College Countdown

Follow our step-by-step guide to help your child select the right college.

Choosing a college has never been easier -- or more complex -- for the 1.6 million students entering college. Easier because of the wide variety of research options available today. But the process is also more complex for the very same reason: Kids and parents have so many sources of information that it can seem overwhelming.

Here are four avenues of investigation to explore at first:

Your Child's Personality. As a parent, you are in a good position to help your child understand that each school is unique, and might appeal to particular aspects of your child's personality. The student without "the fire in the belly" to succeed probably won't enjoy an ultra-competitive university. And a child who revels in the great outdoors may find an urban campus confining. Conversations about your youngster's opinions and personality may help narrow the list of potential colleges quite a bit.

Brochures. Colleges will fill your mailbox with options. Taking a standardized test like the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) often triggers a deluge of mail.

Other sources of information include high school counselors and college resource books available at libraries and bookstores. Note: Don't rely solely on books or magazines, as the information may be out-of-date or simply wrong.

The Internet. Nearly all colleges and universities have Web sites that provide details about everything from faculty to applications, says Ken Hartman, director of admissions and guidance services for the College Board (sponsor of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, also known as the SAT) and author of The Internet Guide for College-Bound Students (College Board, 1998). The Internet can also put your child in touch with college students.

"Kids often use a grocery list of boring, uninformative questions when investigating a college," Hartman says. "Few 16- and 17-year-olds will approach a stranger on a campus tour and ask 'What were your SAT scores?' or 'How do you like your classes?' The Internet allows you to ask those questions more anonymously."

Someone interested in biology at a certain university, for example, could find the school's biology club home page, which would list biology major members. Pick a few and fire away: Did graduating friends get jobs or accepted into medical school? What about access to faculty?

Hired Help. If you're still not confident about the college search, consider an option used by almost 2 percent of college freshmen last year -- hire a private consultant for $40 to $200 an hour to help your student match individual interests and academic background to a college.

Testing, Testing

Topping your child's to-do list for junior year will be taking the SAT or a similar assessment test, the ACT.

Many SAT and ACT preparation tools are available: free sample exams provided by test sponsors; sample questions at their Internet sites; and intensive multiweek coaching courses, such as those offered at Kaplan Educational Services.

Brian Roberson, a junior from Independence, Missouri, opted for computer software that timed him as well as showed how he did on each question, what percentage of hard questions he answered correctly compared to the easy answers he knew, and how he should pace himself.

"When I sat down to take the real test, I wasn't nervous," he says.

Some of Roberson's confidence, he admits, stems from the best preparation of all -- consistently taking the most challenging courses in light of his abilities.

Should students take the exam more than once? Maybe, especially if they have completed additional college-prep courses, such as trigonometry or calculus. Take it more than twice? Studies prove that beyond two exams, the ability to raise scores drops significantly.

The Campus Visit

College admissions directors report that the first rush of campus visits occurs as juniors set off on spring break. But summer is fine, too, they insist. What is important is that you and your child visit.

Videos, brochures, and Internet images are good starting points, but those who forgo the actual visit increase the likelihood of a poor match. Admissions officials say that poor matches contribute significantly to the nation's 27 percent dropout rate among college freshmen.

University of Florida admissions director Bill Kolb recommends talking with students and faculty apart from the tour. Go through additional buildings. See all of the residence halls, not just the designated one.

"We have yet to hire a tour guide who didn't love our school," Kolb says. "They'll be honest, but they won't go out of their way to show you something you'll dislike."

By fall of the senior year, your child should narrow the choices to three to five schools, including a dream school, if desired, and an academically and financially safe school.

The Application

Now the tables are turned. What will colleges be looking for? Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, says class rank no longer tops the list.

"More and more secondary schools are moving away from even offering class rank because their school boards are getting flak -- and in a few cases seeing legal action -- when the top few students are close," she says. "That places more emphasis on rigorous courses and corresponding grades."

GPA and test scores are primary selection factors in most state systems. For many colleges, the admissions essay also receives important consideration. Says Rick Ziegler, director of admissions at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: "Each year's applicant pool varies, but as we come to our final decisions, the essay makes a difference."

One student that stood out in a handful of scholastically similar applicants wrote about a childhood wish to grow up just like an older cousin he admired. As a young adult, however, he realized his cousin had undesirable qualities. Upon looking at himself, he found he had indeed grown up "just like him" and began to make changes for the better.

