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Supporting your Student Through the College Search Process

Last updated on February 15, 2021

I am the mother of 16-year-old twins. That means every milestone was times two: teething, potty training, riding a bike, and most recently, learning to drive a car.  As juniors in high school, they are about to embark on their next significant rite of passage: the college search.  In reflecting on this important time, not only as a mother but also as an admissions professional, it occurs to me that their college search has a lot in common with the twins’ learning to drive.

Your children are literally in the driver’s seat.  Throughout their lives, it is our job as parents to protect and guide our children.  We moved obstacles out of their way to help them walk, we wiped their tears and kissed their scraps and cuts, we helped them with their homework, when we could, but as they learn to drive and as they search for colleges, they need to be in charge of their destinies.  It is hard, but we need to step aside and let them lead the way.  “We” are not applying to college; they are.

Children will embrace driving at their own pace.  As I said earlier, I have twins. They are incredibly close but have always been different in their tastes and preferences. When it came time to decide on a high school, they chose to attend different ones.  When it came to driving, they also approached it uniquely. My son earned his license as soon as he could, which in COVID meant that he has not yet had his driving test. My daughter is still working on recording her driving hours and is in no hurry to drive on her own.  Similarly, even if you have had children who have gone through the college search process previously, you will find that each college search is individualistic.  Some children may jump right in; some may be more reluctant.  Some children may want to go far away; some want to stay closer to home. Some may know their ideal college and decide to apply Early Decision, some may wait until May 1 to decide. There isn’t a right way to approach the college search.  Your job as a parent is to let the search unfold organically, matching your child’s personal style and instincts.

You can set the guidelines, but they need to find their own path.  When they are learning to drive, we set some of the rules. They must drive the speed limit, we need to know where they are going, and when they need to be home.  Similarly, with the college search, we can set parameters of cost and location that fits your family’s values and abilities to pay, but within those guidelines, the student needs to decide where they want to go and what school is the best fit for their interests, talents, and aspirations.  They may make mistakes, miss deadlines, have a typo on their essay, but just as they learn from scaping the curb, they will learn from their mistakes. This independence is an essential part of the college search because it is preparing them for the autonomy they will have in college.  A helpful tool is the Net Price Calculator for each school you are considering.  When you enter your financial information, it can let you know what a college will cost you, allowing you to decide as a family whether it is a viable option or not.

Your children will determine where they want to go, the GPS will tell them how to get there, and you are there for emotional and financial support.  No one likes a backseat driver, or for that matter, a passenger seat driver.  You can give your child advice, but they are the only ones who can make the decision of when to hit the brakes and which way to turn.  Just as they may rely on a GPS to provide alternate routes from which to choose, your child may consult their school’s guidance counselor, friends, neighbors, older siblings, and local alumni, to provide their perspective on the best path to take. However, the final decisions are your child’s to make.

Their safety and happiness are ultimately what matters.  Sometimes as parents we become fixated on the bumper sticker that we will put on our car of our children’s chosen university. Whether it is our alma mater, a school that we cheer for athletically, or just a school that we had imagined them attending, we sometimes have a preconceived notion of where our children should land.  However, just as with learning to drive, the destination is less important than the journey.  With both the college search and learning to drive, what is of primary importance is our children’s welfare and happiness.

A helpful hint for college searches in the time of COVID. This time of pandemic has been devastating for students in so many ways, with virtual classes, disconnection from friends to cancelled extracurriculars and summer plans. However, with more and more campuses offering virtual tours and information sessions, the opportunity to connect with colleges without geographical or travel restrictions is easier than ever. I have advised my children to take advantage of these opportunities by connecting virtually with colleges that interest them. After learning about a variety of schools, and determining what aspects appeal and which ones don’t, they can help formulate their college lists. Using what I call the Goldilocks Principle, they can identify what schools seem too big, too small, too hot, too cold, or whatever the criteria, to find the colleges that feel just right.  Your child may explore the virtual offerings of Duke here.

Margi Strickland ( is a Senior Assistant Director in Duke University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She works with students from TN and Central and Eastern North Carolina.

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