Tips for Parents

Six steps to a great college search

By Suzanne Shaffer

As my children entered high school and started down the college prep path, I knew I was going to be handicapped.

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I did not attend college myself and my husband attended a local school with a 100 percent acceptance rate. Neither of us had a clue how to approach the college search and application process!

But I love to think of myself as a “do-it-yourselfer” so I dove right into it along with my kids. After my daughter was accepted to every school she applied to, family and friends began asking me for advice, and later encouraged me to broaden the circle and share what I learned on what became my Parents Countdown to College Coach blog and website.

When my daughter started looking at colleges, she had one objective: to attend school in Boston. (Sound familiar??) In many cases, focusing on a particular city narrows the search drastically, but there are over 100 schools in the Boston area! Thankfully, not all are four-year colleges — some are technical or art schools. That helped a bit, but there were still too many to choose from. To find the best-fit college for my daughter, we needed a strategy.

When creating a college search strategy, I recommend students and parents start with basic information and build on it. If you do this, when your student is ready to finalize a “best fit” college list and submit applications, you will be confident that you did your research, weighed all the options, and made informed choices.

1. Decide on your budget

As his parent, it’s up to you to make sure he doesn’t fall prey to debt he cannot repay after graduation. Before launching the college search, you should have an honest conversation about finances. I call it “The Money Talk.” You should discuss:

  • What you are willing to pay
  • What you expect him to contribute toward college expenses (even if it’s just acquiring scholarships)
  • The ramifications of student debt

Talk openly about which colleges might fit into your family’s financial picture. Paint this picture clearly and explain to him this is a large investment and should be treated as such. You expect him to do his part, and you expect him to take the opportunity seriously, study hard, and graduate on time (in four years or less). I know this kind of conversation is not always comfortable for families, but you will be so glad you had it sooner rather than later.

Something else to keep in mind: it’s expensive just to apply for college. Current application fees range from $0-90 per school with an average of $41. It costs money to take (and retake) the ACT and SAT and then to submit scores to the colleges. There is a $12 per school fee to send the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (required by many private institutions when your student applies for financial aid). All this adds up, so it’s sensible to limit the number of schools your student applies to. Application and test registration fee waivers are available for students who demonstrate need; the high school counselor can assist with this.

2. Gather information

Start by making a list of what your student considers the most important factors in choosing his college. Cost should be at or near the top of the list. For my daughter, it was location. For others it might be majors offered, size, environment, Greek life, etc. Once you have this list, do some research to generate a list of potential schools. Use sites like CollegeData and the College Board’s Big Future. Many high schools use the college planning platform Naviance, which has a College Search Tool. Your student’s guidance/college counselor can also advise.

Your student can narrow the search by entering the criteria on his first list and comparing colleges academically and financially. The more data he adds, the more the search will narrow. When comparing the schools that match your student’s needs and interests, be sure to consider acceptance rates, retention and graduation rates, and the amount of financial aid awarded (if this pertains). Study the colleges’ own websites, and check out college reviews from actual students on, college ratings, and even the annual “Best College” lists (they have plenty of limitations and biases but do include useful information).

3. Take a career aptitude test

Many students graduate from college with degrees that do not prepare them for the job market. Before investing time and money in college visits and applications, it’s wise for your student to take a career aptitude test. These tests can help him decide which majors and potential careers match his interests and thus help him choose the colleges that best match those career goals. Sites like MAPP Career Assessment and My Road (for students who have taken the PSAT) are useful. The nonprofit Aptitude Inventory Measurement Service (AIMS) offers interest and “aptitude worksample” assessments.

story-icon-bar-convo-3If you aren’t able to visit a campus in person because of distance, you can take a “virtual tour” on the college website. Your student may also want to watch unofficial college tour videos on sites such as Unigo, YOUniversityTV and YouVisit. I can’t vouch for the quality of any of these, but they offer different, behind-the-scenes perspectives.

4. Make campus visits

Campus visits are a crucial part of the college search strategy. You can start by touring any school close to home. This gives your student an idea of what he might or might not like about a campus. He may immediately recognize that he appreciates the energy of an urban campus, or is intimidated by the size of a large state university.

Once the tentative list has been made, visit as many of these schools as possible. Reserve spots for the tour and information session and make the most of the opportunity to get a firsthand look at and feeling for a school, and to see and talk to real students. Remember to let your student drive the car (figuratively if not literally) on these visits.

Afterwards, ask your student if he feels the college would be a good fit. Most students just “know” when a college is (or isn’t) for them. I personally experienced these words from my daughter: “I just don’t like the look.” It may seem illogical to parents, but most teens can tell by a visit whether or not they will be happy there.

5. Keep an open mind

Encourage your student to expand his horizons. Most of my daughter’s classmates applied to colleges close to home. It never occurred to them to venture out of state or across the country. Everyone knows about the Ivies, of course, but only a tiny fraction of students will be accepted at schools that selective. Fortunately, there are many more options available that offer a quality education. Consider small liberal arts colleges, private universities that traditionally offer larger merit aid packages, and technical schools (culinary, art, etc.) if your student is so inclined.

If your teen has a yearning for adventure and travel, consider colleges outside the United States. Some of these schools are excellent financial bargains for American students, such as McGill University in Canada. Don’t know where to start? provides an updated list of international colleges that participate in the Federal Student Loan Program. Your student can use this list as a jumping off point to research colleges outside the United States.

6. Let colleges find your student

Colleges are constantly searching for applicants. Your student can create an account on sites like Chegg and Cappex and, by registering with his preferences, the schools that match those preferences will come to him. It’s another way of widening the search and connecting with colleges in the process.

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