Helping you and your college-bound kid through the college choice process

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College Choice Options for Top Students

A+There are many great college choice options for top students.  Many parents who find my website are those searching for scholarships for high ACT scores or SAT scores, or scholarships for national merit finalists/semi-finalists.  My Full Scholarship List is a great resource for parents and students looking for great scholarships based on their standings at the top of the class.

High school students with high ACT scores or SAT scores and great grades are in a unique position when it comes to college choice.  They have more options available to them.  Which option they choose will have a lot to do with balancing affordability and rigor.

Top Student College Choice Options

  1. Highly Selective Admissions – Top students are positioned to be in the running for ivy league and other highly selective colleges.  However, this pool of colleges often has admission rates below 20% of applicants.  This means that many top students will be turned away.  This option is best for families who don’t need any financial aid or families who will qualify for major financial aid.
  2. Full-Ride and Full-Tuition Merit Scholarships – There are many colleges around the country that will award full-ride and full-tuition scholarships to attract top students.  Let me be clear here though – these are not the colleges with the most selective admissions.  These schools do not need to offer full scholarships to attract top students.  However, there are good colleges, many with honors programs, that will offer the top student a solid education that is fully paid or incredibly affordable.
  3. Medium Merit Scholarship – Dig a little deeper than the schools offering full-ride and full-tuition scholarships for top students and you will find a whole realm of colleges that offer top students decent merit scholarships.  These often cover half tuition or better.  Schools of all sizes offer both automatic and competitive merit scholarship programs.  These are harder to find.  You will probably need to check out the school websites to see what they offer and use the Net Price Calculator or talk to the admissions office to get an idea of what your student may be eligible for.
  4. Honors Programs – I mentioned this briefly above.  An honors program can make a less selective college more attractive to top students.  A student looking for academic rigor in college can find that two ways: 1) Through a highly selective college, or 2) Through an honors program or honors college.  A less selective school with an honors program can be much more affordable than a highly selective college.

As I mentioned above, the college choice options for top students comes down to a balance between affordability and academic rigor.  If cost is not a factor for your family, then highly selective colleges are probably the best way to go.  However, if cost is an option, you will be looking for great merit scholarships or schools that offer great need-based aid.

Highly selective colleges tend not to offer merit scholarships, but they do tend to offer large amounts of financial aid to families who qualify.  Family incomes of $60,000 or less will often pay very little for these schools (can be cheaper than in-state tuition at the state’s universities).  Even family incomes of around $150,000 – $200,000 can receive some financial aid at these schools, but it may not be enough to bring the high sticker price down to an affordable level.

Families in the middle, worried about the cost of college, but with incomes too high to qualify for financial aid, will find the best deals at schools that offer great merit scholarships.

Final College Decision Resources

hourglassSince it is getting down to final college decision time for high school seniors, I thought I’d point out some resources that can help you and your student in the final decision process.

One of the most important parts of the final college decision is evaluating financial aid packages.  Here are some great tools to help with that:

How to Read and Evaluate a Financial Aid Award Letter

FinAid Award Letter Comparison Tool

BigFuture Compare Aid Calculator

Read the school’s scholarship offers closely.  Some require a minimum GPA to keep receiving the scholarship every year.  This adds a level of risk.  A school offering a slightly lower scholarship with no minimum GPA requirement could work out better in the long run.  Even the best high school students often struggle with grades in the first year of college!

Tips for negotiating merit scholarships/financial aid:

How to Ask for More Financial Aid

The Complete Guide to a Better Financial Aid Offer

Appealing for a Better Merit Award

How to make the final college decision:

The Final College Choice – Choosing Between Two Colleges

Making the Final College Choice

Check out student reviews on these sites to see what current students say about their schools:




In the end, the best way to make the final college decision is to compare financial aid packages, have your student attend admitted student visit days, and determine which school offers the greatest overall “value” for your student.  This may or may not equate to the school offering the lowest price to your student.








How Important is Where You Go to College?

rolled-diploma-mdPopular New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, just released a new book called, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.  I have not read it yet, but I have read much of the press around it, as well as articles Bruni has written, and I understand and agree with his assertions.

In a guest post for The College Solution, Bruni writes, “What we desperately need to do in this country is change the focus of the discussion from where you go to college to how you use college.”

Parents and students get way too stressed out during the college search process about what will happen if they don’t get into the “right” college or can’t afford to go to the “right” college.

Bruni shares the alma maters of many successful people to illustrate the point that you don’t need to attend a top university to be successful.

