your child leaves high school and steps foot on the college campus that is right for him or her. Talk to admissions officers. Talk to college counselors. But most importantly, talk to each other.

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