How to Select a College: Advice for Parents and Students

College tuition costs are soaring. At state schools across the country, tuition rates have increased in some cases by 20% to make up for state budget cuts to higher education. Is a college education still worth the expense? Might one be better off going to a cheaper community college for two years and transfer, or look for some job training certificate program? In the U.S., college may not be for everyone anymore, but the fact remains that a person with a college degree will more than likely earn over a lifetime significantly more than a person without one.  And even if it were possible to get a steady job right out of high school at say Dunkin Donuts, Wal-Mart or Best-Buy, the likelihood of a promotion to a management position would be slim, not impossible, but slim and not overnight. Other employment opportunities might be available to a high school graduate, but the competition is fierce even for entry level jobs in this lackluster economy.

However, an expensive college degree does not guarantee one a job. There are many unemployed recent college graduates who are desperate for work and willing to do almost anything to get marketable experience. Some have resorted to unpaid internships and volunteer positions which are a good way to make contacts and gain valuable job skills, but not helpful in paying the student loan bills.

If you are a soon to be high school junior or senior or a parent of a soon to be high school junior or senior, now is the time to begin planning and looking at post-secondary options. Below are some things to think about as you begin the planning phase.

Highschoolers – get your grades and activities in order. Your college application is kind of like a job resume and you have to give the colleges and universities you apply to some reason to like you and possibly invest in you. Colleges like good grades, but if you have mediocre grades now and can show improvement, they like that too. No backsliding though, especially if you have your heart set on a highly selective college. You don’t have to participate in every activity your school offers, but you should be involved in some club or extracurricular, and beyond just going to a few meetings. Choose something that is of real interest to you. As to classes, try to take the more challenging courses including AP classes if you can.  If your school offers an IB program, consider applying.  You don’t have to take all hard classes, though. Choose an elective that is less challenging but related to your interests.

The SAT or ACT.  You’ll need to take these, one or the other depending on the schools your are applying to, but don’t stress out too much.  Increasingly, some forward thinking institutions no longer require them.  And many that do, don’t place as much weight on them as they once did.  Focus more on crafting a good essay, an essay that you should write – don’t let your parents get a hold of it.  And the other thing, when you apply to the school, you have to convince them that you love the school and know it very well.  If they don’t feel like you’ve done your homework, they are going to think that you are not serious about attending and put your application in the reject pile.

Parents, junior and senior years of high school will be enormously stressful for your teenagers or as some high school counseling offices say, your student, so you should get involved in selecting some universities and colleges to visit; places that will be a good fit for your kid, not you.  Ask your teen what kind of place they might like to attend.  Does the size of the school matter?  Would he prefer a small liberal arts school close to home?  Might she feel more comfortable in a big state university where some of her friends could be destined to attend?  If finances are an issue, rather than saying “we can’t afford college”, look into community colleges – there are some terrific ones out there and after two years, the credits can transfer to a four year institution. What are your child’s interests?  Music, writing, the arts, science, sports? Any thoughts to a possible major?   Now, before you try to steer your kid to the cheapest school out there, consider that cheapest is not always best, and that cheapest may actually not be cheapest as the more expensive schools tend to have more financial resources and can give better financial aid assistance.

Parents, visit as many schools as possible with your child.  You will need to take the lead on this.  Let them get a feel for the place.  College admissions offices will take notice too when you visit, because you nearly always have to sign in for a tour or information session.  The worst mistake you and your child could make would be to commit to a school you have never seen.  And students, don’t make the mistake of applying to a school because your best friend, boyfriend or girlfriend is applying there.  Now, the college guidebooks are useful, but no substitute for the visit.  They can give you a sense of a place, but not the essence, which everyone will experience differently.  What may matter to one, may be of no concern to another or to you.  When my daughter and I visited a certain school in the Northeast, she had heard that the food there was terrible, but actually liked the food and variety offered.   But what she did not like was the eating space with it’s dirty and messy tables with scattered newspapers, salt spills, stray trays with half-eaten and abandoned food about.  That wasn’t in any  guidebook.  It wasn’t a deal killer, but it made an impression, and not a very good one.  And several featured classrooms on the tour were nice, but many had long oak tables shaped in a U which would have impacted interaction patterns and seemed more suitable for a White House Cabinet meeting.  That wasn’t in the guidebook either. At another campus, the common grounds were so overwhelming beautiful that it became an instant favorite.  The guidebook describes its beauty, but could not capture how one might feel in the environment, which is of course a very personal and subjective experience in the end.

Hey highschoolers, one last thing, after you apply to a school, do everything possible to get an interview, if the school offers them.  They are almost always optional, but encouraged. I know it doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world and even stressful, but it is your opportunity to influence the admissions process.  Be yourself. If they don’t like you, you wouldn’t want to go there anyway.  Some schools will send representatives to your area, often students or alumni, so don’t pass up the opportunity.  A few schools even do interviews via Skype.  It can make a huge difference in whether you are accepted or not, and could tilt the scale in your favor if you are borderline.

Diversification is the best approach to selecting schools. These days kids apply to as many as 10 schools.  If your kid is staying close to home or in-state, 5 might be the right number.  Here’s an example of a diversification strategy based on types of schools.

  1. a community college
  2. a state school
  3. an in-state public university
  4. an out-of- state public university
  5. a not so selective in-state private school
  6. a not so selective out-of-state private school
  7. a selective in-state private school
  8. a selective out-of-state private school
  9. a  highly selective in-state private school
  10. a  highly selective out-of state private school

Within this sort, you can add customized criteria, so that if your daughter prefers small liberal arts schools, you can narrow the search.  There may be some small liberal arts state schools in your state.  For example, Massachusetts has the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, both public institutions. If your son wants to be closer to home, you can narrow the search to schools within a 200 mile radius of home.  If your daughter hopes to be an engineer, check out schools with excellent engineering departments and top notch science facilities. If your son is an artist, look for schools strong in studio arts.  If your daughter wants to study abroad, look for schools that have a wide range of possibilities and offer subsidies to pay for it. If your son or daughter has multiple interests and skills, look for schools with balanced strengths.

And by the way, the Ivy League has prestige, but does not always deliver the best classroom experience and may be a horrible fit for your sons and daughters.  And just because you went to a particular school doesn’t mean it would be the best choice for your kid.   – ribbie

And students, no throw away applications.  Apply only to schools that you would attend.  If you don’t want to attend the school after having visited it, do not apply to it – don’t let your folks force you to either.  But before you say no to a school you swear you could not attend, if it has some of what you’re looking for in a school, don’t completely rule it out.  And don’t rely on what your friend said about it, or what you’ve read in a guidebook.

My daughter applied to 11 schools and got accepted to 9 including her top choice, wait listed at 1 and rejected at another. And the school that rejected her was a school she applied to at the last minute on a lark.  The key to her success was all the research we did together.  All the schools, save the rejection, we visited beforehand and determined to be good matches.  They met her criteria: close to home, small liberal arts college with fewer than 2,000 students, good study abroad opportunities and a beautiful campus.

Students, you too can have a successful college search experience if you put in the time, visit the schools that interest you and apply 0nly to the ones that fit YOU best.  Good luck!

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