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Helping Your Teen Find the Right College

Choosing the “right” college requires as much soul-searching as researching, because this is in large part a subjective decision. The right college is the one that seems most likely to enable a teenager to realize his professional and personal goals. And of course it must also be a school that he can have a reasonable hope of getting into. As you research the different institutions, find out the minimum achievement levels, or cutoff, for college entrance exam scores and grade point averages, if there are such cutoffs.

By the time eleventh grade rolls around, if not sooner, you and your child should be having regular discussions about his future. Many youngsters will not have made up their minds about pursuing further education, much less their career ambitions. They will need our advice and experience in reaching both answers.

Don’t be surprised, though, if your teen seems to avoid the subject. He might have every intention of going to college, but you have to appreciate that adolescents often regard this pivotal transition with a combination of excitement and dread.

Q: Our son is entering his senior year in high school. He’s upset because several of his friends know what they plan to study in college, and, as he puts it, “I don’t have a clue.” Michael is an intelligent, creative and very personable boy. He thinks he might like to teach elementary school, but then other times he talks about possibly becoming a newscaster on radio or television. Lately he’s been leaning toward going into advertising. Should we be concerned about his indecision?

A: Many students enter college unsure of what career they want to pursue; some don’t even declare their in-depth area of study, or major, until they are sophomores or juniors. Until then, they take general education classes. A sensible plan for your son might be to attend a liberal arts college where he can major in both teaching and communications. Liberal arts programs expose students to a range of courses in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. A lot of growth takes place during the college years. You can rest reasonably assured that your son will find his direction long before he has to don a cap and gown again.

Picking Priorities: What Is Most Important to Your Youngster?

Many factors enter into selecting one college over another, not just which school has the superior academic reputation. What often sways the vote one way or another are seemingly secondary concerns such as cost, distance, location and size. Learning your youngster’s preferences at the outset will help you to focus the search.


A family that cannot afford privately funded colleges, even if buoyed by financial aid, would want to investigate public institutions. Because these schools’ budgets are funded mainly by state and local governments, they can charge, on average, less than one-fourth the tuition of private schools. At public colleges, state residents pay roughly 33 to 50 percent less in annual tuition than students from out of state. Cost may also be the deciding factor when two colleges are essentially neck and neck in all other respects, and one offers a scholarship and the other does not.

One money-saving option is for your teen to spend her first two years at a community college, then transfer to a four-year school. Savings are realized during the freshman and sophomore years because most young people attending community colleges live at home.

Distance and Location

Perhaps it’s important to your youngster to attend a college that is within a few hours’ drive from home, in which event your search has been narrowed significantly. Don’t feel hurt, though, if she chooses a school far away. For many teenagers, going off to college is the biggest adventure of their lives. It also presents an opportunity to test their newfound independence.

Location considerations: 

  • Does your child want to experience urban life, or at least be within close proximity to the diverse culture, entertainment and nightlife that a city has to offer?
  • Does a small-town environment better suit her personality and interests?

If she’s interested in marine biology as a course of study, she should probably be near a large body of water.

College Size

Here, too, environment matters. Large universities may not be able to provide the personal attention that a smaller college can promise, but schools with greater student populations often boast a broader range of courses and superior libraries and other facilities.

Each youngster must determine how she learns best:

  • In a cavernous lecture hall, or in small classes that encourage discussion?
  • In a class where the structure is clearly defined, or in a freer setting?
Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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