In my job as a Regional Admissions Counselor, I talk to students at every stage of the application process. Through surveys and candid conversations, I’ve found a few truths: students believe college is important (but can’t articulate why), are excited/terrified of making the college decision, worry about money, and have trouble picturing what college actually looks like.

This post is focused on providing parents (or introspective students), with ways to talk about these important truths for making a college decision.

Student Truth: “College is important (but I don’t know why...)”

Why it matters: Students have to put a lot of effort into the entire college application process, and, chances are, there will be some letdowns. Knowing that college is important is half the battle. The other half is knowing why.

Read: College is for Geeking Out.

It’s important that students can picture college as an integral and specific part of their plan, especially when school gets tough. It’s incredibly easy to forget everything while dealing with social life or just get lost in the daily struggles. Knowing why college is important is key to making good college decisions.

Three conversation topics:

  1. Why are you considering college?

  2. Who have you seen be successful with a college education? Why are they successful? What about successful people without a college education?

  3. How do you hope to change and grow while in college? Why do you need college to do that?

Helpful facts to know:

Student Truth: “I am excited and terrified to make the college decision.”

Why it matters: Most high schoolers are teenagers. Not shocking news, exactly, but it’s important to keep in mind. Impulse decisions and decisions based on friends are all too common. While yes, this is their future, their student loan debt and their happiness, you can help steer that conversation. High school seniors want the independence of college, but the idea is still scary and huge.

Read: How many colleges should you apply to?

Since most college students change their major and their friend group, choosing a college based on one of those factors is risky. For an eighteen year old, balancing peer pressure, immense amounts of money, and evaluating countless other college attributes is a large task, especially when most of their schooling decisions so far have been made by other people. As a parent, you can lead the conversation while still letting the student have the final say.

Three conversation topics:

  1. What are the three most important factors for you in a college?

  2. Why are these three your top three college choices? What research have you done on each of them?

  3. If you go to your top choice, what will your lifestyle be? Is that the best lifestyle for you? [Think: commuting, party school, religious school, intramural sports lifestyle, etc.]

Helpful facts to know:

  • For a student to be full-time in college, they normally only have to take twelve credit hours. This means that they are only in class physically for twelve hours a week.

  • Websites like can help you compare different college factors side by side

  • Most colleges have an alumni club in major cities. If possible, try to look up the alumni club and see if an alum will speak with your student about what that college was really like.

  • A helpful step is to make a checklist of questions that need to be answered before any decision is made.  

Student Truth: “I am worried about paying for college.”

Why it matters: Student loan debt is an enormous problem for most college graduates. For some students, however, taking out a small amount in student loans can pay dividends in the future. Student loans are an investment, so they are inherently risky.

Students will need help in budgeting, understanding how much money they are taking out (with interest, etc.) and how the loan repayment process works.

Read: How much does college actually cost?

Students need to know early on how much money you can contribute, if any, and how that will impact their financial aid packages. It might be worth speaking with a financial aid expert to see if your financial situation has any hidden costs or benefits.

Three conversation topics:

  1. Can you explain the difference between loans and grants? Subsidized and unsubsidized loans? Is it a better idea to take federal student loans or private student loans? Why?

  2. How will you schedule your classes to study and work? Do you know where to find on-campus jobs?

  3. Will your college degree help you pay off your loans? What is the job placement rate?

Helpful facts to know:

  • You can use college cost transparency tools online to help figure out the true cost of college.

  • This website has a state-by-state look at the average student loan debt.

  • The College Board website has a great explanation of financial aid packages.

  • Not sure how Work Study actually works? It can be a huge financial help.

  • You must fill out the FAFSA by March 1st to receive state aid in most states. However, it's possible to edit your FAFSA until May, even after you hit submit in March.

  • The FAFSA is free. Any website that tries to get you to pay for the FAFSA is most likely a scam.

Student Truth: “I have trouble picturing what college looks like.”

Why it matters: If students can’t picture themselves at college, then they more than likely won’t go to college. Too often, I hear students talking about college being good for other people, but that they can’t picture themselves in college.

Read: Helping Talented, Low Income Students Reach Their Full Potential

Students who feel this way tend to have very rocky transitions during their freshman year. Moreover, if a student can’t picture themselves at a particular college that they’re considering, then they’ll probably feel out of place once they arrive. High school seniors need to be able to picture themselves as a successful college student wherever they want to go.

Three conversation topics:

  1. When would you like to go on a college tour? Do these schools do overnight visits? What about classroom shadowing?

  2. Who do you picture at this college? Do you picture you or your friends there? Why?

  3. If your high school friends all dropped out of this school tomorrow, would you be comfortable going here? Can you picture living in these dorms and going to class? Do you like the lifestyle here?

Helpful facts to know:

  • Persistence rates, or students who come back for the next year, vary by state and are often a good indicator of how well students could picture themselves at a particular college.

  • Going on a college tour? Get the most out of it with some preparation.

  • When visiting a school, you can often talk to the financial aid department at the school. You can speak to students about how they afford the school, too. That info can help clarify the accuracy of perceived cost.

  • Often, private colleges have a higher “sticker price” but a lower actual cost. Because of endowments and private donors, the more expensive schools often have more money to give to students. It may be cheaper, in real dollars, for your student to attend a private school that is a better fit.

  • Fit is a big deal. If your student can’t find the perfect college during the first go-round, it’s worth having them apply later to other colleges where they can picture themselves actually attending.

In addition helping out the college-bound on our blog, American Honors is a program offered at community colleges across the country. We help students find, prepare for, and transfer to their best fit schools to finish their 4-year degrees. You can learn more about why we help students, and how we do it, at our website.

Authored by Kate Hunger

Kate helps students find their best fit school. She writes about the essential, surprising, and sometimes funny questions everyone has while applying to college.