Demystifying the college search

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by Robin Dance

Married over half her life to her college sweetheart, Robin's guilty pleasure is Reddi Wip from the can. Mom to three, she's as Southern as sugar-shocked tea. Follow her on Twitter. Her beautiful new blog robindance.me is a must-see.

My first-born will begin her college freshman year later this month.  With over 4,500 colleges and universities in our country, deciding where to attend followed a rigorous, months’ long odyssey that required investigation, perseverance, and sifting through a lot of noise.  Because we didn’t begin sooner, we also had the added pressure of short deadlines.

While information is readily available if you’re willing to invest the energy and time to find it, the college search can be daunting.  I’d like to share some of what we learned with the hope of helping those of you with college in your child(ren)’s future.  These tips are offered to:

  • simplify the process of searching for—and determining—the best college for your child
  • lessen confusion and frustration
  • encourage you to act earlier than we did!
  • possibly even save you money!

1.  Take the lead.

Unless you have a remarkably motivated or driven student, she will decide which college to attend based on her friends’ advice or the prettiest direct mail pieces or websites, then apply in a panic (after scholarship deadlines have passed) to whatever school she can find that is still taking applications.

If you want your child to have diverse college options and scholarship opportunities, you’re going to have to be involved.

Your child needs you now, like she hasn’t in years.

Good communication is crucial during the college search process.  I also see it as a partnership between parent and child, where each has tasks to do and deadlines to meet.

2.  It’s never too early to begin, but if you wait it could be too late.

The ideal time to begin thinking about college is at the beginning of your child’s freshman year in high school (we started late—second semester junior year); not knowing fully what they want to do, but what will be required to get them there so they can choose apply themselves in those areas (i.e., grades, activites, etc.).  The best way to expand options for college choice is to be a well-rounded student.  Grades matter, especially in core classes, but they’re not the only factor; leadership, extracurriculars, sports, work and volunteerism will all contribute to an impressive resume.

Scholarship applications typically have fall deadlines, so if your child waits until his senior year to become active, admissions counselors will have reason to believe it’s only to have something to record for his college resume.

3.  Test, test, and test again.

To qualify for academic scholarships, colleges generally consider a student’s activities and leadership, her GPA, and her ACT or SAT scores.  One point on the ACT can mean the difference in qualifying for the next level up for scholarship assistance, meaning a savings of thousands of dollars (I don’t know the equivalent range for SAT scoring).

Our daughter’s second ACT score was two points away from that next level of scholarship money.  We solicited the help of a tutor who coached her in how to better take the test, and helped her focus on her weaker areas.  He charged $40, she scored two points higher, and she was eligible for a scholarship that saved us thousands of dollars over four years.

Re-taking the ACT or SAT multiple times to improve your score is a short-term price (and pain) that has potential to save a ton of money and expand your child’s choices for college.


Photo by rutlo

4.  Do your homework.

Help your child see his strengths, passions and natural aptitudes.  For many, it’s difficult to identify his or her major as a freshman, but it’s important to think about these things early.

Then, tap into invaluable resources:

  • School guidance counselors
  • College Board.  The single-best resource for gaining information about specific colleges and universities, including campus size, gender ratio, faculty-to-student ratio, student body statistics and so, so, SO much more.
  • Student Aid on the Web.  From the U.S. Department of Education, this has information on funding post-high school education.
  • FAFSA. A free application for Federal Student Aid.  “An online tool to provide institutions with an estimated amount of a family’s financial resources that can be expected to be available for college. It is simply an index that allows an institution to fairly compare families when awarding federal, state and institutional financial aid.” (Source)
  • Fastweb.  An online portal to search for scholarships, some of which are very creative.

5.  Due diligence.

Keep in mind that searching for a college is usually a season with a happy ending!  If you want to help your son or daughter maximize options for choice and scholarship, it will require work from both of you.  But I promise, every minute of research, each word penned for an essay, all the effort spent on constructing a solid resume, the hours spent in preparing for and taking standardized tests, and every moment spent in prayer will make a difference.

We’re living proof.

