Looking for the perfect college?

Resources we used
to guide our search

The College Board website, including the Official SAT Question of the Day and BigFuture

The College Solution by Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a guide to the college search

Paying for College without Going Broke, The Princeton Review’s annual guide

The Official SAT Study Guide, the College Board’s “Blue Book”

The Perfect Score Project: One Mother’s Journey to Uncover the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier, tips on preparing for and taking the SAT

Universitytutors.com, a website for finding qualified tutors in your area

Roadmap to Cutting College Costs, an online class offered by Road2College

CSS/​Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile), form for financial aid from private colleges

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), form for financial aid from the federal government

Family Connection, an organizing tool for the college search

Expected Family Contribution, a formula used to calculate financial aid packages

The Common Application, a widely used college application form

Did I mention
the Common App?

Chances are that many colleges you want to apply to use the Common Application—400 colleges use it now and more are switching to it every year. It makes applying to multiple colleges so much easier than it used to be. It's online, you fill it in once, write only one essay, and send it out to your colleges.

There are some things to watch out for, though. On the form, individual colleges can ask for information that goes only to that college—most often a personal statement or mini-essay, such as “Why do you want to attend Hot Stuff College?” So, make sure you page through the Common App completely. And, even if the college says that an answer is optional, it really isn’t. Don’t let any opportunity to say something about yourself slip by. Take every chance you’re given to personalize your application.

Also, we found a glitch in the Common App that cost us a lot of extra time and effort. One section allows someone other than the school counselor or a teacher to attach a recommendation. Our son asked his youth pastor to write a character reference. Unfortunately, within the recommendation the pastor mentioned a specific college—our son's first choice college—and when it came time to send out the application to other colleges, he was unable to update the recommendation online to remove the college name. We had to delete the recommendation altogether and have him write a hard-copy of his recommendation that we then had to fax to each college. Lesson learned! Don’t let your recommenders mention specific colleges in their comments.

The College Search:
Ten Tips from the Trenches

By Nancy B. Kennedy

Whether you have one child or ten, the first time through the college search process is sure to be overwhelming. With some 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States alone, how on earth does a student decide? My husband and I are coming to the end of this nearly two-year-long journey with our son, so after stumbling through this mind-boggling maze, I thought it was a good time to share what I’ve learned. With these ten brief bullet points, I hope to spare you some of the mistakes we made and dead ends we followed. So, hang on—here we go!

1. Get involved.
High school counselors will tell you that the college search should be solely the work of your student. Yes, your child needs to be invested in the search. But at the same time, counselors advise you to apply to five or ten colleges. It’s so much work! Scrolling through hundreds of college websites, signing up for tours, making travel arrangements, filling out applications and financial aid forms, writing essays. I decided it was my son’s job to study and get good grades and my job to do some of the legwork for him. (Though not the essays!)

2. Start early.
Our son was busy—marching band in the fall, baseball in the spring, jobs in the summer. Even spring break was booked solid with baseball games! But he's a very visually oriented person. We were sure he was the type of student for whom a college visit would be more valuable than any of the thousand brochures he was getting in the mail. So, we started visiting colleges in his sophomore year. Over the next two years, we visited nine colleges. It sharpened his idea of what programs of study interested him and the type of environment in which he was most comfortable. In his junior and senior years, he also attended information sessions given by colleges that sent representatives to his school.

3. Keep a brag sheet.
You’ll be including an activities resume with most college applications. Start a “parent brag sheet” in the freshman year, so you can keep track of your child’s activities, jobs and community involvements. But keep in mind that what colleges want seems as changeable as teen fashion. When we started our search, colleges wanted students with school-based interests and leadership positions, like captain of a sports team or drum major of the marching band. Now, word is that colleges want evidence of a single, all-encompassing (and preferably unique) passion beyond school sports and clubs. Write a novel, they say. Compete in Irish dancing. Start a business. Try to stay current on the admissions fad-du-jour to see where your child might fit in. For example, I encouraged our son to become certified as a Babe Ruth baseball league umpire as a way to build more credentials onto his lifelong love of the game. (It’s a great job, too!)

4. Study for the SAT/​ACT.
Serendipitously, I happened across a book titled The Perfect Score Project by Debbie Stier, a mom who took the SAT seven times in order to help her son prepare for the test. I took her suggestion and began prepping our son in his sophomore year. It wasn’t time consuming—we used the Official SAT Question of the Day on the College Board’s website, and the practice tests in the Blue Book, the College Board’s guide to the SAT. Over the next year, I had our son take numerous partial practice tests and one entire test. The results were clear: from his first PSAT (10th grade) to his second (11th grade), his score improved by about 500 points. When he finally took the SAT, his score bumped up by another 50 points. Becoming familiar with the format of the SAT will also ease any test-day anxieties your child might have.

