Better decisions lead to better lives and a better society.

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6 Low-Pressure Tips for Helping Your Child Decide Where to Apply to College

February 10, 2020
Jillian Hardgrove

If you’re helping your child decide where to apply to college, it can seem like the process is going well as long as you’re not arguing about it. However, it takes more than avoiding conflict with one another to make the best choices. The following tips will help you and your child clarify what matters to each of you and keep your emotions in check as you collaborate on the college application process.

1.  Talk about how you’ve previously dealt with decisions as a family.

When you’ve had to make a decision that affects multiple family members, did you communicate about it throughout the process, wait until things boiled over to address it, or sidestep conversation about it altogether? Did you try to reach a consensus by finding ways to benefit everyone involved, or did you get stuck in a standoff or a “my way or the highway” type of ending? Discussing how you’ve approached tough decisions together in the past can help you recognize moments during the college application process when you need to take a break, get another family member to mediate, or seek help from someone with more expertise like a guidance counselor or financial aid officer.

2.  Identify the responsibilities you and your child have in this decision making process. 

Calibrate your expectations about one another’s roles in the college application process by discussing whether one or both of you will be:

  • Identifying the initial list of schools your child will be considering.

  • Gathering and deliberating over the information about those schools.

  • Making the final decisions about where your child applies and then ultimately enrolls.

Sharing your reasoning for your answers can help you be more understanding and open to compromise. Take it further by identifying how much weight your views carry when addressing these points. For each decision, try to agree about whether you have a 50-50 say in it or if it’s appropriate to have a different balance.

3.  Acknowledge how you’re framing the decision and what influences it. 

The question you’re trying to answer in this situation may seem as simple as “Where should my child apply to college?” But to identify how you’re framing the decision, think about how you’d extend that sentence if you included the main goal you thought your child should accomplish by attending college. For example, you might really be thinking about where your child should apply to college in order to:

  • Land a reliable job after graduation.

  • Network with professors, job recruiters, and other students and their families.

  • Explore their interests. 

  • Get prepared to run the family business. 

  • Avoid debt. 

Our past experiences, age, finances, and the media we consume are just some of the factors that influence how we frame a decision. Make some time for you and your child to recognize and discuss what affects how each of you are framing the college application process. You might talk about things like:

  • How you decided about your own post-secondary plans, whether you pursued college, trade school, or the military, or entered the workforce right away. Why did you make that choice? What do you think you did well in your decision making process? What would you have done differently?

  • How you picked your major (if you attended college). What did you like and dislike about your school’s program? How did it impact your life? 

  • The lists of schools that interest you and your child. Did you add them because you think they would align with your child’s interests and characteristics as a student, or were you influenced more by factors like your own preferences, advertisements from the school, or stories from acquaintances? What draws your child to the schools on his list (and what made him exclude others)? 

When you and your child are aware of what influences the way you each frame the college application, it can prompt you to identify other trusted family, friends, and advisors who offer supplementary knowledge and points of view.

4.  Separately, list the top five criteria you want a college to meet. 

This exercise will illuminate your priorities (or push you to identify them in the first place). Comparing your lists will help you better understand the issues that could potentially put you at odds with one another. For example, imagine that the top five criteria you want your child’s college to satisfy are low cost, short distance from home,  small class size, academic support, and well-resourced career services. You discover your child cares most about housing amenities, Greek life, professors’ reputations, study abroad opportunities, and Division I sporting events. The different frames you have on the college application process will naturally result in different criteria, but if you take the time to try to reach a consensus about the criteria that matter most, your subsequent discussions about evaluating colleges will go more smoothly.

5.  Write your questions in one column and identify the resources that might help you answer them in another column. 

A campus tour that offers glimpses of the amenities and social atmosphere provides only surface-level knowledge of the student experience at a college. To get a clearer picture of whether a school will be right for your child, both of you will benefit from developing a list of questions that address specific concerns you have about majors, academic and career services, extracurricular activities, and financial aid. Then, identify reliable sources you can consult to get answers. The act of writing your questions can prompt you to think of additional, related issues that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Here are some examples of how it might look:

6. Talk about times when you’ve had to be resilient. 

You don’t need to tell a story about climbing Mt. Everest with a fractured leg to make an impact. Your child can learn a lot from how you’ve dealt with everyday difficulties as you worked to achieve a goal, like accessing information, managing scheduling conflicts, or budgeting. When similar issues interfere with the college application process, discuss what your child can do to improve the situation, even somewhat, instead of giving up in frustration.

In addition to using these tips to construct a more thoughtful college application process, you and your child can apply them to other deliberative decisions you may work on together, like choosing an internship, buying a car, or finding an apartment.

For more decision-making tips geared toward the college experience, read our post "Help Your Child Use Decision Skills to Choose a College Major" and check out the books Smart Choices by John L. Hammond, Ralph S. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa and Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath for additional insights about collaborative decision making.

About the Alliance for Decision Education

The Alliance for Decision Education is dedicated to the understanding that better decisions lead to better lives and a better society. Our mission is to improve lives by empowering students to be better decision makers. The Alliance is gathering education and industry leaders, researchers, policymakers, educators, program providers, and parents from across the country to ensure Decision Education becomes a critical part of every middle and high school student’s learning experience. We are building the field of Decision Education and creating a national movement that can, and will, make a difference in the lives of students for generations to come. Follow the Alliance on Twitter at @AllDecisionEd or send us an email with your ideas and questions at



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