Note: For the sake of brevity, I’ve shared just a portion of our experience.  My work-in-progress, an ebook titled “Simplifying the Search for College:  A Parent-Child Guidebook,” is on track for an October publication!  If you’d like to receive an alert when it’s available, please let me know by confidentially sharing your email here.  I’ll go into additional details for the suggestions included in this post, plus cover topics like making the most of campus visits, samples and suggestions for what to include on a college resume, tuition negotiation, and more!  If you have questions you’d like covered, be sure to leave a comment.

As a parent, what part of the college search seems the most intimidating? Overwhelming? Exciting?

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Comments

  1. Robin, this is great advice. I have ten years before I’ll be facing this decision with my own kids, but it’s something that’s on my mind as a (terrifying!) long-term prospect.

    My parents gave me 100% freedom when I made my own college choice–they wanted me to make my own decision, and didn’t want to give me advice. That was an awful lot of responsibility for a 17-year-old kid! And it’s not the approach I’ll take with my own kids. I’m glad to come across this information now so I have lots of time to think over and ponder my role as my kids move through the teenage years.

    • Anne,

      You know how I made my decision a thousand years ago? The college was 1 1/2 hours from home and I liked the tiger paws painted on the roads leading into campus (I went to Clemson). I had a loose idea about what I wanted to major in, and they barely had courses for it! I just picked the major that was closest.

      As it turns out, it was all fine, BUT…if I knew then what I know now, I would have made a different decision (well, except I love the husband I found there and my three kids and… ;) ).

      I kept saying (last year) I just wish there was something that would GIVE us this information simply, easily and without all the peripheral noise! I tried to find it, couldn’t…so I thought maybe our experience/research would help others.

      Thanks for your comment and encouraging words!!

  2. I’m going to start out by saying that I think college is incredibly important- it’s a time to figure yourself out, network, and hopefully work toward your dream job. That being said, I think the whole process is simpler than you have made it out to be. Also, for prereqs, community college is really the best way to save money. Test scores matter very little at that point, even once a student transfers. If your kids know 100% what they want to do, I’d say that college choice matters based on the field they want to enter. If they’re unsure or want to explore? Well that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. When I look back at my senior year in high school and first semester of college, the thing that I remember most is how much I wish I’d taken a semester or two off.

    • Liz,

      To your first point, I agree 100%–in today’s hyper-competitive job market, advanced education is critical if you plan to work in a field that values post high-school education.

      To your second point, I can agree, too–the process CAN be simpler than I’ve outlined; if you see my comment to Anne, I chose a college based on its proximity to home and the cute school logo/mascot (not education).

      It’s important to note there isn’t just One Right Way of approaching college (and saving money); your suggestions have great merit, as do mine. My goal in writing is not to offer the ONLY way, but to share our experience, and for those who are interested, to offer them some practical advice we had to work to find out.

      And, really, you can only say so much in a blog post or it’s snoozers!! :) Interestingly, some of the other things you’ve mentioned in your comment I’m already addressing….

      Thanks for offering some practical ideas.

  3. Having just graduated with my masters debt-free, I’d also say cost can help narrow your choices (in a good way). Unless you are in a very specialized field (MD’s, other technical degrees, etc.) your state colleges are a great place to start.

    My husband and I were able to begin our family right away with me as a stay at home mom, but many of our friends with the same desire who graduated with 30K of debt haven’t been so lucky. Those numbers seem so fictional when you’re in college, but consider if the place you get your degree is worth limiting your options later.

    • Sarah,

      Your last line makes a great point; if you have residual debt, is it worth it? That’s more complicated a question than it might seem on the surface, but it’s something a student must consider!

      We found a way to level the playing field if you’re going out of state (to some degree); that’s one of those things I didn’t know! That some colleges who’s tuition seems out of reach, might just be within reach after all!!

