College Admissions 101
January 23, 2015 7:12 AM   Subscribe

My oldest child is currently a sophomore in high school. She is an excellent student, getting very good grades, in advanced classes. She is doing a great job. I can see the college admissions process heading our way. Her high school's guidance department does have an info night, which we will attend. But what I am looking for is not info on specific schools, but resources on how to approach the whole college admissions/applications process in a thoughtful, sane way. Books, videos, interviews, websites, who is worth listing to, who/what is best avoided?
posted by anonymous to Education (39 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
So I applied to college about seven years ago. I can't remember everything about it, but I'll try to share what I do recall about the process. I was a fairly high-achieving high school student in some ways (took ten AP courses, always in the honors class where I had a choice, wrote well and had very high SAT scores) and in other ways, maybe not so much (had about a 3.3 average unweighted, had relatively few extracurriculars).

I wound up going to my state's flagship university, which was my "safety school," and regret absolutely nothing about that decision. That said, my dad got really into the whole application thing, made me apply to nearly ten different places, and generally sulked when I said that I was completely uninterested in some of the options he thought I should be interested in. He also was not totally thrilled when I kept saying that I would really rather not have loans than go to a big-name place for undergrad--I think he got a little caught up in the parental "oooh my kid is so much better than your kid" one-upping about where assorted kids were going to school. Maybe try to avoid doing that.

Avoid College Confidential's forums; when I was applying for colleges, they were full of neurotic overachievers trying to figure out how to get themselves into the most prestigious possible school. They were a great source of anxiety and panic for me, personally, and also great about making people feel bad for their choice of schools unless it was preferably an Ivy or, suboptimally, an expensive private school a tier down or so.

My experience as a recent grad has been that it is way more awesome not to have any student debt than it would have been to come from a university with a lot of prestige and name brand recognition. (I have no debt from a combination of parents paying my room and board and a generous local state scholarship called the HOPE scholarship that paid my tuition as long as I kept above a 3.0.) I never felt I had any less quality of education at a good state school than I would have had at a smaller liberal arts place, and I had access to a lot of opportunities like undergraduate research and very good mentoring at the bigger place that I think I didn't realize would be available outside a small liberal arts college.

Overall, though, college is what you make of it. There's a whole lot of hype out there about picking the OMG VERY BEST COLLEGE FOR YOU EVER, but I think the school itself matters a lot less than how a given student uses the resources in it to succeed. I would make sure to be very, very realistic about how much you can afford to pay vs how many loans your kid will need to take, and have frank discussions about what is worth extra sticker prices and what isn't.
posted by sciatrix at 7:25 AM on January 23, 2015 [13 favorites]

College Navigator is the best single resource and a great starting point. It is provided by the US Dept of Ed, so you avoid a lot of hype and misinformation, especially regarding financial aid.

I will also plug Washington Monthly's alternative ranking guide, which ranks schools based on their "contribution to the public good", and also offers many resources related to affordability/bang for your buck.
posted by susanvance at 7:47 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would make sure to be very, very realistic about how much you can afford to pay vs how many loans your kid will need to take, and have frank discussions about what is worth extra sticker prices and what isn't.

I would argue the reverse -- you should almost completely ignore the "sticker price" of posted tuition rates when choosing where to apply to. Many notionally expensive private schools have very generous aid programs, and many states have state universities with relatively high tuition and very limited aid. When I was at Duke, I once had a student from Virginia who was at Duke because after aid, Duke was substantially cheaper than UVa or William and Mary, even as an in-state student. This is not some rare thing; tuition at Harvard for middle class families is $0. Many schools have net-price calculators you can look at that will either guesstimate the actual cost for a given level of family income or just tell you what the average or median student actually paid. Rather than "This is very expensive, don't apply there," I'd suggest a frank "Apply by all means, but we can't afford this school unless a good aid package comes through."

Applications are cheap, so send lots, from safety schools to a couple-few schools that seem like pie in the sky dreams, because a low probability is more than zero.

Mostly just relax. Especially if your kid is choosing from Big State U and "up," then honestly it's really hard to screw up choosing a school; wherever your kid goes, she will probably like it a lot, get a lot out of it, etc. It's really hard for your daughter's decision to attend $SCHOOL to ruin her life.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:53 AM on January 23, 2015 [13 favorites]

I applied to college about 11 years ago. I was valedictorian and star student (highest SAT) with varsity sports and a pile of extracurriculars, coming out of an absurdly small school with shit competition.

My only goal in choosing a college was to get the hell out of Georgia. We had this large wall map and I literally put my elbow where I lived and swept my forearm in an arc across the country and vowed I wouldn't go anywhere that fell inside that area. Sorry, southeastern United States.

My mom went kind of nuts with the college application process and I applied to 12 schools, most of them top tier. If my dad and I had had our way it probably would have been 7 or 8. My mom had an additional 5 or 6 schools she wanted me to apply to so believe it or not 12 was the reasonable compromise. (Do not apply to 12 schools, it will make you crazy and your kid will hate you.) My mom spent a lot of time cruising the college confidential forums. They made her nuts. Don't do that.

