The College Decision Dilemma

The letters have arrived.  Some of the news may not be what was hoped for.  Hopefully, most of the news was good.  Your student has been accepted – perhaps to multiple schools.  As stressful as the wait may have been, those letters arrive with a new kind of stress. Your student now has options.  The decision is now in your student’s hands.  The ball is back in his court.  He must now decide which offer to accept.

Recent research on both the relationship between students and their parents and on communication between students and their parents tells us that that in the vast majority of families, parents will help students make this important decision.  Your student wants to hear your opinion and values your input.  However, it is important to remember that as overwhelming as it may seem, this must be your student’s decision.  He will need to feel good about this decision, live with this decision, and make the college experience work.  It is your job to be a helpful passenger on this journey, but not a back-seat driver.

So what can you do to help your student as she faces this decision dilemma?  This may be an ideal time to begin to practice some of the good communication skills that you and your student will need throughout the college years.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Perhaps there really is no dilemma for your student.  She has known all along which school she wants to attend, she was accepted, and she’s certain.  Congratulate her, affirm her decision, be thankful, and move on.  (Lucky you!)
  • Even if your student is struggling with a decision, don’t forget to help him focus on the congratulations that he was accepted to several schools and now faces this decision.  The acceptance is a big step.  Help him savor the moment.
  • Remind your student that there is no “perfect” college.  She may feel that there is only one correct decision for her to make and anything else will mean disaster.  She wants to make the decision that feels best to her, but there may be more than one good choice.
  • Talk to your student about financial considerations if they need to be a factor in his decision.  Look together carefully at any financial aid offers.  Follow up with the school’s financial aid office if necessary.  Let your student know clearly whether there is a bottom line that will eliminate any school as an option.
  • Help your student think about what factors she might weigh as she decides.  Does she want to think about size? Location? Type of school – urban, suburban? Majors offered and ease of changing majors if she changes her mind? Sports options? Extracurricular activities? Fraternities or sororities?  Some factors may matter to her and others may not.  Help her determine which are important.
  • Help your student consider whether she needs any additional information at this point.  Can she attend an Accepted Student event or spend an overnight at the college?  Should she talk to someone in her major department?
  • Be willing and available to discuss your student’s decision with him, but be willing to leave him alone to wrestle with it if he needs to do that.  Don’t ask every day whether he has decided.  Although he may not be overtly talking about what he is thinking, he is almost certainly working on it internally.
  • Be willing to be a sounding board, but don’t feel the need to provide answers.  Patience and empathy may be the most important gifts that you can give your student right now.  Let her know that you recognize that this may be a difficult decision and that she is feeling stressed.  Let her know that you trust that she is capable of making a good decision.
  • Be patient.  Your student may not make a final decision until the last minute.  She may actually know what she wants to do earlier, but the final commitment seems so – final.  Your student may hold off until the last moment.
  • Trust your student’s “gut reaction.”  If your student has a favorite school but can’t seem to pin down why other than it simply feels right, trust that.  Sometimes, the right match may defy logic – but your student knows that he feels at home on a campus.

So much time, energy, and investment has gone in to the college admission process that this final moment of decision may seem overwhelming to your student. He has been building toward this moment for several years.  Although it truly marks just the beginning of the college journey, it often feels like a final moment – the moment when your student becomes a college student.  Making this decision is an act of both the head and the heart, an art and not a science.  It takes, in some ways a great leap of faith and a tremendous amount of courage.

As your high school student makes the college decision, he becomes a college student – and you become a college parent. Congratulations to you both!   Celebrate with your student, explore options with your student, support your student’s decision.  Enjoy the new adventure!

Related Posts:

Why Your Student Should Attend Accepted or Admitted Student Day

Is Your Student Heading to College for the Right Reasons?

Can a College Revoke My Student’s Admission?

Should My College Student Consider Deferring Enrollment for College?

Your Five Most Important Jobs as a College Parent

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3 thoughts on “The College Decision Dilemma”

  1. As a private college counselor, I know you have made some great suggestions to help students make their final college decision. I think discussing the pros and cons of each school and guiding students to their own decision is usually very effective. Many students also have a gut reaction and it is worth talking about that.

  2. Thanks for your comment Monica. Glad you are finding the site helpful. If you already have a college student, you know how complex college parenting can be! We need all of the help we can get!


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