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How to Narrow a High School Student's College Application List

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How to Narrow a High School Student's College Application List

Did you know there are over 4,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States? This makes choosing a college overwhelming. How does your high school student start with a dream list and narrow it down and settle on ones that are good fits academically, socially and financially?

First, let’s take a look at some illogical college choices. Colleges might make a student’s list for all sorts of emotional reasons, but in the end, the reasons should be rational, not emotional. Look at your student’s list and determine whether or not any of them fit these criteria:

  • Choosing a college to follow a boyfriend or girlfriend. High school romances rarely last.

  • Choosing a college to follow a best friend. This might be about anxiety. Work on reassuring your student that there will be new friends in college!

  • Choosing a college because of the sports team. College is expensive and academics should be a priority.

  • Choosing a college because it’s “fun.” Too much partying equals academic failure.

  • Choosing a college because of location. Staying close to home can limit options unless it’s an financial or family issue.

  • Choosing a college because of its reputation. Just because a college has a famous name, doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for every student.

  • Choosing a college based on someone else’s opinion. Never assume anything about a college until you and/or your student visit.

When Do We Need a List?

A high school student’s college list should be formed by the end of junior year. At the beginning of senior year, your high school student should be able to narrow down the choices to a final list of college applications. After you have helped to remove some of those illogical choices with tough love and strong parenting, you work with your student and the college advisor on logical college choices.

Here are three components of a final college list: reach schools, best fit schools and safety schools.

Following a name: the dream-team colleges

So many high school students believe that attending a college with a “name” guarantees success. It’s your job to help them understand this is not necessarily true. The best college is the college that fits their personal academic, social and financial goals. It could be a “name,” but it most likely won’t be. Those colleges have low acceptance rates and give little financial aid. I’m all for dreaming but when it comes to a college list, practically and logic reign.

Following the money: the best-bet colleges

The colleges that populate this part of the list are colleges that would put your student at the top of the applicant pool. Of all the reasons, this is the most logical. After careful research, these colleges should be ones that offer everything on your student’s list: financial aid, academic fit and an emotional connection. It’s not all about the money, but money sure does make the final decision easier.

Following a whim: the sure-thing colleges

So many students add colleges on a whim just because they can’t decide. This happens more often than not when choosing safety schools. These colleges could end up being one of the colleges that accepts your student or offers most financial aid. Discuss the choices and make sure that these colleges are colleges your student really wants to attend. It will relieve pressure and stress if they offer admission.

Turning illogical choices into logical ones is a delicate balance. Guiding your student in the right direction without forcing is the key. You can help with a college list by defining the following preferences:

Study styles: Is your high school student more comfortable in a structured class or doing independent study? Does your student require an academic challenge or prefer in-class time with little or no additional study?

Money: Your budget plays a huge factor in the decision process. If your budget is tight, will your student consider student loans? And if so, will an expensive private university be worth the debt?

Size: Does your student want small class size or does it matter? Is being part of a large student body appealing or is an intimate setting better?

Location: Does your high school student want to go away to college or stay close by or even live at home? Is your student looking for a cultural experience that a big city offers or a down-home experience provided by a small-town college?

Extracurriculars: Is your student set on joining a sorority or a fraternity? Are these offered at the schools on the list? Are there other activities that are crucial to having a positive college experience (e.g. working on a campus newspaper, participating in intramural sports, studying abroad)?

Academics: Is there a specific major your student is interested in or will a liberal arts degree do? Not every university offers the same academic disciplines.

Career focus: Does your student want to study the culinary arts or fashion design? Consider a school that offers these types of specialized degrees.

Sports: Does the school have a huge sports program or do sports have little impact on your student’s decision?

Competitive or Noncompetitive: Does your student have the resume that will ensure acceptance to a competitive college like Stanford or Princeton? Or would your student be better using a strong academic showing to go to the top of the list at a less-competitive college and qualify for a full or partial scholarship?

Specialized programs: Does your student want to work in a specific field? What about internships, undergraduate research, service learning, and even specialized senior capstone projects (integrating and synthesizing what your student has learned).

Once you and your student are happy with the list, it’s time to apply and wait for the good news: offers of admission. Then the hard part begins: Which college to choose?

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Written by Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parents Countdown to College Coach blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.

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