If you haven't been doing college visits already, now is the time to start. We visited colleges on every family trip we took since I was old enough to talk.

Anyway, even with as great of a candidate as I was, I still got waitlisted at probably half of the places I applied. (There were some extenuating circumstances with my school's college counselor who hated me, but that's a story for another day.) I went and had interviews several places ($$$ to go out there, would not recommend unless you're 90%+ sure you want to go there) and would have been bumped off the waitlist several places had I pursued them. In the end all it took was a prospective student overnight at one particular school and I was completely sold.

So, bullet points:
- be reasonable and realistic
- if the college has some special addendum to the common app or has their own application, put a lot of care into those
- start forming closer relationships with the teachers who will write your recommendations now (Seriously my teachers loved me, and it wasn't because I was a good student or a suck up. It was because I was stuck at school a lot and bored (waiting for those extracurriculars to start) and would go hang out in my teachers' classrooms and just talk to them as people. I had amazing recs from all my teachers.)
- make a timeline/mark up a calendar with important due dates etc. You really don't want to cram all of it until the last minute, and if you're applying early action to anywhere, the decision deadlines for those are important.
posted by phunniemee at 8:01 AM on January 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Applications are cheap, so send lots

I somewhat disagree with this. Essays aren't always make-or-break in the college application, because transcripts, difficulty of coursework, and talents can override essays, but I would not recommend sacrificing quantity for quality of application, especially if you are applying to several "reach" schools. You would be surprised at how much a good, memorable essay can make a difference when almost all the applicants have the same community service, school activity participation, and nearly identical transcripts.

The best book I have come across that talks about how to write a good college application essay is Harry Bauld's On Writing the College Application Essay.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 8:02 AM on January 23, 2015

Building on what sciatrix wrote, what does your daughter want to do? Does she even know at this point? What does she expect college will be? How does she study, and what is she looking for in terms of interactions with professors? And how will she be paying for college?

Personally, my interest was in a limited field (landscape architecture), so my options were limited from the beginning. I also met a lot of people who had no idea what they wanted to do after college, so they were in college a year or two longer because they changed majors. I also know people who spent a few years in community colleges, getting their basic classes out of the way in smaller classrooms and trying out some intro courses in fields that interested them, saving thousands of dollars in the process. Also, keep an eye out for the professor:student ratios, if your daughter might want direct time or assistance from a prof regarding coursework or professional advice/assistance. It's hard to make a connection when you're one of 800 students in a huge auditorium.

As for the "college experience," that may be lacking at a community college, but is also missing from some universities. Then again, your daughter might not be looking for that sort of thing. And then there's what happens after undergrad - will she need some additional program to get a degree, or be competitive in her possible field? If so, in many cases, the undergrad school doesn't matter as much as the grades and other college-period products (extra-curriculars and in-course work), which may be easier to produce in a smaller college rather than a large college with prestige but a terrible professor:student ratio for many classes.

In short, my advice is to step back from the admissions process, and focus on what your daughter wants from college, and then look at what it could cost.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:03 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think the person most worth listening to is your daughter. Let her figure out which schools seem interesting and offer the things she wants to be involved with. I worked for my school's orientation program and saw a lot of people coming through. The students who were most excited were the ones who found the school for themselves and wanted to attend for themselves, rather than because "my folks wanted me to go here."

Be supportive and proofread her essays if she wants or whatever, but college will offer a whole lot of independence, and choosing one is a good place for that independence to start.
posted by papayaninja at 8:03 AM on January 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

Applications are cheap

Really? I remember $50-80 application fees as being pretty standard. Do we maybe have different definitions of cheap?
posted by sciatrix at 8:05 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Applications are cheap

Yeah, this is false. The one thing the college process is not is cheap. You can apply for a hardship waiver for most colleges to waive the application fee, but you have to actually have such financial hardship that $80 isn't possible. (They don't care how many schools you're applying to.)

My family easily spent $2000 just on the application/interview process. Probably more.
posted by phunniemee at 8:16 AM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I also applied to college about 7 years ago, and my strategy at the time was to apply only to schools I really wanted to go to, then accept the best aid offer I got. I ended up at an insanely expensive small liberal arts college, but because of the aid package I graduated with the same amount of loans as my high school friend who went to our state's flagship university (and she had more family support than I had).

The most important thing is to talk to your daughter about what she's inerested in and what kind of experience she wants. I went to a huge suburban high school and I wanted a more intimate experience in college, and I wanted to get out of my state, so I did the small liberal arts thing. I also really valued a flexible curriculum; I didn't want to take two semesters of math to get a psychology degree, or have to take a US history class. On the other hand, I could have gotten my intimate experience and stayed in state, if I'd wanted to, by doing my state school's honors programs. It's worth starting the conversation now and figuring out what she really values, not just what particular school or type of school she's interested in.
posted by MadamM at 8:22 AM on January 23, 2015

Princeton Review College Guide was my bible in high school.