  4. I am in the tiny minority of parents who stayed out of my kids’ college searches. My son opted for two years of community college while working full time, because he wasn’t sure what direction he wanted to go for studies. They he chose a small college that specialized in his chosen field and is incredibly happy and fulfilled. He graduates in December. My daughter, on the other hand, knew exactly what field she wanted to enter and also found a school perfect for her right off the bat; she will graduate next year.
    We made it very clear to the kids from an early age that their education was their primary responsibility; we would offer help if we felt it was appropriate or needed. They each took the SAT once; no prep classes, no tutors, no application-padding. We never even read their college essays. And yet, somehow, they ended up exactly where they wanted to be.
    Our approach would probably horrify most of the Type A parents around us, but it worked for our kids. Higher education isn’t a one-approach-fits-all proposition. My father picked my college and the only reason he didn’t pick all my classes too is because he died right before I started (he was a major control freak). My husband picked his own school with no input from his parents.
    Best of luck with your book!

  5. Wow, Welmoed…I had to smile because your comment covers BOTH extremes! And I agree–”Higher education isn’t a one-approach-fits-all proposition.” Hope that doesn’t sound like what I’m suggesting (I’m not a bossy know it all); when you write, you have to speak with some level of conviction or why write at all?

    And I don’t think you’re in a “tiny minority”; my daughter thanked us repeatedly throughout the process for our involvement; she said few (one?) of her friends’ parents had helped much at all…..

  6. It’s funny, I’m pretty sure the only things my parents did to help me with college applications were taking me to visit a couple of the schools that I had in mind and helping me with application fees. But, I was one of those highly motivated kids who knew that college was the next step after high school and just did what needed to be done to get there.

    My kids aren’t to this stage yet (though we’ll be there before we know it with the older one who starts Middle School next week) but I can already see that we’ll have to tailor our involvement with the process to each child. My daughter is a lot like I was as a kid, I won’t be surprised to find out that she’s already picked the school she wants to go to by the time I broach the question with her! She’s also attending a college-prep school, so her entire education for the next seven years is geared toward the next educational step. My son? Even though he’s just now starting elementary school, I can see us having to walk through the process with him step by step when the time comes. (Though he could still surprise us!)

    And while I may have been highly motivated in high school, I’m enough of grown-up now to be able to say that the number one motivator for me when it came to applying to college was the then boyfriend (now husband) who I unabashedly admit I followed to college! (Virginia Tech, Go Hokies!) I got a degree AND a spouse out of it, so I consider it a win-win!

  7. As someone with 10 years experience working in higher education, the only one size fits all advice I have is that regardless of a student’s goals, there’s usually more than one way to get there. It’s a fine line to walk between support and micromanaging; take some time to talk to your student about his/her goals and how much help is really needed from you.

  8. My parents weren’t really involved in my college search. Neither of them went to college and there was no pressure on me to do so, though I had excellent grades and they just kind of assumed I would go. They didn’t save up to try and help with the costs, though if I needed money for food and electricity, they’d help out. As a result of all of this, I am stuck with student loans that I will be paying on FOREVER.

    I also changed my mind about which college to attend in April of my senior year. I had applied to and been accepted to two schools at the beginning of my senior year… and then I fell in love (isn’t that always the case?). I decided to apply to the college he was transferring to. I don’t regret my choice (we’ve been together 8 years, married 3, and expecting our first child this fall), but I wish it’d been one of the schools I’d applied to in the fall. I received very little scholarship money from the school my first year because I’d missed the deadline.

  9. Just thought I’d pop in to say THANKS in advance if you register for ebook info! The response has been a lovely surprise.

    :)

  10. My parents were wonderfully supportive when I was choosing a college, but looking back, I realize they were able to gently steer me toward the best decision. I REALLY wanted to go out of state (just on the principle of being independent), but they knew I would get the same (or better) education at a fraction of the price by staying close to home. A couple things they did:

    - Trips to visit out of state schools. I went on a mom/daughter weekend and a dad/daughter weekend to visit a couple out of state schools during my soph year. Great bonding time. I distinctly remember falling in love with the “feel” of one campus and my dad remarking, “Wow, this feels just like we’re walking through [local school 20 minutes from our house].” It was an eye opener for me.

    - They told me they could help pay for college, but I needed to make up the difference if I chose to go out of state. That really motivated me to start early and find scholarships. In the end, I couldn’t make up the difference and elected to stick close to home.

