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Parent Advice for Navigating the College Process During COVID-19

Posted by Katie Trachtenberg '06 on November 20, 2020 at 5:00 PM
Katie Trachtenberg '06

The college search process can seem daunting even in the best of times. This year, there are even more questions and unknowns for parents, as well as for admissions officers and college counselors. With an open mind and a degree of patience, you can still navigate this milestone with your students.

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Here are six tips to guide you through the college process:

1. Let your student own the search

As difficult as it may sound, it is time to let them manage this process. After all, they are the ones going to college. Allow them to start this journey. After so many years under your guidance, they are now embarking on what will probably be the first major departure point in planning their life as an independent adult. Whether your student is interested in a traditional liberal arts program or a focus on business, engineering, fine arts, or culinary skills, for example, your role is to help them consider and understand the choices. Then, your child can research the school they are interested in by going to the school's official website or using college search tools that are available to them online or through their school.

2. Explore interests and options

Helping your student identify their own strengths and goals can be a good starting point. Perhaps your student’s college counseling office even offers aptitude testing or career exploration programs to help them learn more about future careers. Encourage students to consider programs that may be of interest to them, but also remind them that “undecided” is our country’s most popular major. If your student is well-rounded and does not have specific career aspirations yet, pursuing a liberal arts education could be a wise choice. Conversely, if your student is set on engineering, nursing, or any other preprofessional program, looking at direct-entry programs may be a strong option. If your student lands somewhere in between, encourage them to research majors and ask to speak to students who are studying them already. If your student’s school has a strong alumni network, encourage them to talk to their college counselor for some contact information. Additionally, if your student aspires to play collegiate sports, enter an arts program, or partake in any other specialized programs, they will likely need to begin their search process prior to senior year.

3. Help set expectations

One of the most significant issues with a college education is the cost. Your student will have more confidence in this process once you share your ability to fund and manage expenses. Learn how to estimate your costs and determine your options for financial aid and scholarships. Find a “net price calculator” on a college site. This tool helps you plan and understand your potential eligibility for need-based financial aid. Each household is unique and you may be surprised by the available resources.  Help set expectations by sharing what the school expects you to pay, what your contribution will be, and what the student must plan around. These numbers may impact the type of school (in-state, public, or private), location (traveling increases expenses), and program (number of years, etc.) that will ultimately be the best fit for your student and your family.

4. Make a list

While students can often name the most well-known colleges, exploring a wide variety of choices is an important step. Please urge your student to speak with their college counselor and to have an open mind during the search process. Reassure your student that success at the collegiate level is less about the institution and more about finding the right fit, which includes logistics such as location, campus environment, size, cost, and programs offered far more critical than rankings. Students should look for schools where their grades and test scores place them within the typically accepted academic profile-- these will likely be target schools for them. If their profile is stronger than the typically accepted profile, they may be more eligible for merit money, and if their profile is weaker, admission will be more of a reach.

5. Take a college tour

Once your student has a list of potential schools, start visiting websites and attending “virtual tours.” Sign up for admissions presentations and panels with groups of schools, students, and alumni. Many colleges offer online orientations for specific majors and affinity groups. Also, encourage your student to attend any visits that may be happening in conjunction with your student’s college counseling office. Some schools are still offering in-person admissions tours, so be sure to encourage your student to check with admissions offices about availability. Schools may also offer self-guided tours with special permission for potential applicants. Try to expose your student to various campuses: residential colleges, state universities, and a range of school sizes and environments. Don’t assume that they know their best fit at this point in the college search.

6. Plan ahead

COVID-19 has shaken up the college admissions process. Stay informed through your high school counseling office and sign up for email updates from colleges and news sites. Standardized testing schedules and requirements continue to change as many colleges are “test-optional” for high school seniors in the class of 2021. It is important to check the College Board Coronavirus Updates for the SAT and AP tests and ACT Testing Amid COVID-19 website for ACT information. As public health guidelines continue to shift, changes in standardized testing policies overall will likely impact courses for the years to come. For example, Catholic University has committed to a “test blind” policy-- meaning they will not look at any scores students submit-- through the class of 2023. The number of students who enroll, colleges' ability to allow on-campus learning, and the degree to which students choose “gap years” or schools closer to home are a few factors impacting the admissions process. We suggest that you keep an open dialogue with your student’s college counselor, take the long view, and stay focused on what makes the most sense for your student.

At Sanford, our college counselors provide guidance to our students and families. Our college couseling process includes grade level activities and classes for our students to assist them in the college process. We work together with our families to find the best colleges for our students.  

See Also: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Navigate the College Process, Applying to College: Advice for Students and Families, Top Tips for Preparing For the College Application Process, The College Application Process: Writing College Essays.

Katie Trachtenberg is the Assistant Director of College Counseling and the Alumni Relations Coordinator at Sanford School, a preschool-Grade 12 independent day school in Hockessin, DE. She also graduated from Sanford in 2006. Katie received her bachelor's degree in English and Master of Business Administration from the University of Delaware. 


Topics: College Guidance, Parenting Tips