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

Weekly Newsletter


College Search Spreadsheet!

The Best Institutional Merit Scholarship Resource

Are you familiar with the term “Institutional Merit Scholarship”?  These are the merit scholarships offered directly by colleges to attract the best and brightest, and/or most talented students by offering them what are essentially tuition discounts.

While there are institutional merit scholarships that range up to full tuition and full rides for 4 years, as found on my Full Scholarship List, these are not the most common institutional merit scholarships.

The most common institutional merit scholarships range from around $500 up to around $25,000 per year.

But how do you find these easily?

That was the question I set out to answer.

I was frustrated with long searches, going from college website to college website to see what schools offered the best scholarships.

I tried using sites like Fastweb and and only found a handful of institutional merit scholarships mixed in with tons of private scholarships.

I knew I could create something better.  My goal was to create a site with only institutional merit scholarships listed,  from schools all over the U.S., and make it easy to sort and filter to narrow down to just the types of scholarships your student might qualify for.

Last fall I hired a website programmer and started work on this project.  It was an enormous undertaking, both in getting the site designed well and in collecting the data. It took longer than I ever imagined.

After 9 months of work, I am finally ready to launch!

Merit Scholarship List Logo

It is a subscription-based website where you can sign up for a 1-month or 1-year membership to get access to search for institutional merit scholarships and save search results for further reference.

You also get access to exclusive content that is only available to subscribers including my tutorial “5 Steps for Getting Great Institutional Merit Scholarships” and my exclusive interactive college search spreadsheet designed to work with the Merit Scholarship List fields to track your colleges and potential merit scholarships all the way through the college search process.

You can search for institutional merit scholarships several different ways on

  • By School Name
  • By Scholarship Type (automatic, competitive, national merit/national achievement, talent)
  • By State (or combine State and Type for a smaller list)
  • By Scholarship Amount
  • By Minimum Required ACT score, SAT score and/or GPA
  • Find all scholarships open to International Students

After you search, you can also filter down your search results further to narrow in on the scholarships your student may be eligible for. is designed to save you time searching for institutional merit scholarships and help you find great scholarships you had no idea were available for your student.  I hope you will try it out and agree that it is the best institutional merit scholarship resource available!


The Problem with the New SAT Test

Standardized TestThe problem with the new SAT test is that it is “new”.  No, I didn’t find some big inherent flaw in the test itself.  I just know that having a brand new test can create a big issue for students in their college search process.

What is this big issue?

It comes down to comparisons.

Students want to be able to compare their SAT scores to the published range of the mid-50% SAT scores for a particular college.  The issue is that the colleges are not updating their published SAT score ranges yet.

So how is a student going to know where his or her score on the new SAT test falls in comparison to a college’s mid-50% score range?

Good question!  Actually, I found two helpful resources for this.

SAT Score Conversion Resources

  1. The Hard Way – You can figure out the SAT score conversion for any college using a two-step process.  Step 1 – Use the SAT Score Converter provided by the College Board (SAT test creator/provider).  This will convert your “new” SAT score to an equivalent “old” SAT score, but you need to enter all your sub-scores to do this. Step 2 – Find the mid-50% range for the colleges you are interested in.  You could go to each college’s website to find this information or you could just go to a site like or and look up each college you are interested in.  The ACT and SAT score ranges are shown on the Admission tab for each school.
  2. The Easy Way – Unfortunately, this only works for 360 of the most popular colleges in the country.  A company called Compass Education Group published the new SAT ranges for 360 colleges across the country in a downloadable guide.  They would have had to manually convert the ranges from these schools, but it saves you the trouble of having to do it.

Until all colleges update their mid-50% SAT score ranges to equate to the new SAT test, it will be inconvenient for college-bound students to see where they stand, but these tools will allow you to figure it out.

This change has created an issue for many resources available online, including my Full Scholarship List, that publish mid-50% SAT scores.  These resources will all be converted to the new score ranges over time, but it will not be an easy process.  It will also leave many students and parents wondering whether specific resources reflect the old SAT scores or the new SAT scores.  My advice is to assume that a resource is based on the old SAT score ranges unless it specifically says it reflects the new SAT score ranges.




