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The College List: A Practical Guide for Building an Informed and Balanced List of Colleges for Students, and yes, Parents.

by Kathy de Jong, Independent Educational Consultant

Part 1 – Pre-List Preparation

The realization that college is just around the corner is just hitting many high school juniors as they start sitting for SAT’s and ACT’s. And the fact is, many do not have a clue where they want to go to college or what they want to study. Others, made the decision on where they want to attend years ago based on a college’s big sports championship or because that’s the college their parents attended. For them, no other schools are being considered. For yet others, it’s as simple as following their best friend or girlfriend to their favorite state school assuming any college that has a party will do. If you fall in any of these categories, it’s time to get real about this important decision. If you have given it some thought, maybe it’s time to revisit what is important to you and your family when making this decision.

Going to college is one of the biggest commitments of your life. The college you choose will be your home for at least four years. Does it make sense to move somewhere for four years without understanding the pro’s and con’s of the school or the area? College will most likely set you or your parents back tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars, particularly if the school list is not done with financial considerations in mind. There is more to it than just going to the school with the lowest price tag or just because “it’s my dream school.”

To summarize, building a solid college list is important, it’s complicated and it doesn’t happen overnight. So how do you get started on the process to ensure you find the colleges that is best suited for you and your application?

Start with a two-way dialog about expectations – Every parent has dreams about where their child will go to college, but you have dreams of your own, and they may not be consistent with your parents. It’s time to talk. Sometime in the sophomore year of high school is probably a good time to start the conversation. If your parents have financial restrictions, it’s best to get that out in the open early. If you wants to attend a school on the opposite coast, offer some good reasons why. (Hint: for best results, the answer is not to get as far away from home as possible!)  It’s easier and more productive to have the conversations long before the list is completed and the acceptance letters have arrived. Unpleasant arguments may be avoided!

Visit colleges – It’s hard for students to know what they want in the way of a college if they haven’t been on any campuses. And since each college has its own look, offerings and vibe, the more colleges you visit, within reason, the more ready you will be able to determine the criteria by which you will base your college decision. Criteria may include the size of the school, undergraduate majors and programs, traditional campus or urban setting, geographic location, influence of greek life, residential and other facilities, importance of college sports, etc. Saving official visits and campus tours for the summer after sophomore year or during the junior year make sense, but taking a road-trip detour while on vacation, visiting relatives or going across town, as early as middle school, can help formulate your preferences.  Again, have a discussion about making visits with a parent or guardian.

Start a college notebook/journal to collect information – At some point, the information about colleges will become overwhelming. Create a system for collecting and organizing college information. When you visit a college or college fair, immediately journal about your experience including the pro’s and con’s of the school, names of contacts, things to research, etc. The notebook can be online, but be sure to have a folder (maybe a box) for brochures and handouts.

Don’t get too excited about receiving a slew of emails and letters from colleges – At some point after taking the PSAT or Pre-ACT you may start getting what seems to be personalized emails and letters from colleges expressing their love for you, the excellent student, and how their campus is the best place on earth.  With few exceptions, these are simply marketing materials sent to thousands of students designed to entice you to learn more about their school.  If you have time, skim through the letters and mark them yes, no or maybe and put them in a box for later reference.  If a “yes” or a “maybe” college is on the way to grandma’s, you may want to spend an hour on campus to get a feel for it and to pick up some information, but it’s not time to evaluate it as an option just yet.

In our next blog, we’ll talk about what criteria to consider when building your college list.  

College in 3-2-1 provides comprehensive college preparation services for high school students including high school course selection, college research and list development, application assistance, essay consultation, and financial aid, extra-curricular and summer enrichment counseling.

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