It is the opportunities that a student takes advantage of in college that matter far more than the school name on the diploma.

  • Internships
  • Research 
  • Honors College
  • Special Projects
  • Study Abroad
  • Special Study Programs

These are just a few of the opportunities students can take advantage of at most schools.  These are the opportunities that will grow and define the person you become, not where you go to college.

As your student starts, continues or finishes the college search process, depending on how old they are, I encourage you to keep this in mind.  Don’t stress out if you child’s SAT/ACT score isn’t high enough to shoot for the Ivy League.  Don’t worry if you can’t afford a school with a $40,000 + tuition price.  Encourage your child not to take rejection letters personally.

A student can be successful no matter where they go to college.  The college search process should be focused on finding schools that offer great opportunities for your student and fit your family’s budget.

It’s not where you go to college that matters.  It’s “how” you go to college that matters.

How Important is College Size?

I took my middle daughter on a college visit yesterday to a regional university a couple hours away.  It was a structured visit day.  During the opening presentation, they put a lot of focus on the question, “How important is college size?”

The presentation broke down three categories of college size:

  • Megaversities – 10,000 + students
  • Medium-sized universities – 4,000 – 10,000 students
  • Small universities – under 4,000 students

The general thought for college size is that large = options and small = personal attention.  The university we were visiting is a medium-sized university with just over 5,000 students. Of course their argument was that medium-sized schools offer the best of both worlds and I do find a lot of logic in what they said.

A medium-sized university is large enough to offer a lot of options, but small enough that you don’t get lost in the crowd.  

A medium-sized university can offer small class sizes and personal attention, but they can also offer lots of degree programs, lots of clubs and activities and lots of other options for making the most out of the college experience.

This all sounded great to me.  Who wouldn’t choose a medium-sized university? Apparently, a lot of students. According to this medium-sized university’s presentation, this is the smallest category of colleges in the U.S.  In fact, a quick search on showed me that out of over 2,000 schools in their database across the U.S., only 237 schools fall into the category of 5,000 – 9,999 students.

Despite all the selling of personal attention, my daughter says her top choice is still a school that falls on the large side of the “megaversity” category.

I think that college size is a category your student has to get right in order to be happy.

There is no “one size fits all” and students will gravitate towards the size that feels comfortable for them.  The only way to really understand this is through college visits.  In fact, overnight visits are the best for truly experiencing the feel of the school.  Make a point to visit schools of all sizes so your student can compare the differences.

Have your student start thinking about the right college size by asking these questions:

  • Which of my high school classes feel like the right size?
  • Do I have any classes that seem too big or too small?  If so, what don’t I like about that?
  • Is it easier for me to make choices when I have a large number of options or only a few options?
  • Is it important to me that lots of people know me by name?
  • Do I enjoy having a close relationship with my teachers?

One of the best ways for your student to understand how a college’s size will work for him or her is to talk to current or former students.  Ask them how they feel/felt about the school’s size.

Keep in mind that there are often many ways to make a large school feel smaller, but not many to make a small school feel larger.  If the school feels too small on the first visit, imagine how your student will feel about it after a few years on campus!

Your Kid’s College Choice

GraduationIt’s that time of year again.  If you are the parent of a college-bound high school senior, it is getting to be time for your kid’s final college choice.  Financial aid offers and final college acceptances should be arriving soon.

By now, you are probably already sick of the “Where is [insert student’s name here] going?” questions and you are thinking, “We haven’t even gotten all the information needed to make a decision.”

As your student starts to narrow down to that final decision, I have a few tips to share.

Tips for Making the Final College Choice

  1. Go for the best overall “value.”  Value will mean something a little different for everyone.  For some, it will mean lowest overall out-of-pocket cost.  For others, it will mean the most intellectually stimulating environment for the least out-of pocket cost.  For the lucky students for whom cost will not be an option, it may mean the most prestigious school to offer admission.
  2. Use Admitted Student visit programs to aid in the final decision.  I wrote a post a couple years ago about this – The Admitted Student Visit – A Critical Part of the College Choice.  Especially if your student has only been to a campus once, a second and more in-depth look is always a good idea.
  3. Narrow down to two schools.  If your student is still evaluating more than two schools, have him or her narrow it down to two first.  See my post on Choosing Between Two Colleges for more tips.
  4. Keep in mind that there may be room for negotiation on cost.  So if your first inclination is to tell your student, “This one is out,” when you get the financial package back, don’t entirely dismiss the school yet if it is one of your student’s favorites.  Depending on the school and how much they are interested in your student, you may be able to negotiate a much better deal.