    - They understood and respected my desire to “go away to school.” They didn’t expect me to come home on weekends, didn’t visit campus when they were in the City, didn’t socialize at sporting events (that they had season tickets to!), etc. Except the one semester when I left ALL MY SOCKS at home… and then my dad was on my doorstep 20 minutes later. =)

  11. I love this post, Robin… I truly love that you didn’t just try to shock/scare people with financial figures of just how much it will cost to educate a child. :) I was very fortunate to be the third child to head off to college in my family and I think my parents had it down to science by then. In addition, my older brother (6 years my senior) was super helpful and was able to really help me determine what was truly important. I have a long time before I need to do this with my own children, but I appreciate having these things to think about!

  12. This is awesome advice, thanks. I am not there yet, but my son is 11, and I know it will creep up on me. My mom took the approach that you did, and I am so thankful for her assistance and encouragement. She left the decision making up to me, but she helped me with the paperwork and all that jazz.

  13. Just realized I didn’t answer your question. I’m excited to see where my kids decide to go and how their future evolves, but I’m terrified of sending them off on their own to make their own decisions, good or bad. I guess that’s where you just have to hope you did your best and pray, pray, pray.

  14. As I dig the crusty sleep out of the corner of my eye from last night’s battle of the 11 month old wills, this topic seems so far off. But then again, my 8yo likes to remind us that she’s “halfway to 16.” Oy!

    I can’t help but wonder what the economy will be like in 10 years and how that will affect the logistics of where our kids go to school. We shall wait and see! :)

  15. My kids will have two options for college : UT Austin or Stanford. I kid, I kid. Well, only a little. I think the talk of college starts young, if that’s the direction you’d like to see your kids go. Obviously, when they get to that legally-on-their-own place, than they can choose what to do. But for us, college really is the only option our kids will have. And, because of some family convictions, they will be as close to us as we can manage. With the exception of Stanford {my husband just really loves Stanford and would be willing to ship a kid off to CA for it}.

    My parents gave me no input in my college choices, and I really wish they had. I had to weed through a lot on my own before I got into UT. And while it was good for me to pave my own way, it would have been nice to have parents who were more involved. There were a lot of things I learned by trial and error that proved to be less than awesome for me {or my credit score} over those 4 years.

    And Robin – you made my heart go pitter-patter at the sight of the Tower.

  16. Thanks for sharing from the parent’s point of view. I never thought much of what my mom thought as I got ready for college. I was lucky enough to have a really supportive mom who took me on a tour of a couple colleges on the East Coast and added more thoughts on other schools I looked at.

  17. My oldest starts kindergarten this week and college seems so far away…but at the same time I can see it staring at me!

    I think the most nerve-wracking thing to me is the idea that going to college means you have to decide RIGHT! NOW! what you want to be when you “grow up”. I felt so wishy-washy about what to major in so that spilled over into what school I should go to. I love the advice of thinking about college in 9th grade. It helps to start thinking ahead!

    (But this week, I’m going to focus on the new backpack we got for kindy!)
    a

  18. As a parent of a 2 year old and one on the way, the thought of college seems so far off. I know it will be here before we know it though!

    Since I had a family member steer me in a direction and negotiate tuition which eventually led to a full scholarship, I can’t help but feel that’s what I need to do as well. I’m slightly (*ahem*) intimidated that my negotiating efforts won’t add up to what was offered me, though, so I can’t wait to glean some wisdom from your book. With almost 16 years to study up, surely I’ll be prepared by then! :)

  19. GREAT post, Robin! All through high school, I was determined to go to the University of Missouri. I wanted to be a journalist, and they have an excellent J school. So, duh, that’s where I was going! My parents MADE me look at one other school (whichever one I wanted, they just wanted me to have SOMETHING to compare), and I was so mad. But…as I went on that college tour of the smaller school, I realized that IT was the right one for me. And it was a GREAT college for me! And I am not a journalist. :) All that to say, I am so thankful for my parents’ influence, direction, encouragement and support in my college decision. I’m bookmarking this one for a few (okay, 14) years down the road!

  20. Oh this is fabulous… My oldest is entering high school and I so need to start getting my head around college preparation and seriously getting my homeschool ducks in a row… It seems like just yesterday that the priority was learning to read and suddenly everything is changing!!! A little direction on my part is in order and I certainly need to be reading more about it… can’t wait for your book to come out!!!

