the college application process: starting the college search (part one)

Tuesday, October 9, 2018
When I asked readers for topic suggestions, several people asked me to share how we handle the college search.  I know this will not be of interest to some readers but since we are in the midst of this process with Harry, I thought it would be a great time to write about it as it is very fresh in my mind. This will be a series of posts because it is a long process. Also, I am not a college consultant. I am a Mom who has gone through it twice.  With my counseling background, I have considered applying for a job as a college counselor because I love this process but I am certainly not a expert.  I am simply sharing how we have done it and what has worked for our family. There is more than one way to approach the college search.

Let me start by saying I do not think that the four year college experience is for everyone.  I used to think it was for most kids but I have seen so many kids suffer and drop out and experience extreme anxiety and depression being far from home and trying to make college work. As a parent, I think being open minded and really listening to your child is very important. We want our kids to be happy and independent and there are many routes to that place.

I think community college is a wise start for many people.  It is economical and for some kids the whole moving to college thing is overwhelming.  There is A LOT of drug and alcohol use at college (more than I ever imagined) and for some kids who struggle with those issues or don't want to be around that, community college is an excellent starting place too. Also, many kids have no idea what they want to study when they are 18.  My boys have/had so many AP credits that they kind of had to pick a major very quickly.  That was very intimidating for Will and he shifted his major around a few times within science (biology, geology and environmental earth science).  Starting at a community college buys you some time to explore majors and save money while doing so. So, my suggestion is not to rule it out immediately.

I also think other options like a gap year, the military, culinary school, heating and air conditioning and plumbing certifications are great options for kids these days. I know that is not the mindset a lot of parents have but honestly, I want my kids to be able to make a living and love their life and work.  I am not going to be a snob about how they do that as long as they are fulfilled. One kid we know is studying to repair airplanes instead of going to college and he will earn more more than most people (six figures) doing what he loves.  I think that is awesome!

So, here is how we start.  We try NOT to talk about college much at all freshmen year.  It is a stressful year simply adjusting to high school.  The high school our boys went to is a very rigorous college prep school.  It is challenging.  All the kids are talking about Stanford freshmen year and comparing PSAT scores and they are stressed enough.  So, we just let them get used to high school and do not talk about college this year. They do take a PSAT in October but that is about it for our mentions of college and college prep.

Starting sophomore year, I attend the college fair at their high school with our kids just to get some names and places on their radar. We walk around, grab brochures and talk to the reps but it is very low key. There are so many incredible schools out there and most kids have not heard of lots of them.  This is great opportunity to get the information while they are not stressed about it. Similarly, if we are traveling and we are around a college, we might take a peek but it is pretty casual. They also take another PSAT in October of this year and a practice ACT at their high school.

Junior year is when we kick things up in our house. As a parent, I have two goals for junior year with our kids.  One is to have regular discussions about what they are looking for in a college and the other is to get the testing process going and hopefully completed.  My next post will be all about the SAT and ACT but know that we do all of that prep and testing junior year.

So, starting in the fall of junior year we have regular meetings with our child.  They are typically on Sunday afternoons because that is a time when we are home and relaxed (but definitely not every week).  We start by brain storming some things they might want to study and career options.  You have to let your child be the one coming up with the ideas.  So many parents tell their kids what to major in and that typically ends badly.  I used to be a college professor and I had so many kids I advised that were doing poorly and hated their major.  When I asked them why they were an accounting major, they said "My Dad told me to major in it so I'll always have a job."  I get the reasoning (from Dad) but these kids were miserable.  I cannot imagine my kids doing a job they hate for the rest of their lives.  I see enough adults in my practice with that problem.

