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How to Craft the Perfect College Application List

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YOUng woman with red nails making a college list.

Each spring, high school juniors begin the nitty-gritty tasks involved in creating the perfect college application list. And each spring, parents start asking one another: “Where is your son applying to college? Is your daughter staying close to home? What colleges are on her list?”

The perfect college list means students are flooded with offers from colleges. The wrong list means disappointment and discouragement. The list should be so strong that every student is confident of being accepted, and parents are confident of strong offers of merit aid.

A perfect college application list will be well thought out with colleges that fit parents’ financial specifications and a student’s academic and social needs.

But how do you craft such a list? Complete these four important steps:

  1. Do your homework and research the data.

Students use all sorts of factors when deciding which schools to add to their college application list. Sometimes it’s the college’s name or reputation. But that alone should never be the sole determining factor for adding a college to the list. College data should play a greater role in determining whether a college is a good choice and a perfect fit.

Data can provide parents and students with crucial college information. Rankings, financial aid percentages, acceptance rates, student-to-professor ratios, graduation rates, average indebtedness, freshman retention rate and percentage of students employed after graduation are key statistical factors when adding a college to the application list.

Two good sources for college statistics are College Navigator and College Data.

2. Be realistic.

Many families simply look at the flawed college rankings and pick the colleges at the top of the list. Unfortunately, this can be a recipe for disappointment when the admission decisions arrive. It’s important for parents and students to be realistic about grades, test scores and affordability. If your family cannot afford to pay for the education without substantial aid, it’s fruitless to even apply. You are only setting yourselves up for disappointment.

Have a serious conversation with your student about realistic expectations. Add colleges to the list that would put your student is at the top of the applicant pool: above the average test scores and GPA, and with academic courses and extracurriculars beyond what is typical for that school. Not only will this present your student as a strong applicant, but the college will most likely offer substantial merit aid.

3. Think outside the box.

Consider all types of colleges: large universities, liberal arts colleges, small private colleges and colleges outside your local area. Many students only apply to local colleges and universities and don’t consider out-of-state possibilities. Search for colleges that aren’t on everyone’s radar such as the small schools collaborating as The Colleges That Change Lives. Attend local and online college fairs and talk to representatives from all the colleges. It might surprise you and your student to find a college that you might have never considered.

4. Visit as many colleges as possible before finalizing the list.

It’s always a good idea to take a college tour before you apply. It will help get a feel for the campus and provide a chance to meet and talk with current students. For many students, the college visit is the single most determining factor when adding a college to their list. If it’s impossible for you to visit, visit online, talk with current students on social media, talk with alums or representatives at college fairs, and watch video tours of the campus.



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