4 tips for navigating the college process with your child

Lisa McClellan P’19 ’21, assistant director of college counseling for The Peddie School, shares four tips for keeping the journey as stress-free as possible. 

Our oldest daughter Sophie ’19 is halfway through her freshman year in college. She loves it – the freedom, her new friends, dining hall food – the whole thing. She simply can’t imagine herself anywhere else and feels super lucky and a little relieved to really love where she is. 

More than once, she has reflected on the fact that her college process was not particularly fraught or tense, which felt odd for her when some of her peers were, let’s say, a little less than calm. Part of it was luck – once she found a school she really liked, she applied early decision and got in – but I also like to think that I was able to use my knowledge as a college counselor to keep things relatively sane.

With daughter number two currently midway through junior year, I’m hopeful that we can employ some similar tactics to keep her journey as stress-free as possible. There’s obviously no magic formula, but I’ve outlined some things that worked for us – as well as some advice – in the hopes that it can streamline things for others.

1. Have the hard conversations as soon as possible.

Having conversations (and saying no) at the get-go about location, money and expectations will make things much easier in the end. Sophie LOVES New York City, but pretty early, we talked about what that would look like for our family and knew that she would likely not go to college there.

While the location is close to where we live in New Jersey, many of the schools there have tremendous overhead costs and are therefore unable to be as generous with financial aid or university grants that we sought. Additionally, it is expensive to live in Manhattan, even if your room and board are ‘covered.’ With the five boroughs as your extended campus, things – food, entertainment, sightseeing – add up really quickly. That is not to say that there are kids out there for whom a New York City college can be very affordable, but for our family, it just didn’t make sense, and once we established that, we were able to move on. Whatever your parameters, whether financial, geographical, academic or cultural, be clear early on about what – as parents or guardians – you will support in your child’s next steps.

Having conversations (and saying no) at the get-go about location, money and expectations will make things much easier in the end.”

2. Visit, visit, visit!

As a boarding school, Peddie students attend class (and faculty teach) six days a week. It was hard to find time to visit schools, and many of our ‘free’ time was when colleges were closed or without students, which was not ideal. My advice – go anyway! Looking back, some of the most helpful college visits we did were over Thanksgiving break when one school was not in session (but the admission office was open), and another was flat-out closed for business.

At the first school, my daughter realized that going to a school where the entire student body could fit in its one (albeit beautiful) small dining hall was not for her. At the next school, navigating the steep hills revealed that it would be difficult and maybe even painful for her to go there, given her prior knee surgeries. So, even though the visits were ‘unsuccessful’ in that those schools did not remain on her list, they gave us a whole new data set to work with: under 2000 students felt ‘too small’ and campus topography was a factor.

Sometimes it’s just not feasible to visit a school you are interested in. If possible, take advantage of any schools within driving distance, even if those are schools you think you are not interested in. Where we live, we are lucky enough to be within driving distance of a large public research university, a smaller public college and a number of (even smaller) private colleges. Even though I knew my daughter ultimately wanted to attend school outside of New Jersey, visiting different ‘types’ of schools was really helpful in determining the schools to look into.

Lisa, Sophie and Pete McClellan

The McClellan family visits the University of Richmond.

3.  Listen to your kid … (but take it all with a grain of salt)|

For some reason, my daughter insisted that she did not like schools that were ‘all red brick’ and was adamant that she not go to school in the south. She ended up going to a southern school that is virtually all red brick. I made a note of her ‘red brick’ comment, but also made sure not to eliminate schools with brick buildings from our search. Later, what I realized is that she did not want to go to a school that too closely resembled the all-brick Peddie campus where she has lived her entire life. While she loved her time there, what she was really trying to say is that she wanted something new, and let’s face it – college is going to be new regardless of building materials. It is important to both listen to the words your child is saying and understand what thoughts or feelings he/she is trying to express with those words. 

4. Convey your excitement, but keep it in check.

This one is (for me, anyway) easier said than done. Kids can sniff out when there’s something you want them to like. With daughter #1 I leaped out of the gate WAY too strong on a school I thought would be perfect for her. The result was that she nitpicked her way through the entire tour. With daughter #2 I tried to heed my own advice, but couldn’t contain my excitement about the first school we saw (there’s a reason I’m a college counselor – college campuses are great FUN!). She saw right through it and, while it’s still “on the list,” let’s just say her excitement did not equal mine. 

There’s a lot to navigate when your child is college hunting. While I realize that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for a good information session, communicating expectations clearly, reading between the lines and keeping yourself in check and reading between the lines are key. It goes without saying that you will make mistakes, but you’ll learn some valuable lessons along the way. We’ve got one more go-around after this one, so here’s hoping I learn some more lessons before it’s time for daughter #3 to start her college adventure!