To this day, I am terrible when it comes to personal essays, and what I really needed was a guide on writing them. My friends own "The Art of the Personal Essay," but I don't know how helpful it will be for college essays. Too many "featured" college essays you come across in many discussion favor "clever" over "good." Reading a lot of good college-application-specific essays will do a lot of good.

On campus interviews matter more than local alumni interviews. Do both if they are available.

College Confidential is great if you ARE an ambitious overachiever.
posted by deanc at 8:25 AM on January 23, 2015

1. Have your daughter pre-write some application essays now. They can always be updated when the time comes, but Junior and Senior year can be harder, especially if there are AP and Honors classes (and there should be) and having the things 80% knocked out will be a godsend. If she has a favorite English teacher, perhaps you can ask that person to help with editing and proofreading. This will eliminate the inevitable bad feelings between your daughter and you, should YOU decide to proofread. Teachers know how to help, parents typically re-write. Guess which essays are more successful.

2. School tours are good, but you should probably sit down with your daughter and find out what SHE wants in a university experience. She may not be ready to be far from home, or she may want to do the whole, ivy covered bricks-quad-dorm thing. No matter what, it's good. I will say that for me, going from a 1200 kid high school (total) to a university with 35,000 students was a real culture shock.

3. Start looking into scholarships now. Not just big ones, but nickel and dime scholarships. I had a bunch of $500, one time scholarships and I could have had more if the internet had been invented when I was a kid.

4. AP Classes. See what's offered, they can be arduous, but they can knock off some serious time and money from an undergrad degree.

5. Sports. If you can convince your daughter to take up a sport, it will enhance her ability to get into schools. Due to Title IX, schools look very favorably on women who might join a team. She doesn't even have to be good at the sport, she just needs to participate. So Golf, Tennis, Cross-Country, Cheerleading, Softball, Volleyball, Basketball or wrestling. Michigan State, Ohio State both offer scholarships for rowing to women. No experience required.

6. Volunteer and Extra Curricular Activities. Your daughter might want to explore some clubs and/volunteer. I was a Candy Striper in high school and I ended up taking an EMT course in Community College in my Senior year of high school because it turned me on so much. I was also in a lot of clubs. Being involved in things other than academics signals to a university that your daughter will mix well with other students and will have a better chance at assimilating into a university environment.

7. SAT. Take it as early as possible. Do well.

8. Major. Some kids know what they want to be when they grow up. Some don't. It's better to declare a major and it's okay if it's something like English (yay!) or Math. These programs won't be as impacted as Nursing or Business Administration. But if she does know, then it's okay to pick a school based on that. But not knowing and picking a popular program will reduce chances of being accepted.

9. Friends. Don't be surprised if she wants to go where her friends are going. It's not a bad thing. It's hard to leave everything behind when you go off to school. It's nice if you already know folks when you get there. A lot of my high school friends went to the same state school. Frankly, we mostly got our scholarships to state schools and there weren't a lot of choices. If she wants to go to school where her boyfriend is going....different thing. May be good, may not. Depends on the reasons.

10. All Female, Historically Black schools. Might be worth considering if applicable. All Female is good because women are all holding important roles on campus and sexual politics will be reduced. Historically Black schools remove that whole 'only black kid in the class' shit, and may feel more comfortable culturally.

11. Jobs. A part-time job or a summer job is valuable experience. Some parents believe that all energy should be spent on academics, but earning money and getting along with others in a work environment is very important.

Now is the time to start discussing and narrowing down. Also, yes, applications are abut $50-$100 apiece, so start saving now.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:42 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just finished with my third in three years applying to colleges. They all chose very different paths. One, applied to and matriculated at my alma mater. She seems as happy as I was there. The second one attends one of the service academies. He has known what he wanted to do since he was 11 years old. The third is actually going to take a gap year after we both decided that spending all that money on college right now is a waste. He wants to work for a year even if it is a menial job.

I think the biggest factors that helped us were friends who had just gone through the process, the HS giving us a login for Naviance, a discussion with each child about geopgraphy (none wanted to stay in the northeast), a discussion about potential career paths, small school big school thoughts, and a discussion with the school's guidance counselor who had many suggestions.

