Calming Parental Fears: How to Approach the College Selection Process

Choosing a college is a momentous decision: one that will have an enormous impact on where you’ll be and what you’ll do for the next four years of your life. It feels like it should be entirely personal, like the only one really impacted by your decision is you.

Of course, if your parents are helping you pay for school, they (quite accurately) feel like they have a considerable stake in the decision as well.

The key to a smooth college selection process is to keep everyone in the loop and feeling like their emotions are valid.

College Selection Process

If you are a student, what you probably want is a blank check and some supportive noises whenever you feel excited or frustrated. You probably don’t want unsolicited advice, or anything that sounds even vaguely critical—you’ve probably got enough inner turmoil that the slightest doubt from an external source can send you over the edge.

If you’re a parent, then you’re probably balancing a slew of hopes and anxieties over this decision. You want your child to be successful at school and not go off the ‘deep end’ socially or with the kind of behaviors that parents worry about (alcohol, drugs, risky sex, video game addiction, full-time basket weaving, etc), AND you have this swirling money anxiety: the price tag for you in the short term and your child’s future opportunities in the longer term.

This topic deserves multiple posts and probably some professional counseling (or coaching). It’s a fraught process for almost everyone, and because of that the best starting place is to know you’re not alone. From there, here’s some good starting advice for how to handle the college selection process without making anyone crazy and/or squashing dreams.

Why Students Should Go Out of Their Way to Reassure Their Parents

As weird and anxious as you’re feeling about college, it’s pretty safe to assume that your parents are feeling even weirder. It’s OK to think “that doesn’t make any sense,” but you should just go ahead and believe that it’s true. Below I’ll list some pretty simple steps you can take to try to make them feel better, but first here are some good reasons why you should make an effort to address their fears:

  • Happy/comfortable parents are more likely to let you take the lead in decision-making.
  • Happy/comfortable parents are less likely to set unreasonable rules.
  • Happy/comfortable parents are more likely to say ‘yes’ to steps you need to take to get into a college that will be a great fit—even if those steps mean going outside your comfort zone and/or mean they shell out additional money.
  • Happy/comfortable parents are more likely to feel good about spending money on your education, which leads to better relationships and also more flexibility in the ways you can spend their money.

As a general rule, happy/comfortable parents are a 100% positive goal for a high school student. They’re more likely to start with ‘yes’ instead of ‘no,’ and are therefore more likely to support your educational decisions moving forward.

You do not need to con your parents into feeling good about your college selection process. You should instead go to them and say “I want you to feel happy and confident about my educational decisions. Here’s what I’m going to do to make that happen.”

I can almost guarantee that this approach will work wonders.

How to Make Your Parents Feel Confident in Your College Selection Process

Even if you suspect that the college selection process will lean more on gut feelings than on sophisticated statistical calculations, there are some steps you can take to make your parents feel more comfortable. 

1. Get Ahead of the Anxiety

The best thing you can do for everyone involved is to start early. This means getting started in an introspective way (where do you want to go, what do you want to study?) and also in setting up plans and expectations with your folks. If you want to own this process, you’ll almost certainly have to signal early that you’re up for the challenge.

The best way to begin is simply to start letting your folks know that you’re thinking about college, and that you’re taking actual steps.

2. Small/informal conversations about the college selection process  

 Here’s a set of simple ideas for how to launch early conversations about college, and to signal that you really are taking steps in the right direction. Some of these you're probably already doing, but here's the trick about parents: if you don't tell them you're working on it, they won't know, and you won't get the credit

  • Mention you’re talking about college with friends and older acquaintances.
  • Mention some deadlines—that you’ve heard you need to start applying by certain dates, or that you’d like to visit schools by a certain month.
  • Show your folks whatever college info the school is giving you, and ask for feedback about how they feel about that advice (this is a good way to have conversations that start from an outside source, rather than starting with your own feelings or opinions. Agree or disagree, it’s easier to begin with someone else’s information as a critique).
  • Talk about some of the factors that feel important to you—size of student body, location, city vs. small town, available extracurriculars, etc.
  • Start talking about your current activities/classes in terms of how they’ll look for college.
  • Talk about the cost of college. I guarantee they’re thinking about it!

A lot of these tips are things you’re probably doing anyway, or things you might already be mentioning but could use a re-framing. If you share a bit of what’s on your mind and signal that you’re actively tracking the college process, even if it’s in these small ways, you’ll reassure your folks that this is something you are actually thinking toward.

3. Take Concrete Steps to Show You’re in Charge of College

Some 'advanced tips' for showing that you're serious about being in charge of college: 

  • Create a timetable of the college selection process, with milestones (standardized tests, campus visits, recommendation letter requests, early application deadlines, etc) clearly laid out and given personal deadlines.
  • Create a preliminary “wish list” or “pro-con” checklist for your perfect college. Back this up with some research of what makes a good college experience for someone with your personality and aspirations (as much as you know at this point).
  • Create (or find online) a list of questions you would like to ask at campus visits.
  • Go and talk to your guidance counselor and report back to your parents about what you’ve learned.
  • Create a list of campuses you would like to visit, and classes you might be interested in sitting in on while visiting. Ask for help scheduling a trip. 
  • Research online and take notes. Noodling around on college websites doesn’t count: you need to actively seek information about the colleges that interest you. Whatever factors appear on your ‘wish list,’ write down how well each college is doing: class size, city/rural, percentage of class taught by faculty vs. grad students, etc.

