Jul 2019

3 Tips for Helping Your Child Pick a College

This piece is an excerpt from Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta’s forthcoming book Choosing College.


The process of getting into your best school is the Job that is glamorized in Hollywood and worried about in the pages of the New York Times. It is the Job that sparked the interest of major media outlets in early 2019 when several celebrities, among others, were charged with illegally cheating to get their children into the best schools. Some families spend lots of money on college counselors. Some hire testing coaches. Some make huge donations. Some game the system and use all of these options. The factors in how exactly students get into the best schools are the focus of much of the country’s admissions mania.

Contrary to what you might think, you don’t have to be stressed out to be experiencing this Job or about to graduate high school. It can occur multiple times in your life, from college to graduate school and other exclusive experiences. In the latter cases, you probably identify with the statements about belonging to a place with prestige and reinventing yourself but not about having the classic “college experience” or living in a brick-and-mortar college.

This Job is all about the act of getting into school, less on what you will do after you get into the school. That makes it strange as a Job to Be Done because the outcome that people desire is the affirmation from getting into school, not the schooling experience itself or the doors that college may open for you.

Sure, you might be going into school as a pre-med student or to get employed “in business.” You might have a sense of the classes you’ll take, the parties you might attend, and the fun you might have. But deep down, the emphasis is all about getting in and getting the best for you. What you will do once you’re in and why you are going are typically not so concrete.

As Frank Bruni wrote in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, “How you use college. What you demand of it. These dynamics get lost in the admissions mania, which overshadows them, to a point where it makes them seem close to irrelevant.”2

We thought of calling this Job “Help me execute ‘the plan,’” but the students we talked to don’t typically use that language, even as some of their parents might. The students don’t always have a plan, more just a yearning to get in to “the best.” These are the students who excel at “getting into things,” Bruni wrote. “The message these kids had received from the college admissions mania was that gaining access, besting the competition, was the principal goal and primary accomplishment. You rallied your best self, or struck your comeliest pose, for that. You didn’t worry as much about what came after.”3

Our research shows that students with this Job are overwhelmingly satisfied with their experience – 83%. Just 28% of students dropped out or transferred schools.

Despite that track record of success, if you are experiencing this Job there are some pitfalls to avoid. There are also some steps to consider ahead of time because once you get in, the next step is going to school. For many students, that moves them into a new Job. It’s wise to be ready for that potential pivot ahead of time.


If you are the parent of a child or friend of someone who has this job, here are three pieces of advice:

  1. If you live in a high-pressure environment or you see your child is stressed about the college admissions process, help her relax. Take the pressure off – through the stories and stats we, and others, provide – and certainly don’t add to the pressure. That doesn’t mean just telling your child to relax, but showing through your actions and words that relaxing is not only OK, it’s a good idea. Support your child – directly and by helping him get access to the external support he might need. And make sure he knows your love is unconditional.


  1. Throw out the rankings lists. We already said why the rankings won’t help and could hurt. A rankings list isn’t just a poor way to figure out the right fit for your child, it could also add to the stress of the college admissions process. See our advice in point number one.


  1. Help your child define what is important and what is a nonstarter–for her, not you. Your child will be going to school, not you. Remember that. By the same token, if you see your child has unrealistic expectations, help guide her toward a more realistic picture of what is best for her. Make the tradeoffs in her decisions clear.

If you do not feel capable of helping your child with the decision – maybe you did not go to college, for example, or your child has tuned you out – helping your child find a trusted mentor, having her talk to one of your friends, or creating a relationship with an advisor in or outside of school could be a way to help still. Several of the students we talked to whose parents had not gone to college found their “best school” through a mentor.

Lawrence, for example, whose story we told earlier this chapter, struck up a friendship by chance with a professor at Georgia Tech, who guided him through the college application process and suggested strong alternatives to Georgia Tech. Once Lawrence was in college, he continued to meet his mentor every week.

Kurt, another student who was the first in his family to go to college, worked as a guidance counselor’s assistant during his senior year of high school. As a result, his guidance counselor offered him extra help as he navigated the college application process.


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