Your kid’s college choice is a big life-changing decision, but once you have discussed the financial side sufficiently, sit back, let your student take the driver’s seat, and let her or him know that you are there for support as needed.

To all of you who are going through the college choice process with your student right now, I say a heartfelt “good luck.”  I was there with my oldest daughter two years ago and it was agonizing.  I will be back there again in another year with my middle daughter and I am hoping it will be easier for both mom and daughter this time around.

Spring of Junior Year – It’s All About the Grades!

A+The single most important thing in the spring of junior year for your college-bound student is getting good grades.  These are the latest grades that will get sent in with most college applications.

College admissions officers consistently cite grades in college-prep classes, more than any other factor, as very important in the college admissions process.  

This would mean that they are looking at grades in science, math, english and social studies classes as an indicator of what a student has achieved and will continue to achieve in college.

Does this mean that your child’s grades need to be perfect?  Not necessarily.  A lot depends on the type of college he or she is intending to attend.

Does Your Student Need Perfect High School Grades? 

If your student is aiming for the Ivy League or other colleges in the “most competitive” category, straight As are usually expected.  These schools have very low acceptance rates and will be looking to weed out students based on many factors, but grades will be an easy one.

Most colleges will be looking for an upwards progression in grades over the high school years.  So maybe your student struggled a little in core classes freshman and sophomore years.  As long as your student shows grade improvement from year to year, there isn’t anything to worry about.

Additionally, special circumstances are not cause for alarm and should be explained in the college application.  Did your child have a particularly bad semester due to illness or personal issues?  Make sure this gets documented on his or her college applications.

Strength of Curriculum Matters

Although a college would rather see an “A” than a “B,” a “B” in an honors or AP course often carries more weight (both literally and figuratively), than an “A” in a non-honors course.

Selective colleges want to see that a student took the most challenging courses offered at his or her school.  The only time it makes sense not to enroll in the most challenging course that he or she is eligible for is if your student knows it will be a struggle and has a history of lower grades in that subject.

Target Colleges That Fit Your Student’s Grade Profile

As harsh as it sounds, Ivy League college admissions are probably not likely for a student with a B average.  If your student has a B or C average does that mean all college admissions will be a failure?  No.  Your student should target colleges that have a history of accepting students with his or her GPA.

How do you find this information?  Two places – college search engines and college websites.  On a college website, you can usually find a page that gives admitted student statistics.  This is often on a Fast Facts page or somewhere in the Admissions area of the website.  Colleges most often list the GPA range for the middle 50% of admitted applicants.  This means that only 25% of students admitted have GPAs below this, but an additional 25% of admitted students have GPAs above this.

If your student falls in the middle 50% or above, it is not a guarantee of admission, but is encouraging enough to continue to investigate the school.  If your student falls below the middle 50%, it is probably a sign to look elsewhere, but if your student really has his or her heart set on the school, you could consider it a “reach” school.  Just be sure your student is prepared for potential rejection.

College search engines like CollegeData are good for finding this GPA information easily for multiple schools.  CollegeData shows both weighted and unweighted GPA for recently admitted students.

So when your student is in the junior year of high school, keep encouraging him or her to focus on the grades above everything else.  It will increase chances for both college admissions and merit scholarships.



The Updated Full Scholarship List is Out!

1317230_29811116Yesterday, I published an updated Full Scholarship List.  I review the full list twice a year, basically summer and winter, to see what has changed.

The Full Scholarship List focuses on large scholarships offered directly by colleges, mostly full-tuition scholarships and full-ride scholarships.  There are a lot of great opportunities out there for top students!  And I know I haven’t even identified every great scholarship out there.

The Updated Full Scholarship List By the Numbers:

  • 48 full-tuition scholarships that are automatic for National Merit scholars (finalists and/or semi-finalists)
  • 32 full-ride scholarships that are automatic for National Merit scholars
  • 23 competitive scholarships open to National Merit scholars
  • 348 scholarships based on ACT/SAT scores, GPA, and/or other merit/leadership criteria
  • 24 full-tuition and full-ride scholarships that are automatic for students having ACT scores of 30 or lower (minimum score varies by scholarship)
  • 285 competitive scholarship opportunities with awards of at least 75% of the full-tuition cost
  • 179 competitive scholarship opportunities that do not require a specific minimum ACT or SAT score or National Merit status
  • 11 automatic scholarship opportunities that do not require a specific minimum ACT or SAT score or National Merit status (some of these are automatic for all valedictorians/salutatorians)

There are a lot of full-tuition and full-ride merit scholarships available to top students and I would argue that a strong student should never need to pay anywhere near full sticker price if he or she is willing to shop around for opportunities.  Of course the reality is that it is usually the parents doing the shopping around!