Use Summer for ACT Prep

Group portrait of happy students outside sitting on steps have fun

A great way for your high school student to be productive this summer is to use summer for ACT prep (or SAT prep if your student is planning to try out the new SAT test).  There are many different resources available to help your student focus and maximize his or her study time.  These resources come in many different price points ranging from about $10 to thousands of dollars.  I have highlighted some of the best ACT prep resources in diferent price points below.

Top ACT Prep Resources

  1. ACT Study Guides

    These are readily available at or your favorite bookstore.  Some of the best are Cracking the ACT from The Princeton Review, Barron’s ACT 36, and Kaplan’s ACT Strategies.  They are available for less than $20 each.  These contain practice tests and can be used anytime and anywhere, at your student’s convenience.

  2. Magoosh Test Prep

    Magoosh is a website devoted to online test prep.  The Magoosh ACT Prep program is an affordable option for the student who is better suited for video lessons than a book to read.  Magoosh has different plans, depending on how long your student has to study, all priced under $100. The plans include individual practice questions and full practice tests and comes with a money-back score improvement guarantee.

  3. Kaplan Test Prep

    Kaplan, a leader in the test prep industry, offers “live” ACT prep either in a classroom or over the internet.  It is a more expensive option, priced at $799 and up, but it is also customized and tailored to your student’s unique needs.

Depending on how much free time your student has this summer, there are effective ACT prep options that will help him or her prepare for a first try at the ACT or help to improve his/her score from a prior ACT.  Summer is a great time for ACT prep during this break from high school course work and can help your student feel prepared for a September ACT test whether he or she is taking it for the first time in Junior year or doing a last attempt at score improvement in fall of Senior year.

7 Day Free Trial at

The End of College Search #2 – Lessons Learned

Grad CapAs I prepare for my middle daughter’s high school graduation party today, I am thinking about how time flies.  It’s hard to believe we are already at the end of college search #2.  Only one time left to go through this process with my own kids!

It’s a good time to reflect on and share the lessons I have learned after having a second child go through the college search process.

Lessons Learned After College Search #2

  1. Every kid is different – Of course this goes without saying, but the main point I want to make here is that no two kids are the same when it comes to the college search process.  Each one brings his or her own unique spin to the process.  My middle daughter was much more engaged in the search process and had more definite opinions of what she wanted – big campus, in the city, leaning more towards public than private.
  2. You are more prepared the second time around – This is especially true with the financial aspect.  With the first child, there is that shock when you realize how much you are actually expected to pay for college.  The second, and subsequent, time around, you have accepted that as reality and are more able to focus on ways to minimize your out-of-pocket cost. Plus you know what’s coming – campus visits, proofreading essays, constant reminders to get applications completed, waiting for acceptances and financial aid packages, etc.
  3. College choice is not as critical as you initially thought – I remember stressing out about my oldest daughter’s final college choice.  What if she made the wrong decision?  What if there was a better school for her?  As time has gone on, I have learned to worry less about that.  College will be what your child makes of it more so than where he or she goes.  And if it turns out not to be the right choice, you help them change course and move on.  Ultimately things will turn out fine in the end.  Some kids just need to take a more winding path to get to the future that’s right for them.

If you have already been through the college search process more than once, I’m sure you have other lessons learned.  Please feel free to share those in the comments.

My best advice is to take time to enjoy each step in the college search process.  Each step gives you a chance to see your son or daughter in a new and different light and to appreciate their journey to adulthood.  It’s not always easy.  There are going to be stressful moments along the way with each kid, but it’s all a journey to get them where they need to be.  And we are all fortunate to be able to help them, guide them and share in this journey.

Make Sure Your High School Graduate Doesn’t Forget

woman-in-graduation-dress-cartoon-office-vector-illustration_fyhHR0P__LToday I’m writing about things you should make sure your high school graduate doesn’t forget to do.  These aren’t the big obvious things like dorm shopping.  They are the little things that are easy brushed to the side and forgotten about with all the activities surrounding high school graduation.