  21. We have gone through the process twice and are in the midst of the third! :)
    I think the most important thing we can do to prepare our children for college is to encourage them to pray for the Lord to lead them into what He has for them. As parents we need to believe that to be true. He wants to show them that He is there and leading them. This is the beginning of their faith, truly becoming their own.
    I also think pointing out the strengths and weaknesses that we see in their lives helps them to hone in on what they can do and will enjoy doing in the long run.
    Working together is important as well. When I brought my daughter to the campus to meet with admissions, I told her that I would wait in the car because I knew that she could talk with who she needed to just fine. She was a little taken aback, but when she returned to the car, she told me that she saw a young man there with his father doing the same thing that she was doing on her own and it struck her that she could do it on her own and didn’t need me to be there with her.
    This is a special “growing” time for them (and us!). College is where they will be tested not just in knowledge but in their faith and character. So all that we are teaching and training will bear good fruit! Again, we need to trust. It is exciting to see them take the steps forward into what we have been preparing all along…young godly adults! :)

  22. As a former college admissions counselor, my one piece of advice for those parents who choose to involve themselves in the process is to give your child the gift of appropriate expectations. Telling your child ‘you can go anywhere you want to, honey’ does them no favors and frequently sets them (and you) up for disappointment. You must be realistic about your child’s grades & test scores, their athletic abilities and your own financial health before you help guide them to appropriate colleges and universities.

  23. Oops, I forgot, one more thing! The best money you can spend is on SAT or ACT prep courses or tutoring. The biggest waste of money…any class, camp, seminar or special teacher for the college essay – they are seldom, if ever, read -honest.

  24. Well done. It sounds like your research and due diligence paid off. As a college administrator, the one thing I would add is that with a little bit of information and initiative, one can replicate the small liberal arts college experience at almost any institution of higher ed.

  25. As a private college counselor, I think you had written some great suggestions for families as they go through the college planning process. Since college is such a big investment, I would also like to add to your resource list the HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) website which is hecaonline.org. Here you will find a list of independent college consultants in almost every state who have the time and expertise to help families with the college search and application process.

    College Direction
    http://www.collegedirection.org

  26. With children 6, 3 and 2, I have awhile to think about this!

    One statement that you made was that the right time to start thinking about college was freshman year of high school. While that may be spot on, it really concerns me. I see so many students heading off to college with no idea on WHAT they want to do. How many freshman have any clue what career they want for the rest of their lives?

    And isn’t that the point of college? To study to become a professional?

    I hope that by the time my children are starting to think about college that the system has changed. Word on the street has it that college will cost each of them $100,000 and that is too much to pay for an “experience”.

  27. As a parent of one college student and a high school senior, AND as a college professor, I have a little (just a little!) to say on this topic. I think Robin has done a great job of hitting the most important points. First, to all of you dear younger moms, start saving money now. You won’t believe how much easier it is to even THINK about the college decision if you have the money set aside already. Believe me, the investment in your child’s future is worth it. Second, don’t think they have to have their major all figured out when they enter the doors of the university. Some kids (myself included) have to take a few classes to find their passion. The pressure on kids these days is terrifying, both from their high schools and from their colleges; be their advocate and let them figure it out during their freshman year (but not too much longer after that!). And finally, don’t be that helicopter parent. Your job is to guide them, as Robin suggests, but not to choose for them. I have heard stories from my students that would make your hair curl. I had one student, a senior who was about to get engaged, whose mom called him five times a day. Crazy! Let them go. And let them go without the guilt.

    That said, I think I could write the follow-up to your book, Robin. How to Handle the Heartbreak of Sending Your Child to College. The getting-her-in part is easy. The missing-her-so-much part is hard. *sigh*

  28. Hi Robin! Great job with this. As a parent to one college student, a high school senior, AND as a college professor myself, I have a little to say about this topic, especially to you dear younger moms out there. First, start saving now. It will make the whole college discussion less stressful if you at least have a couple of years’ tuition in the bank. And you won’t believe how quickly the money flies once you start paying tuition. Second, our job as parents is to guide our kids, not to choose for them. Look at their personality, their strengths, their spiritual maturity and help them look at schools that will fit those. But you can’t make the final decision for them. Along those lines, and contrary to what some people will tell you, your child does not need to know what he or she is going to major in the minute they step on campus. It takes time for some kids to find their passion (myself included!). Don’t put too much pressure on them to declare a major right away. Finally, don’t be that helicopter parent. I could tell you stories that would make your hair curl. One student, a senior who was about to get engaged, told me his mom called him five times a day! Let them go. And let them go without guilt.

