Your senior’s “best fit” college list

By Diane Schwemm

It’s early November and, according to pretty much everybody, my high school senior and I should both be having nervous breakdowns.

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High School Parent | College Parent

However, we’re hanging in there, and not because he’s finished his college applications. He hasn’t, but he has requested his transcript and letters of recommendation and is making steady progress on The Common Application and his essays.

Knowing this, I feel reassured. There is a lot of uncertainty and things he can’t control but I’m confident he’ll complete this big task and a year from now will be happy at a school that’s right for him.

I’m confident because he’s worked hard to come up with a list of schools that should result in a few acceptances and a choice he can feel excited about. It didn’t happen by accident — it took months of campus visits, college fairs and information sessions, interviews (on and off campus), consultations with his high school counselor, internet research, reading, and debriefing on everything with his father and me.

It helps that we’ve gone through this once before, with his older brother (we learned some things the hard way that time). By far the best way to keep the application process under control is to finalize a manageable and thoughtful list of schools to apply to.

Here is solid advice from counseling and admissions pros — and experienced parents — about how to help your student compile that “best fit” list.

  1. Balance is key. Your student’s list should be built around schools where she has a 50/50 chance of acceptance (usually referred to as “match” or “target” schools), with one or two reach schools and a few “safeties” that she’d be happy to attend and knows she can get in. “I always recommend that students apply to the state university,” one college counselor says.
  2. Understand the admissions process and selectivity index of the schools your student is interested in. There are big differences between some large public universities (that may be concerned only with your student’s GPA and test scores) and private schools that consider every part of your student’s application.
  3. Your student should do a final check-in with her school counselor and use any and all tools (the Naviance scattergram, statistics available on college websites and on rankings lists) to determine as accurately as possible where she stands.
  4. Remember that highly-selective schools are a “reach” for even top students. They have room for only a small fraction of the thousands of stellar applicants they receive each year. That’s all there is to it.
  5. Decide how many schools to apply to. Consider the cost of the applications, in time and money, and the very good reasons for applying to fewer schools. Don’t pursue what Arlene Matthews, author of Getting In Without Freaking Out, calls the “throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach.” It’s hard work to narrow a list of 20 to eight, but well worth doing. “The difference shows up in the applications themselves, and in the follow-up contact that students who have chosen schools with careful deliberation have time to conduct,” Arlene writes. “Admissions officers can tell who threw the spaghetti.”
  6. Talk openly about finances with your student and be sure to include financial safeties on the list — one or two schools that you know will be absolutely affordable. Together, explore the difference between net vs. sticker price. Use tools like Tuition Tracker and the College Board’s Net Price Calculator to determine what you might really pay at different schools. Affordability may not mean ruling out your student’s dream college. Remember that a strong student with high test scores will be attractive to a lot of schools that will offer a “tuition discount” (i.e., merit aid).
  7. If you’re not sure how financial aid works or whether your family will qualify, the Federal Student Aid website is a great place to start.
  8. Has your student taken the time to think about what she’s really looking for: location (urban, rural, near home, a plane flight away), size of campus and style of learning, social/weekend scene, etc.? Help her reflect back on campus tours and encourage her to dig more deeply into the information on the school websites. Do the colleges on the list have majors that interest her?
  9. Parents can continue to learn more about the schools as well. Check out the Gallup-Purdue study that examines the link between college experiences and post-grad work and well-being. Visit the National Survey of Student Engagement website and search results for the schools your student is considering. The U.S. Department of Education’s new College Scorecard is another great tool. Talk about all of it with your student.
  10. Encourage your student to be aware of the application trends in order to buck rather than follow them. Are there schools that “everyone’s” talking about this year, and where “everyone” plans to apply? Guess what? Those trendy schools will be harder to get into than ever.
  11. If your student is suffering from “namebranditis,”* there may be schools on the list simply because of their ranking or reputation.

*Term courtesy of If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted by the Princeton Review.

What if my senior’s list is too short…or non-existent?

Your student should make an appointment with the high school guidance counselor ASAP. If there’s even one school she’s interested in, or a possible major or area of study she’s drawn to, the counselor can suggest other similar schools to consider. Big Future by the College Board has an interactive search tool. Is there time to fit in a day trip to a nearby campus for a tour? This might get the juices flowing. Find more advice on helping a stuck senior here.

The best thing we can do for our seniors doing this hectic time is to help them maintain a healthy perspective. They are who they are and, if they communicate that in their applications, all will work out fine. Arlene Matthews (Getting In Without Freaking Out) offers this lovely reminder: “Studies show a healthy relationship between high school kids and their parents is a far better predictor of academic success than standardized tests.”

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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