My middle daughter graduates from high school tomorrow.  It has been a whirlwind year with college applications, scholarship applications, visits, decisions, and more.  Now there is the ceremony, parties, and other things to focus on.  I view it as my job to keep her organized and make sure she doesn’t forget to do the little, but important, things.

Things to Make Sure Your High School Graduate Doesn’t Forget

  1. Thank You Notes – Beyond the obvious thank yous for graduation gifts, there are the thank you notes for private scholarships and for recommendation letters.  Help your student track down an address for any private scholarships that he or she received.  Also, any teachers and community members who wrote recommendation letters for college applications and/or scholarship applications should get a formal thank you note.
  2. Placement Tests/Registration Paperwork – Many colleges require incoming freshmen to complete some “homework” before showing up at summer registration.  My daughter needed to take two placement tests and complete some other information two weeks before her registration appointment and with everything going on at the end of the school year, she waited until the absolute last minute to do it.
  3. Transcripts – Make sure your high school sends the final transcripts to your students college, which they most likely do automatically.  More importantly, make sure your student arranges for transcripts for any college-level courses to be sent to the college he or she will be attending in the fall.  This is not automatic. Check with your high school counseling office to find out if they have a process for this.  You may need to contact the colleges directly.

As high school ends, it’s important to truly close out this chapter in your student’s life before moving on to the next exciting chapter.  Once these things are done, you and your student can focus on dorm shopping and ways to enjoy the last summer before college.

5 College Search Resources You Should Be Using

In this post, I’d like to share 5 college search resources you should be using. These are resources available online that will help make the college search process easier for you and your college-bound kid.

There are so many college search resources available that it can be very overwhelming to know where to start.  You can easily fall victim to “Information Overload.”  In my several years learning about and writing about the college search process, I have figured out the easiest and best resources out there.

If you are new to the college search process, you need to quickly get up to speed and learn all the basics. These college search resources will get you there.

5 College Search Resources You Should Be Using

  1. Roadmap to Cutting College Costs

    When it comes to the college search process, most families are looking for ways to cut down the high cost of college.  Brought to you by DIY College Rankings and Road2College, Roadmap to Cutting College Costs is an interactive online course that will teach you how to save money on college through need-based and merit-based financial aid and targeting the right schools that will offer you the best deal.  I have taken the course and I believe it is a great resource for all families looking for ways to save money on college.  The next course starts May 11!


    Collegedata is a great multi-purpose college search website.  My favorite part of the website is the College Match feature.  It is a search engine to help you and your student find the right colleges to explore further.  The site has a good mix of criteria to use in the search, but the best part is the amount of data that is displayed for each school.  Try it out and see how much you can learn about each school.

  3. The College Solution

    This is Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s website that covers all things related to the college search process.  My recommendation is to sign up for her newsletter for parents.  You will receive helpful resources when you sign up and every week.

  4. Big Future

    This is the College Board’s “one stop shop” site that includes college searching, college planning, year-by-year plans for how to prepare for college, financial aid tools and calculators, career exploration, and tons of articles for parents and students.

  5. FAFSA4Caster

    The FAFSA4Caster is an early estimate of your expected family contribution for college according to the formula used by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  It is a tool to help you plan ahead.  I recommend running it when you first start thinking about the college search process and again when you get closer to your child finalizing the list of colleges to apply to.  You will be better able to estimate your financial picture later on.  In addition, you need to use the FAFSA4Caster in conjunction with Net Price Calculators available for the colleges your student is interested in.  If you don’t know much about Net Price Calculators, #1 on this list, the Roadmap to Cutting College Costs, is a great course for you.

Taking advantage of these college search resources will help you learn the steps in the college search process, how to find the right schools for your student and how to save money on college.

National Merit Semi-Finalists – Find Major Scholarships

Chalkboard 1National Merit Finalists are the ones who usually get all the glory and the full ride scholarships.  There are not as many major scholarships for National Merit Semi-Finalists.  But that doesn’t mean National Merit Semi-Finalists are overlooked.

If your high school Junior didn’t make it to National Merit Finalist status, but was named a National Merit Semi-Finalist, there are still many good scholarship opportunities available to him or her.  There are small scholarship amounts automatically given to semi-finalists by colleges around the country.  But even better, there are colleges that offer major merit scholarships to National Merit Semi-Finalists.

