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Cheering Your Student Toward College

Give Me a C! Give Me an O!

by Jacque L. Smith

From the earliest moments of parenthood, coercion and persuasion can creep into instruction in areas great and small. Brush your teeth before bed, and we’ll read an extra story. Clean your room before grandma gets here so she will know you are ready for a piece of pie. Finish your homework before you turn on the Xbox …. But with college planning, the constructive decision prodding feels more like pestering and less like coaching.

Perhaps it’s time to take a new approach: cheer leader. For those of us connected to Adventist education, we may not have a great understanding of this role, but many of us are highly skilled in this area even without pom-poms and a bull horn. Dictionary.com lists the noun definition of cheerleader as “a person who leads spectators in traditional or formal cheering.” While not all high school students fall into this category, if your student’s interest in college planning is more procrastinating spectator than possibility-seeking participant, you may need some extra energy to inspire next steps.

Your student ultimately has to be the captain of the college planning process, but studies show parents are one of the biggest influencer for college selection. So put on your cheerleading gear (patience and enthusiasm are a great place to start) and find your balance between persuasion and pestering by focusing on the long-term playbook. 

Below are some topics to discuss with your student in the years leading up to a college choice. Even if you are cheerleading for a senior in high school, it’s not too late. In fact, you are ahead of many families who don’t have the college talk until following graduation. So don’t give up or let panic creep into your game.

Cheerleading topics for parents

Get involved.  The best way for your child to be an interesting college candidate is for him to be interested in his high school experience. If he seems stalled on how to get involved, talk as early as possible about activities, associations and leadership opportunities he could enjoy. Help him find a passion for volunteering or an organized sport to pursue. Your child’s extracurricular fun can increase his chance for scholarships and even help him eventually answer the dreaded question “What’s your major?”

Hit the books.  You may have to break the news gently to your child, but grades do matter. Grade point average (GPA) is an unavoidable part of the college entrance process and is one of the best snapshots showing how prepared your child is for college success. So boost your student’s expectations for the future by talking about how she can do her balanced best starting from grade school.

What does this mean? Help her avoid the panic of perfectionism by not overreacting to an imperfect assignment or missed points, but do encourage her to keep up, turn in work on time, prepare for tests, read textbooks, etc. Basic study skills and concentration—the same stuff your teachers asked you to do decades ago—add up to a grade history that will give your child the best chance at college success. And if her best isn’t adding up? Help her see that you are not the only person who wants her to succeed. Encourage her to talk with teachers and school counselors who may have more options and answers to help than either of you may realize. 

Log it.  Help your child keep track of his activities and accomplishments by establishing a notebook (or text file if pen and paper are too last millennium for your teen) early in his high school career for logging the highlights. At the end of each semester, remind him to record awards (academic, athletic, job recognition, attendance and citizenship honors), leadership roles (big and small), clubs and organizations (choir, debate team, yearbook staff, clown ministries, etc.) and volunteer hour tallies that he accumulates throughout his high school years. The fun stuff he learned outside of the classroom adds up to a high school resume and may lead to scholarships or at the very least, will help him write an impressive college entrance essay. And you might even want to put a copy of the list in your child’s baby book (my mom did).

Talk about testing.  Launching from high school into college is about much more than acing tests—standardized or otherwise. But for many students, combining a stopwatch, a No. 2 pencil, a confining desk and one hundred multiple-choice questions can lead to a stomach ache or worse. Talk to your student about test stress before the big day. If the idea of an important timed test makes her squirm, it can’t hurt to do a run through. Encourage her to ask a school counselor about taking practice tests for both the SAT and ACT. (Some colleges require one or the other so be sure to check which one is required at the schools your child is considering.) Most high schools offer the college entrance tests in the junior year. If your student is not satisfied with her SAT or ACT scores, help her regroup, find study or tutoring resources and try again. But she needs to schedule retests early if it is important to your family to avoid possible conflicts with Sabbath or important family events. Mark your own calendar with her test day. Getting a good night’s rest (several nights in a row is even better) and having a full tummy with a nutritious breakfast can help ease the strain of filling in answer circles for several hours.

Money matters.  In the context of college planning, money matters a lot. Look ahead at your family finances and make a plan for how to prepare for one of the biggest investments of your life. Thinking ahead and saving early will make the subject less overwhelming for the whole family. Easier said than done, you may say. True. But sharing expectations for funding college with your teen will help make the next steps easier for both of you.

Be sure to learn all you can about scholarships offered by local businesses, churches or other nonprofit groups. Colleges can direct you to options for funding, but the competition for these dollars can be tough. Your child may find scholarship options that your high school or his future college may not even know about. So start early with the connections you already have to find unexpected scholarships. To read more about facing college financing and the value of an investment in Adventist education, click here.

Get out the map.  Once the topic of college becomes a part of your regular conversation, the question eventually turns to which college your child will attend. Before heading to campuses (which you should definitely do—see next topic), you have a few more details to discuss. Consider these categories to help your child understand the choices that add up to a meaningful and life-defining college experience:

  • Does he plan to stay near home or travel far away to school? And what is your family’s definition of far? 200 miles? 2,000 miles? 
  • Will she grow in the varied setting of a large public campus or dig deep in a faith-based academic setting? (For more on finding a great spiritual fit for your child click here.)
  • Will he benefit from a residential collegiate setting or off-campus living responsibilities?
  • Is he likely to expand his horizons through athletics, fine arts, service learning, academic rigor or social involvement? (Good news on these college life opportunities. Other than Griggs University’s online learning focus, the other 14 Adventist colleges and universities include all of these benefits of college life—and many of the campuses in North America include the whole list.)
  • Will she long for amenities of a city or the secluded concentration a rural setting offers? (Adventist colleges and universities offer both). 

Pack your bags.  To test the conclusions reached on the questions above, talk with your student about which campus he wants to visit and plan a trip (near or far) to the colleges topping your student’s wish list. Get your student involved helping you plan the visit by having him go online or call to request visit information, plan the visit schedule and confirm housing details. If the destination is beyond your local region, your visit will take some additional planning. Many Adventist campuses will help reimburse some of the expense of a visit. And to fit in as many campus contacts as possible, early planning can help wrap a family vacation around the school destination. Many colleges offer preview weekends for students and parents.

After each visit, it’s important to talk with your student about their impressions, what he liked, or didn’t like, and whether or not he can see himself attending the school and thriving. Share your reaction to the campus and the strengths and weaknesses you observed.

And then just keep talking about college and the next steps—with your student, with your spouse, with God. From frequent conversations layered with patience, prayer and good information, your spectator may just turn into a cheerleader for his own college career.

About the author … 
Jacque L. Smith, MS, ABC, graduated from Southern Adventist University (Collegedale, Tenn., she attended during the Southern College era) with a Bachelor of Arts in English, a minor in public relations and teaching certification for grades 7-12. She attended the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and graduated with a Master of Science in communication. She is thankful for the 16 years of Adventist education (grades one through college) that her hard-working and persistent parents provided as the springboard for her life. An accredited business communicator who is passionate about Adventist higher education, she served for 10 years at Union College (Lincoln, Neb.) in communication, development and marketing as director of public relations. In her current fulltime home-based role as vice president for motherhood operations, Jacque hopes and prays her two sons will eventually find as much joy and value in Adventist education as she did.