I think I would ask your child's guidance counselor for a meeting. Ask that person the very questions you asked us. They will have many suggestions and resources.
posted by 724A at 8:47 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are good books that give summaries of lots of different colleges, so that you/she can look them over and get a sense of what, if anything, distinguishes them. I think that during spring break of my junior year I toured a bunch of schools -- took the tour, sat in on a class if possible, stayed the night in a dorm room if possible (sometimes your highschool can set you up with an alum, or the admissions folks can arrange it) or at least saw some students alone. You need some way to narrow it down -- level, geography, etc. -- but it's worth visiting a range of schools so that the difference in size, campus feel, and student body type can be appreciated viscerally. But any level of glimpse helps narrow, at the very least, what kinds of factors to keep an eye out for when doing further research. At best, maybe some school really jumps out and is worth applying to early.
posted by acm at 8:49 AM on January 23, 2015

Remind her (and yourselves) that this isn't the MOST IMPORTANT DECISION EVER. You can transfer schools, you can change majors, you can defer and take a gap year, you can go elsewhere for grad school, etc. There are a ton of options and you're not locked in to one path just because it's what you picked when you were 16.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:52 AM on January 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think that your daughter is the one who is most worth listening to. (On preview, I walked away from my computer for a while, and found that papayaninja said exactly the same thing. Note: do not walk away from your computer when composing an answer.) Ask her what does she think a higher education is for, and listen to what she's saying she values. Maybe she values small, discussion-oriented learning. Then head towards small liberal arts colleges. Maybe she's capable of hacking out her space in a large anonymous institution, so she might thrive at a large flagship.

Maybe she values state of the art laboratories that allow undergrads to do research. Then ask about UG research at every place you visit.

Maybe she values not having a huge loan burden at the end of it, and will be willing to look through the
"bang for your buck" articles.

I chose the college that I eventually went to because every single person during the campus visit--admissions reps, faculty, and students--said that the education was challenging. That was what I valued, so I went there.
posted by Liesl at 8:53 AM on January 23, 2015

Really? I remember $50-80 application fees as being pretty standard. Do we maybe have different definitions of cheap?

That's a cheap lottery ticket when the prize is a really good aid package at a dream school.

I don't mean applying to 100 schools, I mean that applying to ten is smarter than applying to two, and that if you can afford the fee and the kid is at least vaguely interested, applying is never a bad idea.

Essays aren't always make-or-break in the college application, because transcripts, difficulty of coursework, and talents can override essays, but I would not recommend sacrificing quantity for quality of application, especially if you are applying to several "reach" schools.

A lot of schools use or accept the common application anyway, so applying to another school takes almost no effort. Even for ones that don't, the essays they ask you to write aren't usually so terribly unique that you have to do something from scratch for each one. This is why I'm a special snowflake, this was the time I overcame something, etc. If there's one that the kid is vaguely-but-not-super interested in and they want some specific essay that would have to be de novo... she could always just not do that one after all.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:55 AM on January 23, 2015

Make sure you know what the requirements are a year ahead of time. I missed applying to my dream school because I waited until the last minute and didn't have one of the test scores they require. I'll always regret that.

But, and this is slightly off-topic, if she doesn't have a career in mind, don't go to a school that has a high NET cost. Nothing's worse than lots of debt and a non-employable degree. Either isn't so bad.
posted by flimflam at 9:04 AM on January 23, 2015

if you can afford the fee and the kid is at least vaguely interested, applying is never a bad idea

Well... applying to a state school as an out of state student is generally a less than great idea, since their tuition is generally very high and aid very restricted, unless the kid is very interested in some specific program they're great at. Otherwise, there's almost certainly a private school that's at least as good in almost very way but that works out much cheaper after aid comes through.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:06 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Based on my own experience the people most worth listening to are the students and employees at the schools you end up visiting and of course your daughter.

I also had one of those "unofficial" "real talk" guidebooks where they published quotes from the students etc and I used that like my bible. Personally I knew a few basic things - like I wanted to be out of state and I didn't want to go to a huge university. Obviously it helps if these things can be determined early so that you can really focus on the actual schools in which she is truly interested.

But again - school visits were the most informative for me - like I stepped onto a few campuses and knew instantly - no way in hell would I be able to go there. The architecture alone was a clincher at a few. But it was the students themselves were the people that really sold me - like hey - that there is a person that I want to BE in a few years.

I was strangely discouraged from even applying to my reach school - my parents refused to visit with me despite it being a short drive away. This still chafes. Especially because I ended up getting in to the top two schools to which I applied so I really wish I'd gotten it together earlier to apply early admission to my reach school.

Honestly - I think my parents were kind of frightened of the whole process in retrospect. For the most part I had to take the lead and it took me a while to realize this. It worked out fairly well but I think it's great you're trying to get into a position where you're ready to take the whole process on.

FWIW my guidance counselor was a very nice person and I used to babysit for her kids but she was woefully under informed when it came to the types of schools that were appropriate for a student like myself. She tried to sell me on schools that were not challenging enough and completely out of character. I don't think she'd even heard of the school I ended up attending which was a seven sister.

Our English instructor was very very helpful at guiding us through the essay process. I got that thing done and ready with her help - she spent a lot of time with us to make sure we had the process under control and that was fabulous. I don't know what the teachers do now - but hopefully this is the case for your daughter.

There's always the squirrel test - my HS French teacher swore that if the campus squirrels are mean and/or scared of you - it's a bad sign. When the squirrels approach you and want a hand out - good sign! Friendly students!
posted by rdnnyc at 9:06 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wrote this blog post last year after my daughter won a substantial scholarship. It might be helpful.