Depending on what kind of student (and person in general) you are, some of these suggestions probably sound completely impossible, while some of them might trigger the slightly OCD perfectionist in you.

The best thing you can do to reassure your parents is to make it clear that you are actually paying attention. You’re working toward a decision.

4. Advanced Fact-Finding Tactics

There’s only so much information you can get without actively talking with someone.

Contact the schools you are interested in. If you’re doing a campus visit, this should be at that same time. If not, write an email to a department that interests you or to the freshmen life office.

Schools want to find good students. Schools like students who are proactive in their searches. Ask to talk with a current student. Ask that student what their favorite classes are, how they spend an average Tuesday, and whether they’re happy with their college choice. Take notes. Repeat with other colleges or even other departments at your top school.

Another tactic is to check out the faculty and/or student bios. This is particularly helpful if you have an idea about what you’d like your major to be, but you can do it just as well with multiple departments. Read through the short professor bios, and ask yourself if you’d like to be taught by people like them, and if you’re interested in their research. If the answer is no, go on to another department to see if something else strikes an interest. If the answer is ‘yes,’ then go deeper. You can often find a list of professors’ full publications, including both books and articles. Do these sound interesting to you? Can you imagine getting involved with projects like this? Could you imagine someday being a person who does this kind of research?

Talk with your folks about what you’re learning, and about the fact that you’re diving deep into what’s available and where you imagine yourself fitting into a campus community. These professors you’re reading about could soon be teachers and even mentors for you. Do the research needed to take that out of the theoretical realm and to ground it in how your academic life will actually look at college.

5. Talk about the Money

I know I mentioned this before, but it deserves a second listing. Talk with your folks about money for college. Talk about scholarships, student loans, in-state tuition, grants, etc. Talk about the cost of living (housing, food, etc) in addition to the cost of attending classes. Talk about the ways you will be contributing, and the support you can look to them to provide.

Every single conversation will be unique to the individual family. But it needs to happen, and happen multiple times. It’s not an easy one, but is the kind of thing that is important in making sure that options are known and all the factors are properly discussed.

It’s really helpful to find out from older friends or relatives how they structured these money conversations. This information may actually be better if sought out by your folks, but you can ask them to do it, and ask them to show you what the various options are.

6. Talk about Careers

This is such a complicated space for high schoolers. Most have no real idea about what they’ll do for their careers, and that’s perfectly OK. If you’re in the US, you don’t have to know yet anyway (my sympathy to students in the UK and Europe, who have to apply for their department at the same time as their college applications, and can’t easily change their minds). In the US, you’re almost expected to change your major during your college years. So don’t panic about knowing what you’d like to study right off the bat.

That being said, it is helpful to have some idea about what you’d like to study. Knowing a general area (Humanities vs. the Sciences, for example), or knowing definitively what you do NOT want to study, can help make you feel more in control and help your parents know that you won’t waste a couple of years without progressing toward graduation.

The best way to start thinking about careers is to expand on the Advanced Info Gathering Techniques above. Only now start doing it outside of just the university setting. Start with advice websites that list what you can do with certain degrees, but read this with a large helping of skepticism. You can do almost anything with almost any degree. So start looking around at some individual people who you admire. Read their bios, find out what they studied in college and what their early jobs might have been.

Do this with celebrities, for politicians, for authors and astronauts. Do it for your parents’ friends and for people who are interviewed on the Daily Show. Some people’s paths will be linear, and some will look like a complete tangle of interests and tangents.

The thing to really know at this point is that your major will lead to a certain set of opportunities. Find out which opportunities and knowledge are the most exciting to you for now, and where these might lead you in the future.

You do not have to know “what you want to be when you grow up” at this point. But it’s a good idea to start thinking about the options.

7. Ask for Help

This last piece of advice is probably the best there is. As for help. Ask your friends, ask your teachers, ask your extended family. Ask your parents—they’ll probably love to be asked.

And, if you need to, ask for help from professionals. There are great college councellors out there who can help you pick schools and identify scholarships. I asked for this kind of help, and I’m so glad I did—it led to unexpected college options that turned out to be the perfect fit.

You can also ask me. Send me an email, or we can get on a coaching call


Remember that the college search process is scary for almost everyone. You are not alone, and there is not a single 'perfect fit' for you that you could miss out on somehow. There are many great fits and many good options. Any and all work you do now, even just a little bit of research or a couple of conversations, can help clarify things enormously.

Best of luck to you! 

If you enjoyed this post, please check out "The 5 Books All Students Should Read BEFORE Freshman Year," "High School Graduation: What's Next?," and "How High School AP Classes Landed Me a Job."