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

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The Final College List – Preparing for College Applications

My middle daughter has a week left before the end of her Junior year of high school.  She will soon be a “rising senior.”  That means that college applications are only a few months away.  She has recently decided what she wants to major in and this has helped with narrowing the final college list.  However, this isn’t critical.  It’s fine if your student doesn’t know what to major in.  It just means that you want to look at schools that offer lots of options and a path to help him or her figure out a major.

I have helped my daughter work towards a final list of schools she will apply to.  Her list includes 5 schools.  She has her top school figured out and if she could, she would only apply there, but that is not realistic because the program she is interested in only accepts about 30% of applicants.  Our next step is making sure she visits the other 4 schools before college applications are due.

How Parents Can Help in Figuring Out the Final College List and Preparing for College Applications

  1. Make sure you understand your student’s college “wish list” with respect to things like school size, location, potential majors, and other qualities he or she wants in a school.
  2. Help in the search for colleges that meet the “wish list” criteria.
  3. Attempt to schedule at least an initial visit to each school prior to when applications are due in the fall. If your student has a major in mind, be sure to visit that department.
  4. Help your student to include reach schools, target schools and safety schools on the final college list.  You want to make sure there is at least one school that’s a sure thing and a few that are pretty good bets.  It doesn’t hurt to have one or two that are a bit of a stretch.  You can base these determinations on where your student falls compared to the school’s most recent admitted student statistics for GPA and ACT or SAT scores.  This information should be fairly easy to find on the college website.  If you can’t find it, have your student contact the admissions office to obtain this information directly or work with his/her high school guidance counselor to find out.
  5. Keep track of the schools and their application dates on a list.  My college search spreadsheet template can be used for this if you add a column to track application dates.  In addition, make sure you track each school’s application criteria.  this includes whether the school uses the common app or their own customized app and what the student is required to submit (transcript, test scores, recommendations, etc.).
  6. Make sure your student stays in contact with each school to display demonstrated interest.  This should include things like visits, contacting the admissions office with questions, stopping at the school’s booth at college fairs, and meeting with a rep if one comes to your student’s high school.

Planning ahead for the final college list will avoid a lot of stress and scrambling when college applications have looming deadlines.  Plus, it will give your student time to visit and reevaluate if he or she decides not to apply to any of the schools on the list.

Transition Time in the College Search Process

May 1, National Decision Day, has just passed.  That causes a transition time in the college search process.  High school seniors drop out of the process.  They have finished the college search and college selection.  They are on their way to a new phase in their lives and are focused on getting ready for next fall.

For high school juniors, it’s coming down to crunch time.  College applications are just a few months away.  It’s time to figure out where to apply and to take those final steps towards having great college applications.  You should be transitioning from “searching” to “applying.”

High School Junior College Application Prep Steps

  • Sign up for the June ACT or SAT test (if needed)
  • Start building an activity resume/accomplishments document for college applications
  • Ask teachers for recommendation letters (to either complete before the end of the school year or by the start of school next fall)
  • Start finalizing your list of schools to apply to
  • Schedule summer visits at any schools you want to apply to, but haven’t visited yet (summer visits aren’t the best for seeing the campus in action, but you can always do a more in-depth visit senior year)
  • Start looking at college applications on the college websites to see what you need – essays, recommendation letters, portfolios, etc.
  • Check out the Common App if any of the schools you want to apply to accept it

For high school sophomores, it’s time to get serious about the college search process.  Junior year will be the year to figure everything out.

High School Sophomore College Search Prep Steps

  • Start prepping for ACT and/or SAT tests, if you haven’t already
  • Start a college search spreadsheet
  • Schedule summer college visits to start figuring out what type/size of school you want
  • Read a lot about what colleges are looking for in applicants and take action to position yourself for success.
  • Talk as a family about how you will pay for college – need-based aid, merit aid, savings accounts, parent contributions, student contributions, etc.

Parents, your biggest task is to figure out what your family can afford.  Whether your student is a high school junior or sophomore, take the time to plan this out and share it with your student.

Parent Resources

College Search for “B” Students

The college search for “B” students can be different than for “A” students.  As a parent, you need to keep certain things in mind in order to help your “B” student conduct a successful college search.

  1. Strength of schedule/class rigor is most important – A “B” in an honors or AP course is different than a “B” in a standard course.  Most colleges view the strength of a high school students schedule as very important.  Did the student take advantage of all of the more challenging classes that were available to him/her?  A “B” in an honors or AP class can carry more weight to a college admissions rep than an “A” in a standard class because it shows that the student was interested in taking more difficult courses.  This can demonstrate that a student is ready for the rigor of college coursework.
  2. The ACT/SAT score will matter – Most schools still require an ACT or SAT score for admissions, although more and more schools are going “test optional.”  Unless your student is looking at test optional schools, the combination of GPA and ACT/SAT score will still be important.  A “B” average can look better to admissions officers when coupled with a high ACT or SAT score.
  3. Merit aid is going to be less available – The largest amounts of merit aid, like those listed in my Full Scholarship List, are generally saved for “A” students with high ACT/SAT scores.  Your “B” student is more likely to be offered smaller amounts of merit-based aid.  If your family income positions you to not be eligible for need-based aid and you planned to rely on merit aid, you may have to steer your student to look at less competitive colleges.  If your “B” student can show class rigor, great extra-curriculars, and a high ACT/SAT score,  he or she may find some merit scholarship offers that will make college pretty affordable.
  4. State schools are a great option – Public universities, especially in your home state, can be a great option for “B” students.  They tend to be much more affordable than private colleges, unless you qualify for need-based or merit-based aid.  They can also be easier to get into, because they accept a larger percentage of applicants than top-tier private colleges.
  5. A strong college application is important – The college application is not all about grades and test scores.  It is also about great recommendation letters, a well-written essay and a solid activity resume.  “B” students need to focus on painting a picture that they can balance a lot of different things and still maintain respectable grades.

The college search for “B” students should focus on reach, target and safety schools.  Make sure your student sets himself or herself up as being so much more than a grade point average on paper.  He or she needs to show all of the other things that were accomplished while still maintaining a “B” average.

Don’t be discouraged.  Use the tips above to figure out what schools and activities to focus on and make sure your student casts a wide net with college applications.  There are lots of schools out there that are looking for more than just that perfect GPA and 30+ ACT score.  You just may need to dig a little deeper to find them.

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!