    I could write the follow-up to your book, Robin: “How to Handle the Emotional Transition to College.” Finding a school is easy; it’s after they’ve gone that’s hard. :(

  29. We’re sending off our only in a few weeks and felt very confident with how the search and decision went. We guided and helped keep on track, but the final decision was his. I agree with the notion that you need to be very involved and start early.

    Some other things that I think are important–maybe they’re covered in your book…once you start narrowing down choices, visit repeatedly if you can afford to. There’s a huge difference between seasons, open houses vs. tours, weekdays/weekends, etc.

    Also, our son was very torn–he got into his top two choices, but had a difficult time making the final decision. We listed (from a book on how to choose a college) different aspects of college and what he wanted from the experience. Having him write down answers helped clarify the decision and eliminated any regret later on.

    Make friends with the tour guides! The one question I always asked was ‘what made you decide to come here?’

    One comment on a previous poster about community college…it is a great opportunity to save some money, but make sure you balance that with the idea that most transfer student also don’t get nearly the financial aid package that incoming freshman will.

    Be leery of accepting too early. We didn’t realize that the cost of attendance would be vastly different from what was advertised in college literature/websites. Wait until at least March when you’ve gotten your complete financial aid package. It can make a huge difference.

  30. what college did you/your child end up choosing?

    • Without naming names…our son’s choices were between a school that had an extremely well-established and well-respected program of study (marine biology) but a so-so campus versus one that had a beautiful campus but a so-so program of study. He chose the better program. I think after writing things out, he realized that it was more important to have good connections and courses; the social experience is so much what you choose to make of it and wasn’t going to get him into grad school! I am proud to say he came to the decision on his own, but it was difficult. For many kids, this is the first time they’ve had to make a decision of this magnitude.

  31. Seriously you are an answer to prayer. My oldest will be a sophomore this year. I’ve been asking other parents how to do the “college search”? No one has a clear answer. I did have a lengthy conversation with my SIL last week when she was visiting about their college searches. (Her oldest is a senior and they’ve been doing extensive visiting). I’ll for sure be interested in your book!

  32. Dear, sweet Robin,
    Boy, when your going through this college prep stuff, you can sure feel all alone in the world. Everyone else around you seems so in control of the process and the decisions made, and the finances controlled, while you, on the other hand, are buried under brochures and forms, etc., most “sounding like Greek-to-me”. And there are all kinds of support groups out there, for all kinds of emotional help, and I am sure there are a gazillion about this topic, too, but it sure is comforting to know that we are not alone at all. Your book sounds like it is going to take that “Greek” and turn it into English, which will be a breath of fresh air, as you always are on any topic. My son will be going back to college (out of state), sophomore year this time, and believe me, it’s no easier to let him go……….but, ladies, let’s face it; is it ever? Only a mother bird can push her own out of the nest and never look back!

  33. I totally agree on the test and retest bit! By the time I finished high school I had taken the PSAT twice and the SAT twice…by the last time I tested I was soooooo familiar with the set-up and had studied enough to get a score that landed me a 100% scholarship. It was definitely worth it to go through the hassle of re-testing.

  34. Robin, thank you for this post and the reassurance that I’m not crazy to be making my soon to be junior and freshman look at college choices right now. Sometimes it felt like it was too soon but it also seems that the sooner the process starts the more hands-off I can be (because there is time for them to procrastinate periodically without missing a big deadline).

    I have to chuckle as I read the responses and see that the old proverbial pendulum is still swinging back and forth; those who had parents who were over-involved in their choices are going hands-off and those who felt alone or that they made a less than stellar choice are inclined to rectify that for their kids. As you said, whatever works for your family is fine. I would just encourage people to make a conscious choice and not simply put it off because it feels daunting.

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