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College Search Error #1: Slapdash Searching

Posted on 05/13/2023, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)

The end of the college admissions marathon has ended for this year’s seniors. They've gotten their decisions from colleges and chosen which school to attend. Since hindsight has 20/20 vision, this is a perfect time for me to reflect on what the experiences of families ending the process can teach those heading into it.

There are three big mistakes I’d like to see your family avoid. In this article, I'll focus on the first and cover the others in subsequent issues.

Search Error #1: Slapdash Searching

For many families, the college list is haphazardly assembled in the fall of senior year.

Dad suggests Inner Sanctum Institute. While having his tooth excavated at a root canal treatment, he noticed the endodontist’s diploma from that institution hanging on the wall – and look at the house he lives in! Mom disagrees. She thinks Junior should only apply to their in-state public universities. Some of the private ones cost upwards of $80,000, and she’s sure their family won’t be eligible for financial aid. Her sister and brother-in-law, who make less than they do, went to all the trouble of filling out FAFSA last year and didn’t get a penny. Junior, meanwhile, is taking yet another approach. He’s leaning in favor of the three or four colleges that have bombarded him with slick promotional materials. After all, he wants to spend his college years at a school that really wants him.

I'm exaggerating a bit; most families are more thoughtful than this, but ironically, it's often the hardest-working students, who are toiling tirelessly to make themselves attractive college applicants, who neglect their college search. Like hamsters on an exercise wheel, they cycle daily through a series of academic, extracurricular, and service activities that consume the lion’s share of their time. Conducting a systematic college search takes a back seat to completing the lab report due tomorrow and the history paper due next week - and before they know it, they're seniors, scrambling to assemble a cursory college list. How can you avoid this pitfall?

Start Early

By the fall of senior year, high achieving students should be focusing their energies on completing applications, writing essays, and unraveling the complexities of the financial aid process. All of these activities take a lot of time, so the college search should have already been completed. To accomplish this, families should ideally start exploring schools in sophomore year, but no later than junior year and the following summer.

Compose a Comprehensive List Before Submitting the First Application

Many students adopt a step-wise approach to college applications; they apply first to the schools they're most enthusiastic about and then proceed to the less coveted ones. The problem with this approach is that by the time they get around to the colleges on their "likely" and "safety" lists - the schools they are most likely to attend - they may have missed early deadlines (often in mid-October to early November) to be considered for honors programs, merit scholarships, and the like. Indeed, some colleges have regular application deadlines as early as November 30 (University of California schools) and December 1 (University of South Carolina).To avoid missing early deadlines, a student should create a complete college list by the beginning of senior year and then review all deadlines to determine which applications to complete and submit first.

How Do You Begin?

The first question you need to ask is whether your child will be pursuing a specialized program or a more general liberal arts degree. If your daughter wants to earn a degree in engineering, business, education, or nursing, for example, you need to make sure that all the colleges on your list offer that option. You may need to go one step further to determine whether the college offers the specific field - e.g. aeronautical engineering, marketing, etc. - that she wants to study. You can narrow colleges by the majors they offer on the College Board's Big Future search engine. It also lets you search colleges by location, size, setting (urban, suburban, rural), extracurricular activities offered, and affordability, so it's a good place to start exploring schools.

A second free website with a useful college search tool is Niche. Like Big Future, it allows you to search by major, as well as providing a number of other useful filters. In addition, for each college there are student reviews for each college and a feature, "Will You Get In?" , that plots your GPA and test scores alongside those of accepted and rejected applicants at that school. U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges is another good online resource. It has limited information available for free, but for a modest yearly subscription fee you get access to a lot of additional data and features.

Two caveats are worth mentioning with respect to college search websites. First, take rankings with a huge grain of salt. To arrive at them, websites devise an algorithm that includes a variety of inputs, weighted according to the website's view of their importance. The extent to which the website's priorities match your own will determine how relevant its ranking is to you, so I encourage you to review each site's ranking methodology. Second, if you're narrowing your search to colleges that offer a specific program or major, don't rely on college search websites alone. Go to the website of the college to make sure that the major in question is actually available at the school.

Finding the right college takes a lot of research, reflection, and time, but in the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I urge you to take that step.

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Posted on 05/13/2023, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments) « Previous Entry    Next Entry »




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