I hear the frustration in parents’ voices every day about the college search process. The knowledge a parent needs to navigate this college maze is overwhelming. Parents feel lost, confused, off-track and often bewildered. Traveling through this maze, especially for the first time, without support, can be frightening.
I have two children who both attended college. One went to college straight out of high school; the other after four years as a Marine. As you can imagine, the college search for each of them was quite different. But, I learned five valuable lessons:
1. Cast a wide net
Even if your student has a particular school in mind, expand the search. Don’t be limited to colleges nearby, or colleges with prestigious names, or colleges where a friend is attending, or even colleges within the United States. There are over 4,000 institutions of higher learning in this country and even more when you expand your search internationally. Canadian colleges offer excellent educations and are a good financial fit for U.S. students.
Digging deep and moving outside of your comfort zone can unearth some real gems, as it did with my daughter. She wanted to attend college at Boston University but we unearthed a small private college in the suburbs of Boston. She fell in love with it and accepted an offer of admission. If we hadn’t moved beyond her initial choice, we would never have found Bentley University. It was a perfect fit for her.
2. Do your research
Before narrowing your list to final choices, do your research. Look at graduation rates at each college. Compare financial aid award percentages. Examine freshman retention rates, admissions acceptance rates, percentage of students who secured a job in their major after graduation, and even crime statistics.
3. College visits are emotional
A college choice is highly emotional decision; and the college visits are no different. Expect to hear such things as, “I’m just not feeling it” or “I don’t like how the campus looks.” Intuition, however, is a big part of the college search.
After receiving an offer of admission to a college we had never visited, my daughter visited the campus. She refused to get out of the car. Her only reason: It just didn’t feel right. This college offered her a full-ride scholarship, but she ultimately chose the college she loved. Looking back, I was completely frustrated with her. Now I can see that her emotions, as frustrating as they were to me, helped her choose the best fit for her.
4. Stay organized.
You will be inundated with information during the college search. The key is to stay organized. Have your student set up an email account specifically for college-related correspondence. This will facilitate the information gathering process and ensure that all emails from colleges, counselors, teachers and scholarship committees are in one place. Encourage your student to use this email when registering on sites related to college admissions. (And encourage your student to create a serious and business-like email address.)
Also, maintain a filing system for organizing papers, applications, college information, scholarship materials and resume materials. Even if it’s just a box, the goal is to keep all college related materials in one place - a college landing zone.
5. Get help when you need it
With college admissions becoming even more competitive, it may be logical to consider working with an independent counselor. They offer expertise and a personalized approach to the complex, time-consuming, and often stressful college prep, search and application process. But ask any group of parents and you will hear a variety of opinions.
The decision should be based on each family’s individual needs and resources. But the real point is this: get some help when you need it. At the very least, consult blogs, experts on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, school counselors and parents who have been through the process themselves. There’s no need to go it alone or guess when you don’t know the answer.