My first-born will begin her college freshman year later this month.  With over 4,500 colleges and universities in our country, deciding where to attend followed a rigorous, months’ long odyssey that required investigation, perseverance, and sifting through a lot of noise.  Because we didn’t begin sooner, we also had the added pressure of short deadlines.

While information is readily available if you’re willing to invest the energy and time to find it, the college search can be daunting.  I’d like to share some of what we learned with the hope of helping those of you with college in your child(ren)’s future.  These tips are offered to:

  • simplify the process of searching for—and determining—the best college for your child
  • lessen confusion and frustration
  • encourage you to act earlier than we did!
  • possibly even save you money!

1.  Take the lead.

Unless you have a remarkably motivated or driven student, she will decide which college to attend based on her friends’ advice or the prettiest direct mail pieces or websites, then apply in a panic (after scholarship deadlines have passed) to whatever school she can find that is still taking applications.

If you want your child to have diverse college options and scholarship opportunities, you’re going to have to be involved.

Your child needs you now, like she hasn’t in years.

Good communication is crucial during the college search process.  I also see it as a partnership between parent and child, where each has tasks to do and deadlines to meet.

2.  It’s never too early to begin, but if you wait it could be too late.

The ideal time to begin thinking about college is at the beginning of your child’s freshman year in high school (we started late—second semester junior year); not knowing fully what they want to do, but what will be required to get them there so they can choose apply themselves in those areas (i.e., grades, activites, etc.).  The best way to expand options for college choice is to be a well-rounded student.  Grades matter, especially in core classes, but they’re not the only factor; leadership, extracurriculars, sports, work and volunteerism will all contribute to an impressive resume.

Scholarship applications typically have fall deadlines, so if your child waits until his senior year to become active, admissions counselors will have reason to believe it’s only to have something to record for his college resume.

3.  Test, test, and test again.

To qualify for academic scholarships, colleges generally consider a student’s activities and leadership, her GPA, and her ACT or SAT scores. One point on the ACT can mean the difference in qualifying for the next level up for scholarship assistance, meaning a savings of thousands of dollars (I don’t know the equivalent range for SAT scoring).

Our daughter’s second ACT score was two points away from that next level of scholarship money.  We solicited the help of a tutor who coached her in how to better take the test, and helped her focus on her weaker areas.  He charged $40, she scored two points higher, and she was eligible for a scholarship that saved us thousands of dollars over four years.

Re-taking the ACT or SAT multiple times to improve your score is a short-term price (and pain) that has potential to save a ton of money and expand your child’s choices for college.

Photo by rutlo

4.  Do your homework.

Help your child see his strengths, passions and natural aptitudes.  For many, it’s difficult to identify his or her major as a freshman, but it’s important to think about these things early.

Then, tap into invaluable resources:

  • School guidance counselors
  • College Board.  The single-best resource for gaining information about specific colleges and universities, including campus size, gender ratio, faculty-to-student ratio, student body statistics and so, so, SO much more.
  • Student Aid on the Web.  From the U.S. Department of Education, this has information on funding post-high school education.
  • FAFSA. A free application for Federal Student Aid.  “An online tool to provide institutions with an estimated amount of a  family’s financial resources that can be expected to be available for college. It is simply an index that allows an institution to fairly compare families when awarding federal, state and institutional financial aid.” (Source)
  • Fastweb.  An online portal to search for scholarships, some of which are very creative.

5.  Due diligence.

Keep in mind that searching for a college is usually a season with a happy ending!  If you want to help your son or daughter maximize options for choice and scholarship, it will require work from both of you.  But I promise, every minute of research, each word penned for an essay, all the effort spent on constructing a solid resume, the hours spent in preparing for and taking standardized tests, and every moment spent in prayer will make a difference.

We’re living proof.

Note: For the sake of brevity, I’ve shared just a portion of our experience.  My work-in-progress, an ebook titled “Simplifying the Search for College:  A Parent-Child Guidebook,” is on track for an October publication!  If you’d like to receive an alert when it’s available, please let me know by confidentially sharing your email here.  I’ll go into additional details for the suggestions included in this post, plus cover topics like making the most of campus visits, samples and suggestions for what to include on a college resume, tuition negotiation, and more!  If you have questions you’d like covered, be sure to leave a comment.

As a parent, what part of the college search seems the most intimidating? Overwhelming? Exciting?