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The College Search Part 2: Dig Deeper and Take Stock

Posted on 05/17/2017, by Dr. Ellen Fithian to Parents of 10th Graders, Parents of 11th Graders (0 comments)


In my last post, I encouraged you to get started on the college search by first asking your teen to imagine what her dream college would look like and then to use the College Board’s search engine, Big Future, to generate a list of preliminary choices. What’s next?

Dig Deeper and Wider

First, you’ll want to get a lot more information on each college than the statistical data available on Big Future. Start with the college website – it truly is the next best thing to being there.

Is your daughter longing to master Armenian? The online course catalog will show you whether it’s offered.  Perhaps she’s hoping to join a magic club or women’s rugby team. Just use the search bar on the college’s home page to find a particular activity. And to get a general feel for what’s happening on campus, read the online college newspaper. (Google "College X student newspaper" to find it.)

College guides that provide an in-depth profile of institutions are also useful.  I particularly like The Princeton Review's Best 381 Colleges because it includes survey data from current college students on a number of topics that will be important to your son, ranging from quality of food to popularity of intramural sports, accessibility of professors, and many more. 

In addition to gathering more in-depth information on the colleges generated by Big Future, be sure to use the above resources to find colleges it may have excluded.  In this vein, have your son ask other people who know him – older friends, teachers, and school counselors – to recommend schools they believe might be a good fit.

Take Stock of Your Child’s Chances

Once you’ve put together a list of desirable colleges, it’s time for you and your daughter to assess whether she’s on track to get in to them.

To do this, write down her best SAT and/or ACT scores, her GPA, and her class rank, if you know it. Then compare them to the average test scores, GPAs, and class rank for enrolled students at each college she’s interested in. Ask yourselves how she stacks up. (For more on where to quickly find this kind of data  and how to assess whether your teen is a strong candidate, read Compose the List.)

What if her academic credentials are not quite as strong as the typical student at her preferred colleges? The good news is that if you’re reading this in her sophomore or junior year, there’s still time to strengthen them. 

Further, if your daughter has not been the most serious student and has found your repeated admonishments to put forth more effort unconvincing, you may find that this dispassionate reality check proves more persuasive than one more chorus of your usual dreary dirge.  

Even if she is already working diligently, put your heads together to try to formulate an improvement strategy. If grades and class rank are the problem, discuss with her whether she might be able to take some more weighted courses the following year as well as how she might go about improving her grades.  Could she improve her time management skills? Does she need a tutor?

If her standardized test scores are low, come up with a concrete plan for retaking admission tests and preparing for them. Read the articles on Admissions Testing, Planning for testing, and Preparing for testing for more detailed advice on this topic.

After strategizing about how your daughter might make herself a stronger applicant, you also need to formulate a contingency plan in case her grades and test scores don’t improve substantially. Now is the time to review her college list to see if you need to search for some additional schools in the likely and safety categories.

Make Campus Visits

You can learn a lot about a college from its website and guide books, but not everything.  Let’s go back to the analogy of searching for a home that I posed in the previous article.

Like your college search, your home search would probably start with an online search engine. You’d identify homes meeting certain basic parameters – location, price range, size and so on, then look at the pictures of each and review the listing information; square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, etc. 

At that point you’d know quite a bit about each home and you might even have found one that looks just right, but you’d hardly be ready to put in a bid before setting foot on the property. Your site visit might reveal a sewage odor wafting from the waste treatment facility down the road or a neighbor whose driveway is home to four pick-up trucks and an RV.

To get an accurate feel for a home, there’s simply no substitute for seeing it in person, and the same is true for a college. I know – your teen is taking umpteen AP courses, swimming laps twice a day for her travel swim team, and growing hydroponic bean plants in the kitchen for her science fair project. She doesn’t have a minute, never mind a whole weekend, to spare.  I understand how busy her life – and yours – are during the high school years. But remind yourselves that you need to make the time to visit schools and figure out which one is right for her, or else what is all the rest of it for? For recommendations on campus visit do’s and don’ts, read Make Campus Visits.

The last, but certainly not least, step in assembling a college list is comparing costs - but don't go by the sticker prices. Many families end up paying far less once financial aid is taken into account. To learn how to get an immediate estimate of what any college will actually cost your family, as opposed to its sticker price, read the next article in this series, College Shopping: Price Check Please.


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Posted on 05/17/2017, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)

 

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