Five college topics to discuss before applications

Some of the most important topics in college planning aren’t discussed until there is tension, confusion, or outright family disagreement around them. For families with rising seniors who will soon begin their applications, here are five topics to discuss beforehand.

1. Areas of collegiate disagreement
It’s normal for parents and students to disagree on the right college environment for the student. And while the student who will actually spend four years at the college should drive the decision, parents still get to weigh in, especially if they’re paying the bill. Instead of butting heads, use those areas where you disagree as a chance to learn more about the other viewpoint. Find areas of commonality even if you differ on the schools themselves. And here’s a tip: remember that the decision to apply to a school is separate from the decision to attend (unless a student applies in a binding early decision program). That can take some pressure off when you reach a collegiate impasse.

2. The makeup of your list
Some families will agree on the schools to be included on the list without discussing the makeup of the list itself. What are the student’s chances of admission at each school? Has your high school counselor vetted those predicted odds? Do you have at least one safety school? A financial safety school? Are you swinging for the admissions fences with a long list of reach schools or balancing your list to maximize your chances of admissions success? These are important decisions that deserve to be discussed openly and made thoughtfully. If you’d like some advice on how to do that, I’ve written two past posts, here and here, on the art of crafting a balanced college list, and another on the risks of playing the reach school lottery.

3. The family college budget
Many parents have the instinct to shield their kids from the economic realities of attending college. But I recommend that parents have honest, open discussions with their students about college costs, especially if some schools will be out of your financial reach. Financial aid and scholarships can make up the difference, but you won’t know the specifics of those packages until you apply for aid and are accepted to college. As uncomfortable as that conversation may be, having it now, however unpleasant, is much better than having it later if your student is accepted but your family can’t afford the school.

4. Your goals for the process
What would a successful college application process look like? Is it getting accepted to USC? Becoming the first in the student’s family to attend college? The student taking their first steps towards an exciting next chapter? Whatever the answer, it’s worth discovering where students and parents have agreement or conflict in this area. In fact, some parents may find that their teens are placing far more weight on factors they cannot entirely control—like the admissions decisions—than parents are. What a wonderful opportunity for parents to remind their students that their love is unconditional no matter which colleges say yes.

5. The family application plan
Regular readers know that I recommend students drive their own college application process. Whether or not a family embraces that approach, it’s worth discussing the family application plan. What will your respective roles be? Who will do what? How often will parents check on application progress? It’s much easier to have this discussion now, when you can agree on an approach that works for both student and parent, than to tackle it in the midst of application conflict when one or more parties are saying, “I thought you were taking care of that!” And here’s a past post with my recommended division of college application labor.