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When Helping Your Child Choose the Right College, Ask the Right Questions at the Right Time

02/06/2014 02:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

"How can I help my daughter choose the right college?"

This was the question during a parents' information session at a program hosted on campus this weekend. I heard the sincerity in this nervous parent's voice. There was clear longing for some revealing answer that would result in a perfect decision. It was the question every parent in the room wanted an answer to -- after all, these parents of admitted seniors were visiting our campus for the second, third, fourth and even fifth time. It was my opportunity to provide a flawless answer.

However, I've been working in college admissions long enough to know there is no perfect answer to this question. But in the moment, I drew upon my 20-plus years of experience to offer some advice.

I first reminded parents of their role by sharing something my boss, a college president who has sent three kids to college, experienced when supporting each of his children as they were making a college choice. He reminds parents, "The request for help or guidance will happen when your son or daughter is ready to invite you into the conversation."

This is a good reminder of the parents' role and worth remembering because you have little control over when, where and how it will happen. It's important that you think ahead and be prepared when the time comes, because it will most likely be at a busy or inconvenient time for you.

The advice I provided to those parents on campus that weekend evolved around four simple questions to ask a son or daughter when comparing offers of admission. In each case, these questions are deeply personal, just like the college selection itself.

1. Will the college offer me the right amount of challenge and support?"

The delicate balance between challenge and support is critically important. It goes so far beyond whether or not a student fits the right statistical profile in regard to test scores, GPA, rank in class and curriculum selection. This question relates directly to the learning environment and the rigor a student needs to feel like they are maximizing the college experience. The calibration of this balance is quite individual, and depends upon a student's ambitions and expectations for college and college life. Because so many students will have options from which to choose, it's very important they ask this question of each college, and find the right answer.

2. Can I continue to pursue my passion?

I am continually surprised by how many students drop their passion -- athletics, music, drama, part-time employment, art, community service, etc. -- when choosing a college. It's a surprise because for so many, that passion and involvement have gone a long way toward defining a student's path in life up to the college choice. While I understand some might find new interests, so many others simply abandon their passion altogether and miss out on the important life-balancing pursuit of an out-of-classroom passion. Too many students choose colleges where they simply can't pursue their passion because of competition or availability. As a parent, encourage your son or daughter to ask this really important question.

3. Will I be comfortable being me?

This question is all about social fit and is too often overlooked. Don't get me wrong: This question should not be construed as "is everyone there just like me?" In fact, I hope that's not the case. The better questions are: Will my classmates accept that I dye my hair blue? Will I be the one student the professor turns to every time the discussion focuses on minority groups? Can I be a jock and a musician? Do students there have similar values to mine? Will I find a group I can be friends with?

In my view, this question is one of the most important. And, because it is so important, a parent needs to approach it cautiously. It's the one question to which a parent can connect too many personal values. You probably have a pretty good idea of the "me" things that define your son or daughter and should help them ask those questions with that perspective, while keeping your own bias out of it.

4. Is there sufficient proof the experience will be worth it for me?

The whole idea of worth and value can be very confusing for students who are choosing a college. There are so many components to what makes a college experience worthwhile and valuable, and they are not always clearly identifiable. Furthermore, questions of worth and value necessitate unsettling conversations about dollars and cents, resulting in a pretty weak attempt to try to compare experiences head-to-head in every element, including cost. Worth is usually defined reflectively, after an experience, which makes this even more difficult. As a parent, you might help your son or daughter think carefully by asking some tough questions, like those outlined here:

Will sharing a living space with a roommate be a valuable experience? Will living away from home be worth it to you? Are you ready to make choices on your own and take responsibility for those choices? Are you ready for new challenges beyond the walls of the classroom? Are you confident that you will develop skills you need to be successful in life? Is taking on a student loan worth it to have this experience?

These are some questions your son or daughter might ask of graduates of the colleges they are considering as final options.

Is this a perfect formula for a great college choice? Probably not, because perfection is elusive in choices that revolve around perceived worth, value and ambition. But I believe these are the right questions for a parent who really wants to help, rather than control, a student's college choice. I recommend you file these questions away -- maybe even write them on an index card -- and set them before your son or daughter when the time is right.