I'm not sure if rdnnyc is joking about the squirrels or not, but the squirrels at my son's school are almost as tame as damn puppies. And everybody at the school seems to be very friendly, so there is that.
posted by COD at 9:25 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

All of the stuff that happens at college will happen wherever your kid ends up. Success, failure, friends, breakups, parties, extra curriculars, etc. Oh, and learning. I took a relaxed approach myself, and ended up at a state school with a very good scholarship package. I could have clawed my way up the USNews scale, but I don't think it would have made much difference in where I am in my life 10 (ok, 15) years later.

My vaguely fatalist approach: Figure out general preferences and aim for places satisfy most of them. Don't obesess over a paticular school. No one will care about where you went to school five years later, except as a general small talk.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 9:30 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have to disagree with the negative comments about College Confidential. When my kids were applying to college, I found the Parents Forum to be extremely helpful.

I also recommend Loren Pope's book Colleges That Save Lives and the accompanying website.

This may be obvious to you, but one piece of advice that comes up often on College Confidential is to make sure your child has a good mix of reach schools, matches, and safeties. So if she applies to seven schools, maybe aim for two reaches, three matches, and two safeties. Never forget the safeties!

My experience: I have one kid who graduated in 2013, and another who is currently in college.
posted by merejane at 9:42 AM on January 23, 2015

Our experience in college applications is that the solicitations from the institutions is overwhelming. You may receive 100 lbs of mail between now and the end of her senior year. You may receive 2000 emails from colleges. The advice regarding the emails is that you should establish a new email address for this quest, and put that on the PSAT and SAT forms. The brochures and solicitations are going to become interchangeable, and your daughter will need to spend 15 seconds on some, asking if she could see herself going there before moving on to the next.

You should decide on local private and state schools, and out of state private and state schools that meet your basic requirements. Schedule some visits.

The PSAT is an important starting point, as the results will come in when the institutions are getting interested in you, and vice versa. However, you do not have to get serious until the fall of her senior year. If she happens to get into the Merritt Semifinalist category on the PSAT then there will be a whole new set of fun and offers of in-state tuition and very generous financial aid.

Try not to get wound up by the whole process, and be aware that your daughter is going to be stressed by the process.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 10:12 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't have a lot of advice about the formal admissions process (I went through it long enough ago that it must be completely different now), but I do have a piece of general advice for you as parents.


Despite the fact that I was a high-achieving student and had been involved in "gifted kid" activities practically from birth, my parents were strangely non-communicative when it came to the college admissions process. They generally were wishy-washy and sent very mixed messages about every aspect of my choice of colleges.

For example: My dad told me I could go "anywhere I wanted", but then when I decided I wanted to go to an expensive liberal arts school that specializes in media and performing arts programs, he got cold feet. But he didn't veto that school, he just suddenly became totally unsupportive and decided I was an entitled brat and a drain on the family finances. So, like, don't tell your kid she can go anywhere if you don't mean that. And if her vision of her college experience is drastically different from what is actually feasible, JUST TELL HER. I'd have grumbled if my parents had said they wanted me to go to Home State U, which was offering me a free ride, but I'd have done it if they'd actually said it in the first place.

Another example: Years after college, my dad confessed to me that he was disappointed that I didn't apply to any Ivy League schools. Because he'd always had that dream for me, and he felt like I'd sold myself short. (And, yes, same dad who flipped out after I had already chosen an expensive liberal arts school, so there may be some selective memory at play here.) If you think your daughter should be aiming higher, TELL HER THAT. My parents never said in words that they felt I was selling myself short with my college choices, or that they wanted me to apply to an Ivy, or even that I should pick one to apply to just for fun, because why not? They didn't really encourage me in any particular direction on school choice.

On the other hand, if you have something specific in mind, that's something else to communicate early and often. My mom secretly wanted me to go to Tulane the entire time, and while I applied to Tulane* and was accepted to Tulane, she didn't reveal her intention that I HAD TO go to Tulane until I had already decided against it. Obviously your daughter doesn't have to go to the school you wish she'd go to, but if you don't say anything about it at all and then SURPRISE EXTREME PRESSURE when it's time to make the final decision, that's not super great.

TL;DR: Tell your daughter what your expectations/limits are, what you think her potential is, and help her arrive at the choice that's best for everyone. Encourage her. Be on her team. Don't set her up to disappoint you by telling her it's entirely her choice and then springing a bunch of conditions on her when it's too late.

*I'm from Louisiana, Tulane is the local "fancy"/"smart kid" choice.
posted by Sara C. at 11:09 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

The goal is for your daughter to find a selection of schools where she can be happy and successful at a price your family can afford. If you can only afford to pay $x amount per year, you should be upfront about this limit now. This is also a good time to let your daughter know if there are any "strings attached" to your continued (financial) support. (4 years of support only? That's good to know in advance).

This is a list of schools that "guarantee to meet full need for all admitted domestic students." The catch, of course, is that each college on this list uses their own "institutional methodology" to determine what a family's need is.

