If your children are juniors in high school, you know it’s time to think about the visits you will need to make to colleges during their senior year. This process is not easy—on your children or you. Where should you start?

First, your children need to come clean with themselves. It’s time for some soul searching. They have to know their strengths and weaknesses and their likes and dislikes. Seem easy? Well, it’s not. They have to picture themselves in different environments, living and socializing with different types of people. Each college has its own personality. Will your child’s personality mesh with the other college students’ personalities?

Your children have to cast their net wide. They can’t get fixated on one school. Usually when they have their heart set on a particular place, it’s for all the wrong reasons: Mom or Dad went there, their best friend or latest heart throb is going there, or they like the football team. Instead, they need to collect as much information as possible from a variety of schools. These days, the internet makes that easier.

Your kids should also get a guidebook from the admissions office of the schools in which they are interested. Keep in mind that these are only intended for reference and do not give an overall perspective look at the school.

The biggest test will be the visit itself, which will start to uncover the college’s culture. Ideally, you should visit while classes are in session and the dorms are full of students. Your children need to take the formal tour. However, they should also stop students and ask questions about the pros and cons of the school. Make sure they probe beyond the social-life questions. Talking to recent graduates will give them yet another perspective.

Now for a reality check. You have to examine whether you and your children can afford the cost of that college. This is what is known as “sticker shock.” Over the past two or three decades, college tuition has risen from around the $2,500 a year to close to $40,000.

Be honest with your children. If you can’t afford a private college, tell them. Meet with the financial aid advisors at the college to see what is realistic in terms of financial and college loans your children could possibly receive. Then, in a quiet moment, discuss with your children how much debt they are comfortable accruing before graduation. Public schools in your state will be much more economical, unless your child qualifies for scholarships and grant aid.

Your children should not settle on the first college they visit. That first college trip is exciting, but your children have to see a few more places and really analyze what they see and learn in order to make a choice that suits their needs and desires. A great football team is not a great reason to go to any school, unless the goal is to play for their team.

At the website, [www.petersons.com](http://www.petersons.com/), your children can find resources about many colleges. As Peterson’s so eloquently puts it: “Your education is yours. Find the program that fits your goals.” That is the point.

Help your children stay away from the notion that there is only one college for them. Of course, they’ll have a favorite. But they need to choose several where they feel they’ll fit; both academically and socially. They need to look at: the courses for their interest match, the style of instruction that matches their learning style and the school atmosphere. The other consideration is location. If your children will only be happy in a city, a remote college in North Dakota will not be a good fit. Also, a small-town kid attending college in metro Chicago could be a mistake.

By the way, if you see your children gravitating toward the party-school college, you may suggest a year at home to work or study at a community college before investing in what could be an unrewarding academic experience. A year of disastrous grades is hard to overcome in a grade point average.

Having a good feeling for several schools is also an advantage in case your children do not get into the college of their dreams. They can always go to another school, get great grades and try to transfer the next year. Often they may decide to stick with the second choice for their college career.

The college process is not easy. Your kids will need your guidance and help. Think how relieved you’ll be when they’re off to school, and you can focus on the joys of having an empty nest!