Reality, fit and substance — How to create the ultimate college list


By Robin Noble

My high school junior’s college search is going in a maze of directions as she works to create a list of schools for serious consideration. The list is important and timely. She will use it to decide which schools to visit this spring with limited time and travel dollars.

Lately I sense she is a touch overwhelmed. I wonder: how can I help my daughter figure out which schools will be a good fit for her?

Like you, I’m up on the feel-good wisdom here: be positive, let your student be her own guide, encourage her to let the process flow from within. All good thoughts, but parents certainly have some important roles to play.

You are the voice of financial reality.

Before your student gets her heart set, get clear on what your family can afford. Take half an hour to work through the “net price calculator” available on most school websites, or use the FAFSA4caster to estimate federal student aid. These tools calculate your family’s financial need — essentially the difference between the college sticker price and what the formula says you are able to contribute.

Net price calculators don’t assess potential merit aid — institutional money set aside for students based on varying factors like GPA, standardized test scores, advanced courses, etc. Some institutions include merit calculators on their websites; many do not. To learn how specific schools determine merit aid, don’t hesitate to call the admissions office and ask.

With net price and merit aid estimates in hand, your student’s list can be more economically viable. If you and she have assumed that private scholarships and loans will fill gaps, the amounts you are supposing are now clearer, and that’s a good thing.

Proximity, geography, philosophy. Help determine her fundamental qualifiers.

When my daughter mentions a school, I try to think of who in our circle might know more about it. Friends and family are a productive source of trusted insider views.

With nearly 5,000 US institutions of higher learning, curating a list of 10-20 target schools is much easier once she establishes her definitive must-haves. Many high schools make tools like Naviance available to help students find complementary schools. College Board has a nice online survey tool as well.

It’s true enough that your student needs to develop her list without much input from you. As we all know, off-the-cuff parental comments — negative or positive — often produce a resistant response. But it’s not unconstructive to suggest that your rock-climbing, anti-makeup, competition-averse junior consider the culture of that elite southern university, where 86% of students belong to fraternities and sororities.

Go beyond the official pitch.

College brochures, videos, websites, and personal letters are fun to peruse, but they soon stream into an endless infomercial. Drawing distinctions gets more difficult by the dispatch. Ranking lists have become ubiquitous, even silly, and still manage to miss schools that might be a great place for your student.

Websites with anonymous student reviews are fun to read but tricky to interpret. Run-of-the-mill rants include complaints on campus culture (“you will HATE it here unless you’re rich and hot”), administrative shortcomings (“the financial aid office is a nightmare”), and dorm living (“the heat is out . . . again”). Raves can seem coaxed and overly cheery. Still, there are some nuggets of insight here that you might not find anywhere else.

When my daughter mentions a school, I try to think of who in our circle might know more about it. Friends and family are a productive source of trusted insider views. Think aunts and uncles, older siblings of friends, work colleagues and others who either have personal knowledge or can refer her to their own contacts.

Take the long view.

In Six Ways Parents Can Help With the College Search, Daniel Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, advises parents to “worry productively. When you sense a rising tide of anxiety, find a way to stay steady and keep things in perspective. That’s a huge way parents can help.”

“Our children may not control where they go to college, but they control how. That is their true power,” he writes. “Remembering this fact can lower everyone’s stress — and hopefully bring some excitement into the process.”