Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

How to Build a College List

“The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want.” -Ben Stein.

Building one’s list of prospective colleges is the key first step in the college admissions process. If an applicant’s list is appropriate, the college process will be far less stressful than it could otherwise be. How can you best help your high school junior assemble his or her college list?

SAT1. When? The general rule of thumb is January of junior year. This is because your family will have the two most important pieces of data for building the college list: (1) predictive test scores and (2) a robust aggregate of high school grades. By January, your student has received the first piece of formal feedback on standardized testing, the 11th Grade PSAT/NMSQT (many schools also administer the PSAT in 10th Grade, but since students don’t always prepare for that exam, it may not be predictive of future performance). Your student has also received one marking period of junior year grades; a cumulative GPA can be calculated for freshman and sophomore years, with a rough estimate of what the cumulative GPA through end of junior year will be. The three year cumulative GPA and PSAT/NMSQT score can determine a range of realistic colleges.

FOOTBALL2Serious high school athletes hoping to be recruited to play college sports are an exception; they must start the planning process much earlier than January of junior year. With the guidance of the high school athletic director, varsity coach, and club coach, your son or daughter should participate in sports camps beginning freshman year, to: (a) improve skills, (b) evaluate one’s own competitiveness, (c) showcase one’s talents for college scouts who attend these camps.

schoollist2. How many schools? The widespread usage of electronic applications such as Common App has made it possible for students to easily apply to many more institutions than “back in the day.” The National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC)‘s national admissions trend survey, the State of College Admission 2014 Report, estimated that in 2013,  32 percent of students submitted seven or more applications (versus 17 percent in 2005 and 9 percent in 1990). These data offer a clue as to one of the many reasons the college process has become so competitive!

Does this mean your son or daughter must apply to seven or eight schools (or fifteen, like some applicants)? Absolutely not. The number of schools is driven by individual situation. If your student is applying to a highly specific kind of program, offered by a limited number of schools in the desired geography, and those schools are realistic targets, perhaps your student will apply to, say, only three or four schools. Families sometimes feel nervous about such an approach, but why apply to schools that don’t meet your criteria, just to populate a list?

decisonRemember that the college list will inevitably evolve, as your student’s goals, preferences, and credentials become more fine-tuned throughout junior spring, summer and senior fall. This  list is just a starting point. I recommend a sequential strategy to my clients, where they apply to several schools in the fall, such as Early Decision (if appropriate) or Early Action. Based on taking a hard look at feedback from the fall round, more schools can be added for the spring round, which include Regular Decision and potentially Early Decision II schools. Or an early round acceptance may be the top choice (in which case, the applicant is DONE!). Think of it more like a decision tree, versus firing off eight applications simultaneously at the starting gate.

3. Which dimensions should be considered?

bullseyeSelectivity: Institutional prestige will always be an important factor in college choice. For a quarter of a million dollars (total four-year cost), it is not unreasonable for a family to aspire for their son or daughter to attend a college with a sufficiently strong reputation to yield a reasonable return on investment. It is essential, however, to ensure that every school on the list is not a reach. I recommend only one reach, and the applicant should be within striking distance of that reach (with the ability to “clinch” it through special factors such as Early Decision). Reach, target and likely schools can be identified through a proprietary system like the one we use at Position U 4 College, your high school’s Naviance system, and BigFuture by College Board. It is important to use all the tools at your disposal, and to take serious direction from the statistics they offer. For more information, view my video: “Finding Your Target Colleges.”

Education savingsAffordability: The family financial situation, estimate of Expected Family Contribution, availability of need-based aid or merit scholarships, and a rough guess at future debt under each school alternative should be considered early in the game. Otherwise, your student may “fall in love” with an institution that you cannot afford. After running the numbers, if you do not believe you will qualify for need-based aid but will have difficulty affording college without merit scholarships, your student needs to consider colleges where: (a) he or she will be a top academic applicant and (b) the school spells out availability of scholarships. Early Decision, a binding admissions plan, is not advisable if you need to compare financial packages from several schools.

stadiumcrowdPublic or private university, or liberal arts college: These key distinctions are important to understand when creating the initial college list. U.S. public institutions are state universities founded and operated by state governments; every state has at least one public university. Many U.S. universities and colleges are private, operated as educational and research nonprofit organizations. Liberal arts colleges, which are mostly private, emphasize a general knowledge curriculum, versus professional, vocational, or technical studies. Public school tuition costs less than private, and in-state is less than out-of-state. While private school tuition is egregiously high, families generally will pay less than sticker price due to the application of institutional scholarships. All three alternatives offer pros and cons in terms of the academic experience.

  africamhardhatAcademic program: The student’s likely major or general academic interests will drive the college selection process.  If a student’s field of study choices are in flux (the rule rather than the exception for high school juniors), one should identify universities with program flexibility to accommodate further inevitable mind-changing. If your student is considering business but not certain, make sure the universities on his or her list have business schools (liberal arts colleges usually do not; they will have economics but that is it). If your student is considering engineering but not certain, he or she should choose a university with a school of engineering or perhaps a 3-2 program. US News & World Report can offer rankings of specific programs within undergraduate institutions, such as business and engineering.

stadiumsilhouettecheeerSize and student-faculty ratio: High school students’ ideas of size are somewhat cartoonish. When a student says, “I want BIG!” he or she might mean a brand name university with national supremacy in college sports and “rah-rah” school spirit. There is nothing wrong with desiring a spectator sports experience during one’s college years, but families need to discuss whether the student will be able to thrive in a large university the size of a city, with tens of thousands of undergraduates. My rule of thumb: the bigger the student body, the more inner-directed the student needs to be in order to succeed. Sometimes a student from a small private high school, sick of classmates with whom he or she has grown up, declares in frustration, “No more small schools!” But if the student has thrived in that small high school, where teachers and advisors are accessible and classmates are familiar, why mess with success? An enormous, anonymous student body and a poor student-faculty ratio might not be ideal for a college freshman who has come from a small, personal high school community.

Physical campus and urban, suburban or rural setting: For the initial college list, I do not recommend clinging too tenaciously to your student’s pre-conceived notions, unless he or she has already visited several campuses with older siblings. Advise your teen to keep an open mind and include schools from several settings on the list to visit.

harvardsnowDistance from home, geographic region, and climate/weather: You know your teen, and your teen knows his or her comfort level. A Northeast student who struggles academically, socially or emotionally should probably not head off to California, with its distance that requires air travel and its time zone which makes it difficult to come home on long weekends. I recommend that some students expand their compass, since the college years are great for exploring new regions of the country rather than being provincial, but only if it is likely that the student is psychologically hardy enough to thrive living far from home. Weather should definitely be taken into account; some individuals may suffer from seasonal affective disorder and others might not have the discipline to study when the sun is out and the surf is up. 

shrinkgirlSupport services: If your student has physical, learning, or emotional challenges, or any kind of medical or mental health issues, make sure to build these dimensions into the college list criteria. Do the prospective schools require standardized testing; if so, will your student be able to get any needed accommodation? Would your student be more likely to gain admission to a test-optional college? Do the prospective schools offer not only appropriate structured programs, but also a supportive atmosphere that cares about the individual (versus one-size-fits-all support)? Your student’s challenges may require attending a college near home for medical or mental health treatment, or simply for frequent visits home.

Additional dimensions, such as social atmosphere and extracurricular activities, should be considered in the course of visiting the campuses, rather than at the beginning of college list-making based on pre-conceived notions that are most likely not accurate.