For a few years now colleges have been required to post a net price calculator (NPC). The results of plugging in your info for the NPCs should give you an idea whether to target need based aid, merit aid, both or neither.

I think the forums of College Confidential can be a good resource for parents if taken with a grain of salt. I suggest borrowing a ton of different books from the library about college admissions, skimming through them, and then buying only the most helpful ones.

Most college search engines get their information from a college's "common data set" so a helpful search term can be "college name" "common data set." The Common Data Set has a lot of interesting numbers that might be of interest to a parent. (Ex: is the acceptance rate different for males versus females? What is the first to second year retention rate?) NCES's College Navigator also has "Cohort Default Rates."

I haven't read this particular book, but Cal Newport's other books are good.

If possible given your geographic location, I suggest starting your college visits close to home. Even if your daughter wants to go to school 2,000 miles away from home, it can be helpful to get a feel for big vs small schools, urban vs rural vs suburban schools, and research universities vs liberal arts colleges.

Spring break is a good time for college visits since colleges may still be in session (unless they are also on spring break). It can be hard to get a feel for campus life when classes aren't on session/ when students are still sleeping on Saturday mornings. I suggest getting one of these for your daughter to take notes on during campus visits. On the note cards she shouldn't write down "facts" she can get from the website, but details/ impressions that will help her craft her "why college X?" essays.
posted by oceano at 11:30 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I applied to college 11 years ago. My parents took what I think was a pretty unusual tactic: they told me they would drive me to visit up to 10 colleges, within a certain number of hours from home (I can't remember exactly what the limit was), and they would help me make any decisions I needed help making. Oh, and they would edit essays if I asked. That was IT. They wouldn't get applications, help me fill them out, help me write anything, send anything for me, ask for any recommendations for me, review applications before I sent them, research schools, or really help in any way. They got me a book about applying to college, I think - but they didn't ever talk to me about what tests I should take, or even bother to learn that information themselves. I even had to drive to the post office to get large envelopes and stamps on my own. They were serious about it being MY JOB to apply to college.

While this wasn't terribly out of line with their previous attitude (they never asked to see my homework or grades, never pressured me to work harder), it made a big impression on me. I think I had been imagining that somebody would hold my hand through the entire process and tell me how to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Not only did that not happen, but I realized that even if they had been much more active in helping me apply to college, they couldn't possibly have told me what I wanted to do with my life, or what I should major in, or what I really cared about. Only I could figure those things out.

In the end, I visited 6 colleges and applied to 5. When I visited MIT, I knew instantly that I wanted to go there - it felt like The Right Place For Me within about 5 minutes. I finished my applications on December 30th, laying everything out on the living room rug and anxiously stuffing envelopes while my family hung out eating snacks on the couch. I was nervous to approach teachers for recommendations, but I did it anyway. I had a conversation with my dad about what kinds of things it would be good to include in my essays, and also about which kinds of people I should ask for recommendations, but I ended up choosing slightly differently than he suggested. He didn't really like my essay, but I kept it my way. I was very stubborn. I was extremely fortunate to be admitted to MIT, and I had a really great experience in college - I feel like a got a complete, useful, mind-expanding education and I don't regret a minute of it. I also worked during college to pay for my room and board (tuition was paid for by scholarship and my parents).

My parents also took the same sort of approach with my younger sister, who has completely different strengths from me. She ended up choosing a liberal arts school in NYC (virtually exclusively because it was in NYC, not anything to do with the school) which my parents did not like, but they allowed her to choose it anyway. In the end SHE didn't find the education she got there all that valuable, but she DID really, really benefit from being in the city, and the connections she made at school (in addition to the degree she got) allowed her to get an awesome job right off the bat. And now she's at a top 10 university getting a Master's degree.

It's been really interesting to see how letting both kids make their own stubborn choices, and refusing to offer too much help, has worked out really well for both of us, even though MIT kicked my ass (I never, ever wanted to leave, but it was HARD) and my sister didn't actually end up caring about the classes she took.
posted by Cygnet at 11:40 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

One more memorable experience from applying to college: I had to interview with a Princeton alum and a Yale alum. My parents (in line with hands-off policy described above) did not take note of when my interview was. I screwed up and was 2 hours late. Also, I wore jeans because it had not occurred to me to do otherwise. Clearly this is not what the Princeton alum was expecting. Guess which school I didn't get into? When it came time for the Yale interview I put on nice clothes and showed up an hour early. That one went much better. I can't be sure, but I suspect this "learning experience" would have gone differently if I had been ushered to both interviews by my parents!
posted by Cygnet at 11:47 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely consider geography in addition to cost in teh limitations you give her. I, a New Jerseyan, had lofty dreams of going to school in California, but my parents said they wouldn't be able to afford to have me come home for all teh holidays so that became a deal breaker for me. I ended up applying to 3 or 4 schools, all local-ish (about 1-3 hours away). I got waitlisted and never got off it a my reach school, Princeton, and ended up going to my "match," a smaller state school that gave me the best $$ package (i went for free). I didn't really enjoy college, but I think that's more to do with me than the school, but I am forever greatful that I never had to pay student loans.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:16 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can talk to alumni of a school and they will either be effusive or (rarely) critical. Note that this is pretty typical across the spectrum, and it becomes clear that a lot of the College Experience is independent of where you go!