Honors College – Yes or No?

ScaleAn email conversation I had with a parent this week got me thinking about making the decision to choose an honors college or not.    The smart kid’s college choice will often involve deciding between a university with an honors college or a college/university that is very competitive overall.  By competitive, I mean tougher admissions standards – students who are accepted are at the top end of the ACT/SAT scale and have top high school GPAs.

My oldest daughter is in an honors college and it has its pros and cons.  Let’s look at some of these.

The Pros of an Honors College or Honors Program

  1. Strong liberal arts base with focus on writing and critical thinking -  I recently read another article affirming that employers are looking for college grads who can communicate orally, work in teams, communicate well in writing, use good judgement, and have critical thinking skills.  I can definitely say that my daughter’s honors college, along with most others I have looked into, will provide this base.
  2. Smaller community of like-minded students – This is especially true at very large public universities.  The honors college offers a feel of small school within a big school and makes it easier for students to fit within a like-minded group.
  3. Smaller classes – Classes inside the honors college tend to be smaller and more intimate than many other college classes.  They are often taught in more of a round-table type discussion style and less of a lecture style.
  4. Great networking opportunities – Honors colleges tend to have very strong and active alumni networks that are committed to helping new graduates find opportunities.  This can also be the case for internship opportunities during college.
  5. Graduate school admissions – Most honors colleges have a large number of graduates going directly to graduate school.  The honors college programs tend to provide a higher degree of support for the student looking to apply to graduate schools and being an honors college graduate can help with competitive graduate school admissions.
  6. Potential lower cost – If you are weighing an honors college at a public university against a private liberal arts college, there is a good chance that you will have substantial savings by going the honors college route.  It offers the opportunity for more of a liberal arts type education at a much lower tuition cost than the nation’s top liberal arts colleges.

The Cons of an Honors College or Honors Program

  1. Classes outside of the honors college – The honors college only covers a portion of the student’s course load.  The student still needs to take classes with the general population.  High performing students can get easily frustrated, especially with more entry-level courses, that are designed for all students.  This is especially true at large public universities.
  2. “Entitled” students – There’s no easy way to say this.  It is not uncommon to find students in the honors college who think they are “extra special” because they are smart and are in the honors college.    Students like this tend to want to carry around an “I’m smart” badge and use that to their advantage, even though they often don’t contribute anything meaningful or profound.  Hopefully these students are the minority of the honors college population and not the majority.  This can make it a tough atmosphere for students who really want to learn and contribute in a more meaningful and mature way.
  3. Workload – Although an intense workload can be a positive, the student who wants to participate in a lot of different things may struggle to fit it all in.  My daughter’s first year in her honors college involved writing weekly papers.  Students need to have good time management skills to balance things like athletics, jobs, and clubs with an honors college workload.
  4. A large school is still a large school – A school with more than 10,000 students will always seem larger than a small school.  While this may not be noticeable within the “walls” of an honors college, it will be noticeable in many other places like dining halls, dorms, athletic events, and more.  Some students just don’t like the large school atmosphere.

I don’t want to paint the picture that honors colleges are only associated with large public universities.  This is not the case.  My daughter’s honors college is within a medium-sized private university.  It is more common for private schools to offer “honors programs” than “honors colleges.”  The distinction is usually whether or not there are buildings solely dedicated to honors courses.  An honors college has its own building or buildings.  An honors program does not.

The decision to go the honors college route or not can have a great impact on your student’s college choice.  My suggestion is to visit both honors colleges and schools that are more competitive overall.  Then have your student make his or her own list of pros and cons.  When it came down to the final college choice, my oldest daughter had narrowed it to one school with an honors college and one small more competitive liberal arts college.  It was the curriculum of the honors college that tipped the scale for her.

Know Your College Search Vocabulary

For parents just starting the college search, there are certain college search vocabulary words you need to understand.  Today I want to lay a few of these out and provide you with resources to check out for more information.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC) – This is how much a college will expect you to pay for your student’s education.  It varies by college.  There is also a federal formula for assessing the EFC through the FAFSA, the next term explained below.

FAFSA – This is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  Most colleges use FAFSA to assess EFC and dole out financial aid.  You must file the FAFSA to be eligible for federal student loans.  You have to re-file every year that your student is in college and the FAFSA application opens on January 1 of each year.  When you want to file, make sure you are on the real government FAFSA site.  There are a lot of services that pretend to be the site and then charge you to submit your application to the government.