Certainly, we cannot expect our kids to know exactly what they want to study BUT some colleges don't offer everything.  For example, Babson only offers business classes and Georgia Tech is limited in its scope as well (these are simply two examples off the top of my head).  They're excellent schools for specific majors but not for others. So, we want our kids to identify a few areas that they might major in because there is no point in looking at schools that do not offer the programs your child is interested in.  That might seem 100% intuitive but I know so many families that are alumni of a certain school and they want their kid to go there but don't even know if they have a good program in the desired major.  Or people assume a large reputable university has everything.  That is simply not true.  Plus, our goal is to get them to consider lots of possibilities in the beginning for both major and university. So we have them generate lists of what they might want to study.  This was really a challenge for Will as he was not sure. He had several ideas but not one specific major in mind.  And that is fine.  You look for schools that offer all of the areas of study.  I don't think it is wise to push a kid to pick a major at 17 or 18 but they typically can identify a few possible areas they are interested in.  Harry knew immediately it would be entrepreneurship.  That made step one easy for him:)

In these meetings, we listen to what our kids think they are interested in and we give feedback about strengths we see in them and how that could relate to a major or a career.  We have also set up lunches and conversations with adults we know in these various fields so they can ask questions and learn more. Honestly, our kids didn't always like this but I think looking back they appreciated it. We were introducing them to networking which is crucial. We really see this time as one of exploring possibilities.  Once they identify possible areas of study, we move onto the next phase.

Before I get to the next phase, Dave and I have homework as well in this process  While our kids are thinking about a handful of possible areas of study, we examine our finances.  We have saved/invested to send 3 kids to college but some colleges are $22,000 and some are $75,000 a year.  Dave and I look at the college fund and come up with a range we are comfortable paying.  We let our child know that they are welcome to apply to schools that are much more expensive but they have to find scholarships to make it affordable for our family. And you'd be surprised to learn that many of the private schools or out of state schools offer enough scholarships to make them competitive with in-state tuition if your child has good test scores and an above average GPA.  Will has so many scholarships that his out of state school is less than both his high school tuition was and in-state university options. My suggestion is to visit the school websites and look for merit based aid and typically you can see what your child would be eligible for based on their current GPA and test scores.  Not every school gives that information but many do.  I think it is really important to be honest and clear about the budgetary part of this with your child. This is one reason our kids did not apply to any Ivy league schools, they do not give academic scholarships and they cost more than we were willing to pay. We do not qualify for financial aid. We'd like our kids to graduate debt free and remain that way ourselves. This is an excellent time to teach your child about fiscal responsibility.

Our next phase is having the child identify factors they seek in a college.  I want them to pick a university based on the attributes rather than the name.  I want them to pick a place they will feel safe and comfortable and thrive. We have them consider things like, do they want to be in a city or small town or in between?  Do they want to stay close or go far away?  Do they want a small school, medium or large?  Will they have good research opportunities or internships nearby? Do they want a religious affiliation?  Do they want Greek life?  Is it in our budget (or will it be with merit scholarships)? Are they interested in a study abroad program?  Do they want a "football" school (lots of kids want this college football game/tailgating experience but some kids don't care.)? Is there a region of the country they prefer? Are they a competitive applicant given their GPA and test scores? Will claimed he would only apply to southern schools. Ha!  He picked a northern school.  Harry only applied only to schools in warm climates even though there are tons of top business schools up North.  He loathes the cold and knew he did not want months of gray winters.  They may not have all the answers to these questions but it is good to get them thinking about it.

Finally, we have them generate a list of about 10-12 schools that offer the areas of study they are interested in and includes the factors they deem important.  The way they generate that list is up to them.   We have tons of books to reference, they use their school Naviance program and the internet. I think Harry googled the best entrepreneur programs.  From that search, Babson and the University of Houston are both in the top five.  He ruled out Babson mostly because Boston=cold weather and University of Houston is too local. One compromise school was Baylor.  It is ranked very highly for the entrepreneur program but he prefers to be in a city.  So he is visiting and applying and might end up there. They weigh each factor carefully against the others.  We have told our boys it is about finding a fit.  There is not one "perfect school."  You look for a handful that have a lot of the things you want.

