A Successful College Search Needs Preparation Plus Opportunity

Published by Wendy Nelson on

happy studentsI believe a successful college search needs preparation plus opportunity.

One of my favorite sayings has always been Luck = Preparation + Opportunity. What this means to me is that there really is no such thing as “luck”. You end up feeling “lucky” when you are well-prepared and the right opportunity comes along.

I was thinking about this recently in terms of the college search process. If your student is well-prepared, they can take advantage of a great opportunity.

Let’s look at both pieces of this.

Being Well Prepared for the College Search Process

Student Preparation

  • ACT/SAT – Before seriously embarking on the college search process, it is important that your student has taken an ACT or SAT test, the PSAT or at least some practice tests. You need to know where they stand in terms of standardized test scoring. This will help with determining reach, target and safety schools and will help with finding the opportunities we will talk about in the next section. Also, if your student’s scores indicate that they are not a good test taker and their GPA puts them in a higher category than their test scores, this may steer them to look into “test optional” colleges (these have become much more common over the last few years). Plus, there are plenty of test prep resources out there to help increase scores – books, online sources, classes, coaches. Starting with baseline scores is necessary to know where to go from there.
  • GPA & Class Rank – It goes without saying that your student should strive for the highest high school GPA and class rank they can manage. Colleges want to see an upward trend in grades throughout high school. However, this needs to be balanced with the next item.
  • Strength of Schedule – This really means – did your student take the most challenging classes they could? Selective colleges are looking for students who didn’t just play it safe to get straight As. They want to see a students push themselves. A “B” in the most challenging level of course (honors or AP) is usually looked upon more favorably than an “A” in a regular level course. If merit scholarships are going to be a must for your student to make college affordable, they will want to strike a balance here because many colleges give automatic merit scholarships based on GPA and/or ACT/SAT scores. This will make it beneficial to have the highest GPA possible.
  • Extracurricular Activities – The best advice I can provide is to “go deep, not wide”. This means your student should focus on fewer activities at a deeper level than more activities at a shallow level. An example would be student government. If your student is interested in this, they should show a progression of involvement leading up to class president or other office. Another example would be athletics. Sticking with the same sport throughout high school, growing to the varsity level and becoming a team captain in that sport looks better than a year or two in one sport, a year or two in another. The most important thing colleges look for with respect to extracurricular involvement is Leadership. Your student should look for opportunities to become a leader in an activity, or two, they love.
  • Community Service – Several years back, community service was looked at as an impressive area that only some students did extensively. Now it is looked at as more of an expectation for college admission. What really stands out these days are self-motivated service projects that your student took initiative to create. Things like activities, meals, pledge drives, community beautification projects, etc that your student organized and ran, rather than organized events that your student participated in, will get special notice from the admissions and scholarship committees.
  • Special Hooks – These are like the categories above on steroids. Does your student have a great “hook” that will steer your college search in a singular direction?
    • Athletics – The biggest of these would be athletics. Does your student have what it takes to be a Division 1 or Division 2 athlete? Does your student play a sport that gives full ride athletic scholarships? If the answer to one or both of these questions is yes, athletic recruiting will probably steer their college search process.
    • National Merit Finalist – Scoring as the “best of the best” on the PSAT test may put your student into the National Merit Finalist category. This can provide a major advantage for super-competitive college admissions or for huge merit scholarships (usually not both as super-competitive schools don’t offer huge merit scholarships). You and your student will need to decide which way to focus attention (the parent preparation process described below may drive this).
    • Talents – Does your student have major talent in music, dance, theater or art? If so, and your student wants to study their talent area in college, this may drive the search toward specific colleges offering strong programs and potentially talent scholarship opportunities too.
  • College Application Preparation – Even if your student does a great job on all the preparation steps above, a poorly crafted college application could take them out of the running for a spot at a competitive college. Make sure your student understands how to complete a great college application. For help with this, I usually recommend the College Essay Guy’s website. He has a lot of great content to help your student, both free and paid. Start with the free content and then, if your student needs more help, consider one of his paid training courses. Given that the essay can be the most daunting piece of the college application, another site that has great blog content to help with college essays is Essay Hell.