FAFSA4caster – A FAFSA estimator provided by the government that you can use when your student is in high school to get an idea of what the FAFSA will calculate as your EFC.

Net Price Calculator – A tool that college websites provide for you to estimate the financial aid they will offer your student.  Sometimes these also calculate merit aid (defined below).  The net price calculator is extremely valuable to help you know how much a college will actually cost.  You can usually find the net price calculator in the Admissions or Financial Aid section of a college website.

529 Plan – Currently, this is one of the best ways to save for college.  Plan earnings grow tax free and many states offer state tax breaks for savers.  The money withdrawn must be used for qualified educational expenses to avoid taxes.  The 529 plan has been in the news a lot recently because President Obama is proposing taxing 529 plan earnings as student income.  This may change the desirability of this college savings medium.

Merit Aid – “Free money” that a college offers your student based on merit and not financial need.  This is usually related to a student’s GPA, ACT/SAT score, and possibly other things like class rank, leadership ability, or community service.

Talent Scholarships – Some schools offer free money for talents such as music, art, theater and dance.  These scholarships usually require an audition or a portfolio submission.  Check the school websites for details.

Athletic Scholarships – Most people know that colleges may offer scholarships to attract athletes, but most people don’t know that the majority of these are not full-ride scholarships and only specific types of colleges can offer athletic scholarships.  The NCSA website is a great place to go for all the details.

College Search Spreadsheet – A way to keep track of all the information on all the schools your student is or may be interested in.  I have a free template for you to download.

There are many more college search vocabulary words you will run into as you start preparing for your kid’s college search.  I encourage you to use all the websites that are available to help you in the college search process to learn more about all of these terms.  My Top 10 College Search Information Websites is a great place to start finding websites that will be invaluable in the college search process.

Find Scholarships for High ACT Scores

1195437419219858921johnny_automatic_bag_of_money.svg.medIf your child took the ACT test and scored well, you may wonder, is that worth any extra money for college?  Yes, it certainly can be!  So how do you find scholarships for high ACT scores?  Well, it can be very time consuming.  I have some tips below on where to look.

What are high ACT scores?  This really varies from college to college.  Some schools will offer merit scholarships for scores in the low to mid-20s.  Others won’t offer merit money until scores reach the high-20s or into the 30s.  Generally speaking, the higher the score, the greater the scholarship.

How to Find Scholarships for High ACT Scores

  1. College WebsitesThe majority of merit scholarships for high ACT scores are offered by the colleges themselves.  Look at the websites for colleges your child is interested in.  Usually the Scholarships or Financial Aid pages/sections of the college website  will provide details on merit scholarships offered and the associated criteria.  If your child hasn’t narrowed down to a list of schools, or if you want to see everything that’s out there, this can be quite time consuming and you may miss out on some great merit scholarships that you didn’t know were out there.
  2. Full Scholarship List – This is my listing of major merit scholarships offered by schools around the country.  By major, I mean these scholarships cover 75% of the price of tuition or greater.  I have spent time compiling this information so that you don’t have to.  There are 170 scholarships on the list based on a minimum ACT score.  These are the “gold standard” for merit scholarships, but there are tons of other smaller scholarships for high ACT scores offered at schools around the country.  They are just going to be a little harder to find.
  3. – You can use to search for schools offering scholarships by school name or by state.  Your student can also enter a student profile to be matched with scholarships based on his/her strengths.
  4. College Confidential BoardsCollege Confidential has several message boards that go through automatic and competitive merit scholarships.  Most of these boards focus on full-ride and full-tuition scholarships.  I used the best of these boards when I first put together the Full Scholarship List.  I find the boards hard to use for a comprehensive scholarship search because you have to find the most up-to-date listings and there is no way to do a search or filter for what you want to focus on.  You also have to weed through all the extra posts from people who like to comment on message boards.
  5. Other Websites – If you do a web search for “scholarships for high ACT scores,” you will see a variety of other sites offering some type of listing.  I have checked out most of these.  Some focus on guaranteed scholarships, meaning that if your student meets the specified criteria, he/she will automatically receive the scholarship.  None of these lists are comprehensive of all scholarships out there, but if you look at several, you may be able to develop a list of other schools to check out.  I recommend going directly to the school websites to verify that the scholarships are still offered and to get all the details.

The bottom line is that there are lots of scholarships for high ACT scores out there that will help you save money on college.  You just need to look for them.