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The College Search: Time to Get Serious

Posted on 05/07/2018, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)

In the world of college admissions, May is the month for the changing of the guard; seniors have completed the college application process and juniors take their place as the next group of applicants. The first deadlines for early application programs, merit scholarships, and honors programs will start cropping up as early as mid-October, so for the families of juniors it's crunch time. They really need to get serious now to give themselves time to conduct a thorough and thoughtful college search. Families of sophomores are under less immediate pressure, but starting their search now gives them an opportunity to make the process more leisurely and enjoyable.

That said, how do you go about winnowing the long list of potential colleges down to the five to ten schools your child will actually apply to and the one she’ll attend?

The choice you make will affect everything from how much your family will pay to how much she enjoys the experience and how likely she is to graduate in four years, so it’s a high stakes decision worthy of a lot of research and reflection. Ironically, however, many of today’s students are working so hard to make themselves attractive applicants to colleges that they can't spare the time to think about which ones would suit them best.

Like hamsters on an exercise wheel, they cycle daily through a never-ending series of academic, extracurricular, and service responsibilities 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 assigned for next week.

The end result, in many cases, is a college list that is hastily and haphazardly assembled in the fall of senior year. In too many families the college search process goes something like this.

Dad suggests Inner Sanctum Institute. While having his tooth excavated at a recent root canal appointment, 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 limit his applications to the in-state public universities. Some of the private ones cost upwards of $60,000, and she’s sure they 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.

Obviously, this is not the best way to go about constructing a college list. How can your family do better?

Where Do You Begin?

Start by asking your teen to imagine herself at her dream college – but discourage her from visualizing a particular school. The purpose of this exercise is to identify the characteristics of colleges in general that matter to her. Fixating on one school can make it more difficult to generalize and set her up for disappointment if she isn’t accepted there.

In her imagination, what does the campus of her generic dream college look like? In what type of area is it located? Where is she living - in a dorm on campus or an apartment nearby? What does she do on the weekend? Her answers to these questions will hopefully provide a starting place for figuring out which colleges would be a good match.

On the other hand, don’t be surprised if her answer to some - or all - of the above questions is, “I don’t know.”  When the conversational well runs dry, it’s time to proceed to the College Board’s search engine, Big Future. Put your teen in the driver’s seat and take a spin as a family. Begin with Type of School and move through each of the filters. Let each choice that’s posed serve as a discussion prompt. For example, the Location selections might spark a conversation about whether your daughter would consider moving across the country for college - or is reluctant to stray more than an hour from the nest. How do you feel about this issue? When all the questions have been answered you'll be presented with a list of colleges that meet all of your criteria. 

The next step is to explore the information provided about each college, from size of student body to cost of attendance to admission statistics. Finally, while reading about an individual college, check out this nifty feature: scroll down the left hand side of the page until you see a gray box entitled More to Explore. Click on the See Similar Colleges link to be shown other colleges viewed by users who looked at the first college. This may help you discover schools you weren't even aware of that have the features you're looking for.

Searching for the right college should be something like looking for your dream home. At the outset, you may be convinced that living ten minutes from your workplace is more important than having large bedrooms. However, after looking at a few matchbox homes in the perfect neighborhood, you might decide that a longer commute to work is more appealing than sleeping twelve feet from your teenager with nothing more than a drywall partition in between. So you modify your search and start looking again.

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.” So take that step.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how to evaluate whether your teen is on track to get accepted to the colleges on his preliminary list, and what to do if he’s not. Stay tuned.

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Posted on 05/07/2018, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments) « Previous Entry




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