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How to start talking about college with your high school student

Jan 28, 2021

It’s the beginning of a new year, and many high school students’ goals may be to get into the college of their dreams this fall. The college application process is a long, arduous journey, but with the right guidance and conversations, you can help position your student for success once it comes time to submit their applications. Here’s how you can start talking about college with your high school student and get them genuinely excited about applying!

1. Start talking about college early 

Why does your student want to pursue a college education and what do they hope to do afterwards?

One of the first things Command Education mentors ask their students is what they are passionate about. Some students prefer formulating hypotheses to find answers to science’s most pressing questions, whereas other students would much rather read 500 page novels and write essays for days on end.

These passions can help dictate what and why your student might want to pursue higher education. Some questions you can start asking your students include:

  • What subjects at school do you enjoy and why? Do you see yourself studying a related topic in college?
  • What brings you joy outside of schoolwork and your extracurricular activities? 
  • What is your dream job, and what do you know about the steps needed to achieve that goal?

Once you’ve begun asking these questions and exploring your student’s curiosities and interests, you can start talking about what kinds of colleges your student may be interested in attending.

2. What are the “nice to have” and “need to have” factors in your student’s dream college?

You’ve helped your student narrow down their interests and what they see themselves pursuing beyond secondary school. When discussing colleges and universities, you can ask your student what kinds of factors are important to them in their ideal learning environments. 

Some students prefer learning in smaller teacher to student ratios, as it allows them to form connections with professors. For others, the location and surrounding community of the school is integral to their college experience. Or, if a student already knows what field or topic they want to pursue and would love to work with specific mentors in the field, they should look at opportunities for research at schools they’re interested in applying to.

Every college has a unique learning environment that offers a mix of these factors. That’s why it’s helpful to begin the conversation with students early to determine which school would be a best-fit for them.

3. What programs of study has your student demonstrated interest in? 

When it comes time for your student to pick a potential major, they should consider where their interests lie both academically and in their out-of-classroom activities. For instance, if History and Model United Nations are a significant part of your student’s life, International Relations or Global Affairs and Public Policy could be potential areas of study. 

Some schools offer specialized programs that have structured tracks for post-secondary education and beyond: Brown University’s Program in Liberal Medical Education or Brown’s 5th year Master of Arts in Teaching, and Boston University’s Seven Year Liberal Arts/Medical Education Program are great options, for example.

4. What are the next steps in your student’s application process?

The most important part of the college application process begins in junior year, when students have a stronger command of their academic and extracurricular passions as well as what they see themselves pursuing after high school.

At this stage, high school juniors should begin making a preliminary college list consisting of 15-20 schools. When creating this list, it’s important that students and parents include a mix of reach, match and safety schools. Reach schools refer to those that have a less than 10% acceptance rate – those that are highly competitive for any applicant. Match schools consist of acceptance rates between 20-30%, and safety schools have over 50% acceptance rates. A well-balanced college list should have a healthy mix of these three kinds of schools.

Even before your student reaches junior year, you can help walk your student through the steps needed to set them up for success their senior year. Start thinking about potential recommenders who can speak to your student’s ability to succeed both in and out of the classroom – these can be teachers (we recommend those that have known your student for at least two years), coaches, or advisors that the student has worked closely with.

It’s also important to prepare for standardized testing – you should use your student’s academic interests and strengths as guides to determine which subject tests they’d best be prepared to take, and whether the SAT or ACT suits them best.

Preparing for the college application process may seem daunting and overwhelming, especially if this is the first time that you and your student will be applying to schools. The key is to start these conversations early and identify what your student is looking for in their higher education experience and beyond.