On my Full Scholarship List, there are 39 scholarships awarded to National Merit Semi-Finalists and most of these are full tuition or better.

According to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, approximately 16,000 students qualify as National Merit Semi-Finalists each year.  For complete details on how the competition works, click on the link above for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.  About 1.5 million students each year take the PSAT/NMSQT test each year to enter the National Merit Scholarship competition.  That means the top 1% or so of all students taking the test achieve the Semi-Finalist status.  This is no small accomplishment!

National Merit Semi-Finalists will surely be disappointed if they don’t make it to the Finalist level, but they should take at least a moment to celebrate the accomplishment of being among the top 1% of all the test takers.  Then they should go searching for great merit scholarship opportunities.

Among the schools offering full tuition or better to National Merit Semi-Finalists are the following:

  • University of Alabama
  • Harding University
  • University of Maine
  • University of Mississippi

My Full Scholarship List provides details on all 39 opportunities available to National Merit Semi-Finalists, as well as other major scholarship opportunities based on GPA and ACT/SAT scores that Semi-Finalists may also be eligible for.  The majority of major scholarships listed on the Full Scholarship List are automatic or competitive merit scholarships based on GPA and test score qualifications, so students making it to National Merit Semi-Finalist status will qualify for many of these.

In addition to scholarships offered to Semi-Finalists directly by colleges, there are also what the National Merit Scholarship Corporation calls Special Scholarships.  Here is what says about those:

Every year some 1,200 National Merit® Program participants, who are outstanding but not Finalists, are awarded Special Scholarships provided by corporations and business organizations. To be considered for a Special Scholarship, students must meet the sponsor’s criteria and the entry requirements of the National Merit Scholarship Program. They also must submit an entry form to the sponsor organization. Subsequently, NMSC contacts a pool of high-scoring candidates through their respective high schools. These students and their school officials submit detailed scholarship applications. NMSC’s professional staff evaluates information about candidates’ abilities, skills, and accomplishments and chooses winners of the sponsor’s Special Scholarships. These scholarships may either be renewable for four years of undergraduate study or one-time awards.

These can be more difficult to find, but your high school counseling office should be able to help.



Determining Your Senior Year Class Schedule

TextbooksMany high school juniors, preparing to determine their senior year class schedule, are asking, “What classes should I take senior year?”  They are worried about getting the senior year class schedule just right.  Too tough a course load and grades could drop.  Too easy and colleges might not be impressed.  It is a delicate balance because college admissions counselors want to see two things:  1) Great grades, especially in core courses,  2) The most challenging course schedule available.

If I could only provide one piece of advice regarding the senior year class schedule, it would be this – Don’t take your foot off the gas.  Senior year is not a chance to take it easy.  It is more a chance to keep running across the finish line.

