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Parents, teens should explore options

Now is the time for high school juniors and their parents to be thinking about colleges and the admissions process.

Many families find the most important first step is to discuss options and expectations.

You don’t want your child poring over catalogs from colleges in the Northeast if you really want him within driving distance. With private schools costing $20,000 to $50,000 per year, you owe it to yourself and your child to have a frank discussion regarding finances. He needs to know how much has been saved and your expectations for his financial commitment toward college, typically student loans.

Parents and students should independently make a list of a dozen or so colleges that would be a good fit for the student.

Before you begin, have your son or daughter compile PSAT or SAT scores, high school grades, and rank in class or estimated grade point average. These stats will guide you, but understand that only half of the students fall within SAT ranges listed in the guidebooks. While grades, rigor of curriculum and SATs are typically the most important criteria, factors such as extracurricular activities, college essays and letters of recommendation make a difference.

Borrow or buy a current college guidebook, and spend some time reading about a range of colleges and universities. Try to reduce your biases and think about what kind of college or university will best serve your child.

Basic areas to consider: size, location, academic offerings, retention rate (how many freshmen return for their sophomore year), cost and availability of financial aid. Depending on your student’s interests, you may want to include sports teams and Greek life. (How important are fraternities and sororities to the college?) Some guidebooks offer a quality-of-life rating that provides a peek into campus culture and the surrounding community.

Listen to your student: Once you’ve done your homework, compare notes.

Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C.