5. Be realistic.
Counselors will advise you to apply to reach schools, safety schools and perfect fit schools. I believe in applying to reach schools, but don’t pin all your hopes on schools whose academic requirements are barely within your student’s grasp. It’s worth the effort to find “perfect fit” schools. Your child’s school should have access to GPA and SAT/​ACT scores that have gotten students from your particular high school into colleges that interest you. National statistics are a starting point, but within any single high school, colleges may choose only students with the highest numbers. Check out national scattergrams, but have your counselor show you your school’s statistics.

Blue=Accepted, won't attend
Green=Accepted, will attend

6. Read all those emails.
From the moment your child takes the PSAT, your inbox will explode with emails from college admissions offices. It’s tempting to just consign them all to the trash bin. But as you narrow your search, it’s worthwhile to open emails from colleges you might be interested in. They might alert you to special open house days or tours for individual degree programs, like engineering or nursing. They will sometimes offer you a free application, a speedy decision, consideration for the school’s honors program, or some other perk. So, take a quick look before hitting the delete key.

7. Leave the beaten path.
On college tours, you’re not likely to see everything you want to see. Tour guides take you to the common buildings—dorms, student centers, dining halls, libraries. If they show classrooms, it tends to be the science labs—all that cool equipment! Stick around afterward to drop into buildings you didn’t see on the tour. After one tour, as we walked the halls of the computer science building, two professors stopped to talk to our son about their program.

8. Get to know your admissions counselor.
The admissions counselor is your friend. At most colleges, a counselor is assigned a regional area and is responsible for reviewing applications from that area. Whether or not your child interviews with the counselor, have him or her send an e-mail to introduce themselves. We were offered a free application simply for contacting one counselor with a question. Ask a question, or provide information you think wasn’t covered in an application. They will include your comments in your student’s file, so it becomes not just one of five thousand identical applications. Send a thank you note or email after a college visit—nothing brightens their day (and puts you on their map) like a sincere thank you.

9. Meet the deadlines.
Once you and your student compile your list of prospective colleges, it’s time to get organized. You will have deadlines for applications, deadlines for scholarship consideration, deadlines for the CSS/​Profile (financial aid from a college) and FAFSA (aid from the federal government) and deadlines for making a decision to attend. Your student’s school might use a college planning portal like Family Connection that will help you organize your data. The College Board website has a section for that as well called BigFuture. Or simply create your own spreadsheet. I kept a list of deadlines at my desk, so that I wouldn’t overlook anything.

10. You can DIY.
There are endless ways to drain your bank account preparing for your child’s college years. Seminars, SAT prep courses, tutors, financial workshops, even private counselors. But I found that most of it was doable on our own. We did hire a tutor for a few SAT prep sessions, and you might decide there’s one area you just don’t feel up to conquering by yourself. Otherwise, I found guidance from these resources, some free and some just the cost of a book.
The College Board website (including the SAT Question of the Day)
The College Solution by Lynn O’Shaughnessy (a guide to the college search)
Paying for College without Going Broke (The Princeton Review’s annual guide)
The Official SAT Study Guide (the College Board’s “Blue Book”)
Universitytutors.com A website for finding qualified tutors in your area
The Perfect Score Project: One Mother’s Journey to Uncover the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier (tips on preparing for and taking the SAT)

11. Pay Up!
Because my son is a still a senior and waiting for acceptance letters to come in, we haven’t fully dealt with the financing issue yet. So I have no Tip #11! My husband and I have saved for this goal, we calculated our Expected Family Contribution for each school our son applied to, and we’ve filled out the CSS/​Profile and FAFSA. Once our son makes a decision, we will delve more fully into this quagmire. One thing I’ve learned is not to look at the “sticker price” of a college. Don’t let cost deter you at first—you can attend a private college with generous financial aid and end up paying less than you would at a state school. However, increasing attention is being paid to the crippling debt students are taking on to attend college. The average college student graduates with $35,000 of debt, according to Edvisors, while parents who take out loans on behalf of their child shoulder an average $30,000 of debt. I think going forward that students and parents will be more judicious about debt. You might want to check out something like Roadmap to Cutting College Costs, an online class offered by Road2College, to learn how to find colleges that are generous with financial aid.

So, that’s it from one soon-to-be veteran of the college search process. I'll let you know how our story ends soon. Good luck, everyone! Here’s to finding the college of your dreams!

Copyright © 2016 by Nancy B. Kennedy. All rights reserved.