Senior Year Class Schedule Considerations for Your Student

  1. Minimum College Requirements –  Make sure you are meeting the minimums for the schools you plan to apply to.  This can be easily found on the college websites under Admissions.  If you are looking at schools that require 4 years of math, make sure you have 4 years of math.  If prospective schools only require 3 years in certain subjects, it is still a good idea to go above and beyond that requirement if you can.
  2. Advanced Placement (AP) Courses – Even if you aren’t confident about passing the AP tests for college credit, AP courses are often considered the most challenging or rigorous courses offered because they are supposed to be taught at a college level and be roughly equivalent to what you would take in the first year of college.  You do need to be realistic though – if you are mediocre in math, you  probably shouldn’t sign up for AP Calculus because you are going to struggle and that will most likely be reflected in your grade.
  3. Honors Courses – An honors class is the best option as long as you are confident about achieving a B or better.  Although colleges would prefer As over Bs, a B in an honors course may look better than an “easy A” in a non-honors class.
  4. Dual-Credit Courses –  Dual credit classes are a great way to earn early college credit.  These are usually considered to be of a greater difficulty than regular high school classes because they are taught at the college level.  You will want to look into whether the colleges you are looking at will accept these courses as transfer credits.  This can vary widely by college and between different states.
  5. Teacher’s Assistants – There are often opportunities for a student to be a teacher’s assistant at his or her school.  I would argue that this will be looked at as a “blow off” class period unless the student is planning to become a teacher.  If you are planning to major in Education in college, a teacher assistant position will most likely be viewed favorably as a chance to shadow or try out a perspective career.
  6. Electives – Try to fit in an elective in an area you may be interested in studying in college.  Electives should always be a lower priority than core classes.  Make sure you have enough high-quality core classes first.
  7. College Competitiveness – What types of colleges are you planning to apply to?  For Ivy League or other top-tier colleges that are very competitive and very selective in their admissions, you will definitely need to show top grades, preferably As, in the most rigorous classes offered by your high school.  If the schools you are looking at are slightly lower on the competitiveness scale, being a well-rounded student will carry more weight and you will have more flexibility to balance your senior year class schedule.  That will give you a little more room to explore electives.
  8. What Fits in Your Schedule – Juggling the needs of a hundred to a thousand seniors is a daunting task for any high school.  Sometimes schedules just don’t work out the way you want them to.  Especially at smaller schools, they may not be able to make everything you want to take fit together into a school day.  In this case, explore other options like online high school or online college classes to supplement your in-school schedule.  Your high school’s counseling office should be able to help you figure this out.

There are no easy answers when it comes to selecting your senior year course schedule and even experts on college admissions disagree as to what extent students should push for the most challenging courses.  There is a great college admissions podcast called, “Getting In.”  In a recent episode, the host, Julie Lythcott-Haims made the statement, “You have the right to enjoy high school.”  She was talking about the topic of what to take senior year and she was advocating for getting some opportunity to explore topics you are interested in and take some enjoyable classes rather than pushing 100% for the hardest classes offered.  I couldn’t agree more.  Above all, you need a balance and you need a realistic schedule so you have time for college applications, scholarship applications and the things you want to participate in senior year.

Finishing the College Search

For my oldest daughter, finishing the college search came down to choosing between two schools.  I gave tips on how to do that here: The Final College Choice – Choosing Between Two Colleges. This year, for my middle daughter, finishing the college search was much easier.  She knew where she wanted to go and she had a couple backup schools.  When her acceptance came in, she promptly paid her deposit and signed up for housing.

For many students, finishing the college search is not that easy.  The decision can be agonizing.  Below are a few things to discuss with your student to help him or her think through the final college choice.

Final College Choice Considerations:

  1. Size – A small campus may feel really intimate and less scary when you visit.  How will it feel after 2 or 3 years? Will it feel claustrophobic?  Will it feel like high school?  A small school will offer fewer courses to choose from.  A large school will offer many more courses, but will have much more competition for the spots available.
  2. Majors – Does your student know what he or she wants to major in?  How likely is it that a change of mind will occur?  My oldest daughter went in undeclared.  Had she known that she would choose the major that she ended up choosing, she would have selected a different college.  Although her college offered the major she wanted, it is a small and not very strong program.  Sometimes it makes sense to select a school that has many more majors to choose from.
  3. Location – How far away is the school and how often will your student want to come home?  Will it be difficult for you to visit?  Or does your student need to be far enough away not to be tempted to come home every weekend?
  4. Friendly Faces – Some students want to walk on campus and be anonymous.  Others may benefit from some friendly faces, especially at really large schools.  One thing that really resonated with my middle daughter was when a couple older friends who attend the school she has selected said that they were so glad to know a few people on campus when they started.
  5. Cost – When everything else is pretty much equal between schools, I would argue that your student should select the one with the lowest out-of-pocket cost.  The most expensive college is not necessarily the best.  It’s more important to select a school where there are lots of things to get involved in such as extra-curriculars, research, internships, volunteer opportunities and more.  Hopefully your student can find a school that offers a lot of value for the price paid.
  6. Statistics – You can also look at the final college choice by measuring meaningful statistics such as the 4-year or 6-year graduation rate, the freshman retention rate, the percentage of graduates who find full-time employment within 6 months, and more. is a good place to find these statistics.