Parent Preparation

  • Understand your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) – You should not let your student start the college search process until you know how much colleges will expect you to pay for college. Start by running FAFSA4Caster. This will give you an early estimate of what the government thinks you can pay for college (you probably won’t agree …). From there, you should strategically run Net Price Calculators at a variety of different colleges. My Upside Down College Search process gets into a lot more detail on this process.
  • Calculate how much you can pay for college out of pocket – What do you already have saved for college? What can you afford to pay out of cash flow during college? Chances are good that you will be footing at least part of the college bill each year through savings and cash flow so it is important to estimate what your threshold is for these so you can target the colleges that will stay within that.
  • Determine your position on student loans – Are you willing to take out loans for your student to afford the type of college they are interested in? If so, who will be responsible for paying back those loans – you or your student? What is the maximum you are willing to take out in loans? It is important to take a position on student loans and communicate that to your student before they dive into the college search process.
  • Craft a message to your student – This is the culmination of the parent preparation steps above. It is important to give your student clear guidelines related to the financial side of the college search process. Talk about what you can and can’t afford. Talk about where you stand after running the FAFSA4Caster and Net Price Calculators. Do you expect to qualify for any need-based aid? If not, merit-based aid will be your best option for affording college – make sure your student knows they need to look for colleges that will offer the largest merit scholarships. This is the most important step to avoid the scenario where your student falls in love with a bunch of colleges you can’t afford!

Finding the Right Opportunities in the College Search Process

As I mentioned at the beginning, a successful college search involves being well prepared so that your student can take advantage of the best opportunities that come along.

What you and your student do and learn during the preparation phase will determine the types of opportunities to focus on.

  1. Need-Based Aid – Does your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) make your student a good candidate for need-based aid? Compare your EFC to the yearly cost of attendance – can you afford the difference through savings or cash flow (or small loans if you are ok with the idea)? There is no guarantee that the colleges your student applies to will provide need-based aid that covers your EFC, even if the Net Price Calculators indicated that. Your student needs to get all the way through the admissions process to know for sure what amount of aid will be offered. If your EFC is low and you have a “top” student, look into colleges that meet “100% of Need” as these tend to be the most competitive, highest ranked schools and can end up being a terrific deal if your student is admitted.
  2. Merit-Based Aid – Your student should focus on merit-based aid if:
    • Your EFC is too high for much, if any, need-based aid
    • Your student has a good to great high school GPA
    • Your student has good to great ACT or SAT scores
    • Your student has made it to the National Merit Semi-Finalist level
    • Your student is not focused on attending an Ivy League or other ultra-competitive college (these do not give merit-based aid)
  3. In-State Public Universities –  This may be your lowest cost, and best, option if:
    • You will not qualify for need-based aid
    • Your student does not have a “great” GPA and/or ACT/SAT score and/or has not identified schools that will give enough merit aid to make them less expensive than your in-state option
    • Your student is ok with the idea of attending a large university
    • Your in-state public universities are well-regarded and offer the major(s) your student is interested in
  4. Athletic Recruiting – If your student is a top athlete and wants to continue their sport in college, athletic recruiting may be in your future. You can learn more about athletic recruiting and athletic scholarships through my blog posts here: https://www.mykidscollegechoice.com/category/athletic-recruiting/
  5. Very Competitive College Admissions – If you have a top student, and affording college is not a problem, your student may want to look for the most prestigious and best ranked college they can get admitted to. As mentioned in #1 above, many of these top colleges are great for need-based aid if your student has what it takes to be admitted. Taking the money side of college out of the equation, your top student is free to apply anywhere. This is definitely a case where the right preparation steps will make all the difference. The top colleges often admit 10% of applicants or less, so your student will want to have other less competitive schools to fall back on.

What is needed for a successful college search is not “luck”, but it shares the necessary components of “preparation” and “opportunity”.

If merit aid seems like the best opportunity for your student, join my Merit Scholarship Deep Dive 5-Day Challenge to learn the Merit Scholarship Framework you can use to help your student find the best school and scholarship options.