My story is not typical. Since my husband is a long-time employee of a Christian liberal arts college, also my alma mater, our older children simply attended that institution. It was close, familiar, and tuition was largely covered due to my husband’s tenure. But when our youngest daughter leaned toward a technical field not offered there as a major, the typical college search was on.

We had learned through the experiences of our older two that early and intentional conversations about college major and choice could have been helpful. With our youngest we now researched various schools, narrowing the field to three to visit. Those college visits, and months of prayer, were key to our daughter now studying at a school that she loves.

Laying the Groundwork

My husband and I recognized early on that our youngest was gifted in ways our older two were not. By the start of high school we were intentionally discussing career possibilities with her. We looked at the things she was naturally good at, her favorite subjects, and what she enjoyed doing in her spare time. By the time she was a junior in high school, engineering emerged as the likely path, with mechanical engineering as a specific major. This decision significantly narrowed the field of schools we considered.

Other questions helped focus our search. Was the school located in the city, in the suburbs, or out in the country? Our daughter knew she wanted a more rural setting, so we ruled out urban schools. What was the size of the school? She leaned toward smaller institutions with a more personal feel. Was the school faith-based or known for its secular nature? We strongly recommended a Christian school, knowing the value of godly friends and mentors. Our daughter gladly agreed.

Had she not had a clear direction regarding major, a large school with many major choices might have been preferable for the increased flexibility. But in our daughter’s case, we looked for schools that offered a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and were nationally recognized for meeting the quality standards of the profession. Of course, the question of cost was also significant. What would the true cost be, taking into account travel expenses and financial aid?

Additional search questions involved extracurricular opportunities. What varsity and intramural sports were available? Did the school offer a choir, band or orchestra? Were internships or study abroad programs available for students to gain hands-on and international experience? Did the campus have churches nearby that were accessible to students without a car? Were there nearby businesses with potential for part-time jobs? These opportunities can make the difference between an adequate and an amazing college experience.

Navigating the College Visit

While our older children had participated in visit days at our local college, we soon learned that different schools handle visitation in different ways. Some host open houses. Others have visitation weekends focusing on specific programs or majors. There’s much to be said for taking advantage of planned visit days.

By spring of our younger daughter’s junior year we had selected two schools to visit that summer. While at each, we met with admissions staff, spoke with engineering faculty, took a student-led tour of the campus, and ate in the dining hall. Overall, we received a good introduction to each institution, and our daughter completed her required admissions interview.

Staying Open to Unexpected Possibilities

That summer we also added a third school to visit, a long-shot that my husband found and our daughter was willing to consider. It was farther from home, and largely unfamiliar, but highly recommended. In October we attended a major-specific visitation weekend while school was in session. If your student already has a clear sense of direction, I highly recommend this type of major-focused visit.

We accomplished everything we had at our summer visits, but were also able to attend chapel, observe classes, and get a feel for the fully-alive campus. Because many other families were also visiting, we had great conversations with parents who were alumni themselves or who had a child already attending and were visiting with a younger sibling. These conversations were incredibly helpful to us as parents.

In addition to the weekend’s activities, we signed our daughter up to stay overnight in a dorm. That experience was significant for her. She had a great experience staying with two friendly young women who welcomed her, introduced her to other students, answered her questions, and included her in their typical Friday night activities on campus.

Factoring in the Intangibles

Intangibles also played into our college visit experience. Two of the institutions we visited with our daughter were in the Midwest, one in the Southwest. Coming from New England, there was a noticeable change in the social culture as well as the physical landscape. The Pennsylvania school we visited combined a small town America feel with a sophisticated academic feel. The Ohio school, surrounded by miles of corn fields, offered a relaxed midwestern atmosphere. These details matter.

Our daughter, who loves hiking and climbing trees, liked the Pennsylvania campus with its hills and trees, but the flat Ohio campus felt barren and uncomfortable to her. The Texas school was different in many ways—regional feel, landscape, and accent. Yet it was there, surprisingly, that our daughter felt most comfortable. She felt freer to discuss her faith than she did in politically correct Massachusetts. She was happy to see the trees and grazing cattle in the area. And she appreciated the courtesy built into the local language: Yes, ma’am. No, sir. Hi y’all. None of us could have anticipated that this would become her first choice college, but it did.

God’s Provision

One particular event in our college search experience served as a powerful lesson of God’s provision. I had booked our flight home from Texas after studying the scheduled activities for the engineering open house. I had neglected, however, to verify the end time of the final event. In the course of our visit it became clear that the highlight for potential engineering students was a series of hands-on sessions in the school’s labs. These special sessions on the final visitation day ran two hours later than the end time for the previous day’s activities. Our flight home necessitated our leaving campus one hour into the three hour event. I had blown it. I felt terrible.

A helpful admissions officer offered to see if someone from the engineering department could show us around the engineering facilities instead. This turned out to be a huge blessing. The chair of the mechanical engineering department met with us later that afternoon. As he gave us a private tour of the engineering classrooms and labs, he revealed that he’d felt constrained to stay late that day for some unknown reason. Our conversation revealed that he and his family were from New England and that they were a homeschooling family as well.

Our daughter was able to get an up-close look at equipment and research projects she would not have seen otherwise. My husband and I got to ask questions of someone we could truly relate to. And by the time he ended our personal tour with prayer for God’s direction for our family, I knew that God had redeemed my mistake and brought about something even better.

The Big Picture

The college search can be daunting. I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the paperwork and deadlines. The cost (in time and money) of visiting multiple campuses was intimidating. It seemed like we were trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. And I see the same struggle as friends and family guide their children through the college search process.

One thing is certain: the search can, and often will, take you in unexpected directions. One month you and your child could be leaning toward one institution. The next month various factors will have ruled out that school and focused your attention on a new school. Be prepared for this, and be patient—it’s a process.

Each young person’s journey will be unique. For some, learning a trade, participating in short-term missions, or simply entering the workforce will be the next step. For our older daughter, a gap year spent working locally matured her and confirmed her desire to attend college. Whatever the case, be intentional about discussing future career and schooling options with your high schooler.

If they’re college-bound, plan to visit multiple schools, preferably when school is in session. Take full advantage of opportunities to experience daily life at that institution. Bathe each step in prayer, and trust that, over time, God will reveal where He wants your child in the coming years.

God’s Faithfulness in Our Search

Our daughter is now attending that school in Texas. She’s in introductory engineering classes at the moment, but the chair of her chosen department greets her by name when he sees her. God used our limited search and imperfect visits to lead her to a place where she’s comfortable learning and growing, inside and outside of the classroom. We’re not sure if our daughter will come home wearing cowboy boots or adopt that delightful Texan twang, but we do know that God has her right where He wants her. And for this, we’re thankful.

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New Englander Debbie O’Brien homeschooled her son and two daughters over 19 years while writing and editing on the side. With the loving support of her husband of 34 years, she now helps homeschoolers at Christianbook, chases her three grandchildren, herds her two Siamese, and awaits God’s next step in this journey called life.