Yes, there is climate, and some schools do have things that others lack, but everywhere your daughter might go, there is cafeteria food and a housing lottery and a library and dubious advisors and partying. Unless your daughter wants something very special -- a particular subject, perhaps -- and if she is willing to work hard, I will venture that she can get a good education at a whole range of schools. No, the Colorado School of Mines doesn't have a good a Comparative Literature program as Princeton. *shrug* Not many places do -- but a ton of schools can offer a decent degree in engineering or English or culinary arts. So have her be honest with you (see Sara C's reply, above) about what she wants, and vice versa, and I bet you don't have to lose your collective minds over this. :7)

My oldest child is also a sophomore, and I work at a college -- so I have been preemptive wincing for a couple of years already. :7) One of my nieces are already enrolled and a couple others are starting the process, too, and we all talk about this at family get-togethers.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:22 PM on January 23, 2015

definitely listen to your daughter on this, too.

My brother was a very high achiever and went to a good school, etc, and I applied to that school as well, and got in on a very good scholarship, which I..didn't want.

my parents are awesome, so it didn't end up being too much of an issue, but I remember at the time being really scared of telling them that I thought I might want to go to art college instead of to a university, especially when it involved turning down a good scholarship.

so try to be open and accepting of her desires for her future as you keep applications in mind. also, apply for a few long shots. even if you don't end up considering them seriously, it's cool to say you got accepted to so-and-so.
posted by euphoria066 at 1:28 PM on January 23, 2015

I would also suggest (somewhat in response to Cygnet) that you remember that you are adults, and your daughter is still a child. It seems silly to spend a lot of her effort and your money applying to a prestigious school, and then letting her blow the interview on principle as a "learning experience".

There's nothing wrong with guiding your kid to do something simple like dress appropriately or be on time. I ultimately don't think this stuff makes that huge a difference (wenestvedt is right that a lot of schools ultimately offer interchangeable experiences), but, like, you're parents. You'd tell a friend "Hey didn't you have that job interview at noon? Because it's 11:30...", wouldn't you? So why wouldn't you do the same for your own flesh and blood?

I don't think filling out her applications for her is the best idea, but I mean give her a ride to the FedEx dropoff, at least. You're supposed to actually like this person, right?
posted by Sara C. at 1:37 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I sent my oldest off to school last fall. To begin with, I had her make a wish list. Not only exclusive schools, but places she thought she just might want to live. We then researched those and narrowed it down. She applied to i think 7 schools. One thing that made doing that easier is The Common App. I think 4 of the 7 were on there. Some colleges that participate with the common app may have additional requirements in addition to the base app, so pay attention to that.

You don't mention what types of colleges she wants to apply to. Not all require the SAT - none of hers did and they included two that are considered highly competitive. A couple did however require the ACT with Writing, so we planned her test taking accordingly.

One thing we were encouraged to do starting her freshman year of high school is to make a file and spreadsheet of all community service activities and volunteer hours. This was immensely helpful at the end of her high school career. Both community service and volunteerism are very helpful when promoting yourself on applications, but most important is showing a leadership role in those activities. Chair a fundraiser, lead a club - something like that. Every single app for every school, every scholarship, every award asks about leadership. And take it from us, leadership in sports only doesn't cut it.

Visit schools of all sizes. Even if it might be a small school close to home she doesn't think she wants to go to. It doesn't have to be a big offical visit - just let her get a feel for the difference between enrollment of 5000 vs 20000.

What i learned i think was to focus on 2 things (other than cost - it is a given that that will weigh in) 1- quality and value of education 2- quality of life.

Number 1 is pretty self explanatory. Number 2 means to me what kind of atmosphere will she flourish in the most. Large or small? Small city or Metropolitan area? Does she want to experience the traditional Greek life or not? Live on campus or no?
posted by domino at 1:59 PM on January 23, 2015

I've been a sounding board for my aunt in helping her son, currently a high school junior. The one suggestion I can share is that visiting schools seems to be really helpful. Getting a feel for what size school, what kind of environment your child is comfortable in will help you narrow down where to apply. It took him about 2 minutes on campus of the biggest school in our state to know that it was Not. For. Him. But another school felt like home right away. Visits will also help you gauge how far your kid will want to venture from home.

The big thing I'm trying to keep in my relative's mind is that there *are* do-overs in this. If your kid doesn't get into their target school, or does and ends up not happy there, transferring is okay. Really. I was an Orientation Adviser in the summers during grad school and saw lots of transfers. Transferring credits isn't usually difficult, and there are so many circumstances that there's really no stigma.
posted by AliceBlue at 2:54 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it's within your means, hire a private college counselor. I had one (my school's was cut the year before) and she was so fantastic.

