Helping Your Child Choose a University  

helping your child choose a university

Helping your child choose a university is not something that can be done in a one of conversation but is rather over a few years. The final choice does ultimately have to be your child’s but there are some practical things you can do to help them. The thing to have in mind is that the university is right for your child and not where you wished you had gone. A large public school in the UK found that 1 in 4 of their pupils didn’t finish their first-year degree as they had been pushed in certain directions for the sake of league tables and parental aspirations. But at the same time your child might need some reassurance in terms of applying to some universities where they friends aren’t or looking at alternatives that may be more suitable.

There is more to going to university than getting an offer. Here we also talk about the skills they will need to successfully study.

Start Talking About University Choice Early

When helping your child choose a university, in most education systems, subject choices narrow at 16. I have yet to meet a 15-year-old who knows the name of the course they want to study, but most have an idea of the field. It may be engineering, or they have an interest in business or animals. If not, they will have certain subjects that they enjoy more, and this should be the basis of selections post-16. Student retention is a big issue for universities. It should also be your biggest concern when helping your child choose university. The biggest reason students leave is that they choose an inappropriate course. It is either not challenging enough, or they don’t have enough interest in it. You might be nervous of them doing an arts course where their is no clear profession but forcing them to do engineering instead will, at best, result in a poor result. Conversations at this age can therefore move towards courses that reflect their interests outside the confines of school subjects. For example architecture or combinations like business with a language.

Now is also the time to look at alternatives such as apprenticeships. These have changed significantly in the last decade. The best are held in very high esteem. There is also other routes such as studying abroad or taking a year out. Be open to these and bring these up so they are at least considered. Although you may wish to help your child choose a university, any decision made where the other options have been considered is positive. It is also appropriate to talk to teachers at parents evenings from about the age of 14 onwards to get their views.

The year before application, aged 16 to 17 is a good time to look at the different types of campuses. On site or in the center of town. I knew as I got off the underground that I didn’t want to go to London. Universities are always open to informal pre-arranged ‘drop-ins’ and if you are visiting somewhere, going to the local university for a coffee in the union will let your child get a feel for the different types of universities. As it is not rushed, it provides time for your child to reflect and change their mind. Far better now than in the first year! It also gives stimulation to ensure they are doing well in their high school classes to meet the admissions requirements of potential colleges. Ir will make it seem more real and aspirational.

By the time they enter the year that they make their applications they should be able to answer these questions:

Do you want to be on a campus or in a city? Loud or quiet? 

What department do you want to study in (so engineering, but probably not the exact name of the course)? 

Do you want to study abroad / a long way away? 

What grades does your school think you will get? 

What else is important to your happiness (libraries, sport, drama, social)? 

Be Honest About Finances

Before constructing your short-list, there is a very difficult conversation to have with your child. You are wanting to help your child choose their university so you will have to talk to them about your finances. Firstly you need to work out what you can afford to contribute. Then your child and you need to see what other sources of funds there are. It may be that to go to a university that is in an expensive part of the country is out of reach or not necessary. Education is also something that many grandparents are willing to help with, even if in a small way, so although awkward, it may help to bring it up. For instance, they may offer to pay for books, a laptop or journeys home. 

Once you’ve talked about finances, this may shorten a long list and also stimulate options such as scholarships, financial aid, and student loan programs. You can also talk to your child about work-study grants and programs, or the possibility of studying part-time while getting paid work experience.  

It is also a time to talk about whether they will be able to go on ‘Spring Break’ or will need to work during the holidays. Obviously these are their choices, however, whether you are going to fund them or not is a conversation to have at the very start. Budgeting for a first year at university is very hard as there are so many unknowns but there are a number of websites with average spends for students. It might mean that if two courses are similar an informed decision can be made on cost.

Making a Short List When Helping Your Child Choose University

Now you should have list of what is important and realistic, a long list is relatively quick to draw up. In the UK the UCAS website lists all courses and entrance grades. With university ranking tables for student welfare and academic quality from sources like The Guardian and The Times making a list of around a dozen suitable universities is relatively easy using the answers to the questions above. 

Then with the answers to the previous questions, such as the type of campus, finances, and a strong idea of course title and rankings a list of around 10 universities should be possible. An Economics faculty at a university may offer 10 different variations of that course with perhaps a language or computing. With the list of 10 send off for the prospectus and spend a long time going through the course websites to pick up the details of what each has.

Get a Tour of the Campus

After your child has made a short list of possible colleges, it would be constructive to take them to each campus (if they aren’t too far away). Your child can get a feel for what it would be like to be a student at the university by going on a campus tour. It also gives you and your child a chance to meet some of the faculty and staff who work on campus, ask specific questions, and get a feel for the overall culture and safety of the campus. After you’ve seen the campus, you can also check out the city around it if it’s not where you live now. Most have official open days for each course, and for many acceptance of an offer is dependent on visiting.

Before your campus visit, help your child learn more about the school you’re looking at and make a list of questions to ask.  If any of the colleges on your student’s list are too far away to visit easily, check to see if they offer virtual tours or look at their social media pages for pictures and videos.  

The most telling thing you can do is talk to students who are currently on the course to see if they are happy. Especially if they are not the tour guides. Sit and look, do the students look happy and eagre. Is there a nice feeling in the department.

Final Thoughts on Helping Your Child Choose a University

To help your child choose the right university, you must put on a brave face and be flexible. When you get involved in your teen’s decisions, it can be hard to put your own preferences aside and support the choices that are best for your teen, even if they are very different from your own. Don’t forget that it’s normal to feel protective, but going to college is a good way for your teen to leave the nest in a safe way.

Now they have a shortlist of the six courses they are interested in the application process begins. This is different for each country and something that your school should help with. 

Also don’t look as going to university as the end point. It is important that they are have independent study skills and have other skills that they need to leave home.