There are lots of considerations for you and your student when finishing the college search process.  Encourage your student to attend Admitted Student Days to do a final assessment on the schools he or she is considering.  Hopefully one school will stand out ahead of the others and feel like the right choice, all things considered.

Top 8 Ways to Find Affordable Colleges

Roadmap to Cutting College CostsToday’s post is from Michelle Kretzschmar of DIY College Rankings and Debbie Schwartz of Road2College who have created the online course, Roadmap To Cutting College Costs, for parents with kids in 9th, 10th, & 11th grade, to help them start understanding financial aid and ways to cut the cost of college.


With the media reporting horror stories of students graduating with over $100,000 in debt and the constant announcements of tuition increases, finding affordable colleges would seem to be an impossible task. Many families have resigned themselves to dipping into retirement funds or talking out private loans to finance college. However, there are affordable colleges if you know where to look.

The following are suggestions on where and how to find affordable colleges. These are guidelines, not rules because there will always be exceptions. But we think these are good places to start.

  1. Colleges that have acceptance rates of 40% or higher.

Why? Simple supply and demand. These are schools don’t have as many students applying so they have to offer more incentives to get students to attend.

  1. Colleges ranked below 50 in the US News Best Colleges national rankings.

Why? Some of these colleges would really like to move up in the rankings and are willing to offer qualified students generous financial aid.

  1. Colleges where the applicant’s test scores put her into the top quarter of the freshman class.

Why? When a student has the credentials to get into more selective or prestigious schools, colleges will offer more merit money to attend.

  1. Colleges not located in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

Why? Two reasons. First, these are expensive places to live no matter what you’re doing and will be reflected in the college price. Two, colleges not in these locations have to work harder to lure students away from big city lights and are more likely to offer scholarships.

  1. Colleges that take more than a day to drive to.

Why? It’s easy for colleges to get students from “local” areas to attend and apply. If they want to develop a national reputation, they have to offer incentives for students from other parts of the country to attend.

  1. Colleges with less 5,000 full-time undergraduates.

Why? This is just a matter of numbers.  There are 1,168 colleges with 5,000 or fewer undergraduates compared to 418 with more than 5,000. More colleges mean more possibilities for scholarships.

  1. Colleges where less than 40% of the freshman have the same gender as the applicant.

Why? Students prefer attending colleges where the gender balance is roughly equal. Private colleges are more likely to accept a student whose gender is less represented on campus. Think women in engineering schools or men in nursing schools.

  1. Honors programs at public universities.

Why? Some public universities use their honors programs as a way of keeping talented students in-state and attracting talented students from out-of-state. If these universities aren’t highly ranked nationally, they are likely to provide tuition breaks along with a variety of perks for students in their honors programs.

So unless you have an extra $250,000 per child to cover tuition, use one or more the tips described above. And research these suggestions BEFORE letting your student send in any applications. Once your student has finished applying to colleges, they will only receive financial aid offers for that set of schools, so make sure you’ve done your research! To learn more ways of how to cut college costs, where to research, and what data to use sign up for our upcoming course Roadmap To Cutting College Costs – is a great place to start.


Michelle Kretzschmar of DIY College Rankings and Debbie Schwartz of Road2College are professionals with a passion for educating parents on college funding and using data to find affordable schools. Michelle has a background in data analytics science and education research with a graduate degree in Education Public Policy from the University of Texas. Debbie previously worked in financial services for investment, credit card, and student loan companies; and has an MBA from MIT Sloan School.

Michelle and Debbie have developed an online course, Roadmap To Cutting College Costs, for parents with kids in 9th, 10th, & 11th grade, to help them start understanding financial aid and ways to cut the cost of college. This course comes with a tool that allows parents to compare, sort and filter colleges using any of the 50 data fields provided. Every week participants will be provided with written lessons, videos, a webinar, handouts, and access to discussion boards. Find further information about this online course here.

Disclaimer:  While I am signed on as an affiliate for Michelle and Debbie’s course and will receive a commission for referrals, I greatly believe in and support the work they are doing to educate parents about college costs and would recommend this course even if I wasn’t an affiliate.