The way it worked for me was that I submitted my transcript, extracurriculars, basic info, and preferences before we met and then we crafted a list of reasonable schools to apply to together (including a few I'd never heard of), she gave insight into the schools I thought I might like, and we crafted a plan of action (it ended up being touring 2-3 specific local schools to get a sense of what different types of schools felt like and confidence in an early decision application). Honestly, doing this with a professional was so, so much better than doing it with my parents who didn't really understand how the process had changed. Plus, they had confidence in what I was doing since my counselor had signed off on it.

Worth every penny, even though I only ever applied to my 1st choice school early decision, got in, and never looked back. It wasn't cheap (a few hundred dollars, maybe) but that's still on par with what application fees can add up to, and made the rest of the process much smoother.

If you need one in Seattle, I'm happy to recommend.
posted by R a c h e l at 10:43 PM on January 23, 2015

Oh, also - when she takes the PSAT/PLAN/SAT/ACT she will have the opportunity to sign up for emails from colleges. A few of these are beneficial because if you do well on the tests, they will offer you special fee-free and often abbreviated applications. I know several people who were able to add some (often perfectly great and very merit-aid-heavy) schools through those. Therefore, I'd still recommend signing up for them.

The catch is, though, that you get a TON of emails from those signups. If you make a special address or plus filter or something ahead of time for those, you'll be much happier.
posted by R a c h e l at 10:53 PM on January 23, 2015

I think the most important thing you could do to help your daughter with the college process is to find a good net price calculator on the internet and figure out how much need based aid you can reasonably expect from a private college. You should take any estimate you get as optimistic. Then ask yourself honestly: can we, as a family (with minimal to moderate loan burdens on both student and parents), afford this price? There are lots of upper middle class families who can't afford to pay $30k/year out of pocket, while a private need-based school might disagree. In those cases, you need to be conducting a very different search for merit-based financial aid.

As a student with immigrant parents, I found College Confidential to be a really helpful source of information, but I was also an experienced internet denizen even in high school and I could easily enough pick out the wheat from the chaff. I wouldn't recommend sending your daughter there unless she finds it herself and gets interested, but if especially if you'll be looking for merit aid for a high-achieving student, the forum is a wealthy collection of info that's hard to find elsewhere.

The second most important thing you can do is what several people upthread have already discussed: be supportive of what your daughter herself wants in a college, while armed with the knowledge that enables you to be realistic about what is affordable. I figured out early on that I wanted to be at a small liberal arts college, and I wanted to study two disparate fields that are not offered at many small colleges. I also really wanted to go far away from home, but in the end I applied Early Decision to a college less than an hour away because it seemed like such a uniquely good fit. And I loved every moment, wish I could go back and take 10 more classes, have no regrets. (I also persuaded my parents that it was "safe" to apply binding early admission to a college that we could in no way afford without significant need-based financial aid. PM me if you want details on how to make such an assessment.)
posted by serelliya at 11:28 PM on January 23, 2015

My youngest kid is the same age as yours; I've gone through the process with my two older daughters. I'm also a high school dean.

I am going to say one thing**. It is an important thing. It is THE most important thing.

Researching, visiting, test prep, college fair events, school pressure, the endless talk of scores and GPAs and KOLLEGE, etc., all of these events can and most likely will strongly...VERY STRONGLY...stress the shit out of your daughter. There are posters all over her school. This is all her friends are talking about. This is probably all her teachers are talking about. She may appear cool. She may admit to "excitement." She will probably not be able to articulate how totally fucking stressful and scary this time in her life is.

But as a parent, your job in the next few years is to help her learn how to deal with this stress.

Ultimately, it REALLY DOESN'T MATTER in the grand scheme of things how many schools she applies to, how many she visits, how many tests she takes, where she applies, where her friends get accepted. This is not the biggest deal in the world and your job is to actually minimize this stress as much as you can.

I have seen DOZENS of perfectly healthy kids completely lose their shit over the entire college process, as though their entire self-worth was decided on what a letter says. It's not. What matters is learning to deal with stress.

**I lied. Second piece of advice: yeah, you wanna do early admission because that will really minimize stress.
posted by kinetic at 6:52 AM on January 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I would also suggest (somewhat in response to Cygnet) that you remember that you are adults, and your daughter is still a child. It seems silly to spend a lot of her effort and your money applying to a prestigious school, and then letting her blow the interview on principle as a "learning experience".

That's a valid viewpoint to take, overall, and I know the hands-off thing isn't everyone's cup of tea. But in my parents' defense, I was already 18, so not a child, and they didn't let me blow it on principle, they actually had no idea I was scheduled to go to an interview! It was 100% my mistake. Also, it was MY money (earned playing gigs), not theirs, for the applications.
posted by Cygnet at 11:01 AM on January 26, 2015

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