"The student didn't have a consistently stellar high school record," Ziegler says, "but that expression of struggle and improvement aided in his admission."

Encourage your child to make her words count by leaving enough time in the writing process to edit, walk away, review, and rewrite. Schools at which essays are not crucial still want to be impressed -- and will be if a transcript shows aggressive course work such as advanced placement (AP) classes, which are college-level classes taught in high school.

More than 90 percent of colleges in the United States use AP courses for either admission or placement, reports the College Board. Last year, nearly 15 percent of all high school graduates entering college earned college credit through AP exams before setting foot in the classroom. That spelled savings for some parents.

"College is like a long-distance charge," says Rose Woods, a mother of four. "Every minute not on the line is a savings." Her daughter, Sarah, plans to build enough credit through AP courses to enter college as a sophomore and graduate in three years.

Another benefit for students is flexibility. If a student's major doesn't allow for many electives, advanced placement allows the option of adding another subject.

The Early Bird Gets Admitted?

Of all admissions issues, the most controversial is that of early decision. More than 500 schools have early decision and early action plans. With early action plans, a student applies by a set deadline (earlier than in regular admission) and is notified of acceptance often before December 15. The student can accept or wait until the May 1 deadline to notify the college of his or her decision.

With early decision, however, students not only apply early, but are also asked to make a commitment upon admission and withdraw all other applications.

"From the college's perspective, the benefit is that they know ahead of time they have a solid class as opposed to waiting until spring to compete with other colleges for perhaps the same quality student," Smith says. "From the student's perspective, it signifies she truly wants to go to that college, which can give her an edge over later applicants. But it also pushes the admissions calendar forward."

Sue Biemeret, college counseling coordinator at Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, sees the panic that early decision can create, and she assures students that early decision isn't for everyone.

"I tell my kids to think about it as being betrothed," says Biemeret. "You are saying, 'I am willing to forsake all others and marry you, College X.' If you are sure you want to go there more than you want to breathe, and you get in, hallelujah! But if you are not sure, you've made a premature commitment."

Money Matters

Although the cost of education is major consideration, it has to be considered last -- in most cases after application to prospective colleges and before acceptance to a college.

No matter what your financial situation, admissions counselors strongly suggest filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form immediately after January 1 of the senior high school year. This determines whether your child is eligible for federal financial aid and helps the college determine how much scholarship and aid money he or she will need to attend that institution. Some colleges require separate forms for institutional financial aid.

Finally, virtually all schools require notification of the student's decision by May 1. So, you've counseled and guided. You've marked dates and offered gentle reminders. Your child has been admitted, and now you can rest easy, right? No. Parents have yet one more essential job.

"This is the perfect time to reinforce the simplest of life management skills," says Barbara Brown Herman, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "Students who are overly dependent have a difficult time making a new home," she says. "Encouraging independence, personal responsibility, and a healthy lifestyle is crucial."

Freshman and Sophomore Years

  • With counselor, create a high school curriculum to satisfy college goals.

Junior year


  • Take PSAT or Pre ACT.

Early spring

  • Register for the SAT or the ACT.
  • Begin gathering information via college fairs, mailings, and the Internet.

Late spring

  • Take the ACT and/or the SAT I/SAT II tests.
  • Narrow your choices to 10 colleges; review admissions requirements.
  • Start campus visits during spring break or summer.

Senior Year


  • Send for applications (some are available on the Internet).
  • Make appointments with admissions offices and visit colleges.


  • In early fall: Consider attending college open houses.
  • Register and retake entrance exams, if desired.
  • Narrow your choices. Pick three to five schools and collect applications.
  • Remember to move calendar forward if opting for early action/decision.
  • In late fall: Apply to the colleges you've chosen by their deadlines.
  • Draft essay for applications that require them.
  • Ask counselor or teachers for letters of recommendation, if needed.
  • Have test scores sent to the schools where applications are submitted.


  • Read college catalogs for housing information.


  • File FAFSA as soon after January 1 as possible.
  • Return the housing application to reserve a dorm room.


  • Note that this is the final application deadline for many schools.

By May 1

  • Notify the college you plan to attend and send final transcript.

The College Board




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