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College Conversations

Talking to Your Kids About College: How Soon is Soon Enough?

As a parent, you want your student to get the best possible start to their adult lives, and for many, college is that first step towards adulthood. Conversations about college applications, SAT and ACT scores, and finances are important but can be overwhelming and scary if not done at the right time. The big question is, when should you talk about college?

A lot of experts say the sooner the better. Now, that doesn’t mean you should start dragging your 12-year-old around on campus tours, but you shouldn’t shy away from the topic in their younger years either. The timing of college conversations is everything.

How you should talk about college to your student is just as important as when. Get the college conversations started at any age with these pressure-free and simple tips.

Grades K-4: Introducing college

  • Introducing…college! Explain college in terms that your student will understand, and that could be as simple as telling them that college is like their school…only bigger. Show them pictures of yourself in college, and open up a conversation about where you were, what you were doing there, and who you met.
  • Seeing is believing. If you live close to a university, bring your student on campus to see a show, watch a sporting event, or visit an art exhibition. Normalizing college early on will spark questions and generate interest.
  • Be a storyteller. Share your college experience, but be selective. This may not be the time to talk about any partying you might have done! Tell them about the classes you took, the people you met, or the activities you participated in. Your stories will bring college to life for your student.
  • Money, money, money. While this may not be the time to talk about financial aid, grants, scholarships, or loans, this could be a good time to address saving. Earning money for doing extra chores, or learning how to save their birthday money can all lead up to those bigger conversations about how much college costs.

Grades 5-8: Digging deeper

  • What do they like to do? Take stock of your student’s interests and hobbies. Discuss what they might want to study in college. This will likely change, but it gets them thinking about the future.
  • Research begins now. Check out universities that pique your student’s interest. Are they thinking of studying close to home or farther away? What universities support the classes, majors they are interested in, or their future plans?
  • What does it take? Each university has its own standards for acceptance, and knowing these expectations can set your student up for successful admission.
  • Extracurriculars matter. Grades and test scores have their place, but recruiters are also looking for students that have a multitude of interests and a diverse set of accomplishments. Encourage your middle-schooler to participate in extracurriculars like clubs, sports, entrepreneurial activities, art, or seek out volunteer opportunities. Not only will this give them an edge during the college application process, but they will become a more well-rounded individual.  
  • Dig deeper financially. Talk about the tuition cost of your student’s prospective college, and what steps can they take to offset them? Does that mean financial aid, grants, scholarships, or loans? Are there family plans to help pay for your student’s education like a 529? Will work study be an option? Talking about finances now gives you both time to figure things out.
  • Are their eyes bigger than their stomach? Honest discussions about what certain lifestyles cost could help your student determine what they would like to study or what career to pursue. Explaining housing, utility, transportation, and entertainment costs could help them decide just how lavishly they wish to live.

Keep this mind for college conversations at all grade levels

  • Share honestly. Be as transparent about your college experience as you can. Discuss the workload, responsibility, and discipline that comes with taking classes. Share your good times, your challenges, and be ready for lots of questions.
  • Take the pressure off. You might want your student to attend an Ivy League school, but their dream might be studying at a small art school in the south of France. Try (as hard as it may be) to guide, rather than mandate.

College planning doesn’t have to be scary. Having frequent, honest dialogue, and keeping your student’s best interests at heart can go a long way.  

Financial Resources:

Amy Licht
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