The reason we have them generate a list of 10-12  schools is that ideally we want them to choose about 5-6 schools to apply to that we can afford, that they will likely get accepted to and that they will be happy to attended. They research and consider the 10-12 and narrow it down later in the application stage.  In the end, Will applied to 8 or 9 schools and was accepted at all of them with academic scholarships.  Harry has applied to 8 schools so far and we think he is done. This is definitely more that I think is necessary but several schools waived the application fees so they applied to some that were "maybes."

My boys did not always love the meetings and the "homework" we gave them to research areas of study and colleges.  They rolled their eyes and complained sometimes.  But often another parent or teacher would remind them how lucky they were that we were guiding them.  Both of their guidance counselors were amazed at how ahead of the process and well prepared they were. The ultimate choice is up to the child where to go but we felt like we needed to help guide them to figure out the best options. And honestly I enjoy helping them with this.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions so far. I really value your comments and feedback.

Next up--how we handled the ACT and the SAT. Then, I will post about getting the most of the college tours.  And finally I will post the actual application phase, essays and a timeline.


  1. Excellent post Kim! I agree and applaud everything you wrote. I have a few caveats and advice to add though. If your child is going to a Community College to save money please make sure the credit will be accepted by the college they are thinking of transferring to. Often CC are perceived as remedial high schools(not my words) and the credit is not transferred at the same value.
    Also check the accreditation of the school whether it is Regional or National Accreditation. There is a difference and though National sounds better grad schools prefer Regional accreditation as it is more rigorous.
    I’m out of space so I’ll post again.

  2. Part 2
    Finally another idea to assess interest in a possible career is have them attend educational summer camps that have a career focus. Since Jr. High we had our daughter attend them and it really helped her understand what a particular career really entailed. Ironically the fields that we thought would be great fits weren’t and another camp in a field we never imagined she would embrace, inspired her! Though these college based camps can be costly we felt it was better to test the waters now than for her to change majors in college at an even greater cost. Also your child might be locked out of transferring into say Engineering school if they were accepted as a Business major. Hope that helps! I love how a College Applications Educator described the whole process. “Getting into a college is not a prize to be won but a fit to be made”. How true!

  3. i always thought I would have a child who graduated from college. When we found out she was special needs, that became a big hurdle that we weren't sure how she would navigate. This summer we had a porch built and she fell in love with construction. My 65 pound 14 year old, loves the heavy work and being outside all day. She eagerly awaits high school when she can have more formal training and has convinced our builders they should hire her when she graduates. I am beyond happy she has a plan that makes her happy and excited. I work to change my paradigm of what success looks like. Thanks for mentioning it in your post. It reaffirms for me, we are helping her make the best decision for her.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Deb! Yes I think many people have this one notion of their child's path but it might no be the best path. College is not the only way to success or happiness. I am SO glad your daughter found something she loves. We need our porch rebuilt so badly but it is hard to find contractors willing to do small jobs in Houston since the Hurricane.

  4. I have eight years or so before I start worrying about college for my boys, but this is so helpful! Thanks so much!

    1. Thank you for the comment, Pam. I was reluctant to write this series but so many people asked me to write about this. I am really hoping it is helpful. Enjoy these years.

  5. Great post. I am the Director of a Transfer Center @ a major research university. Many states have articulation agreements on public web sites that detail how community college classes transfer to the public colleges/universities in the state. It is super helpful to check this information because the money savings disappear fast when credits are not able to be transferred! Just google "name of state" transfer articulation agreements for reliable information that can prevent lots of unforeseen stress. 100% agree that community colleges can be a soft landing for many students who, for whatever reason, choose to ease into college.

    1. Thank you for that feedback. I know my sons college recommends Transferology to double check this. Excellent point!

  6. My first baby is about to turn one year and this seems so far off. But I know it goes super fast. I remember when I started reading your blog and the boys were so young! It feels like yesterday!! This was a great read.

    1. Why thank you. And yes it goes so quickly. I am sure the college application process will change dramatically by the time your baby applies but some of the principles are timeless. Enjoy each moment. The time flies.


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