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USACollegeChat Podcast

Sep 22, 2016

Well, it is time to start narrowing your teenager’s long summer list of college options--that is, if he or she made such a list by using our 10 assignments this summer. Of course, if your teenager did not make such a list, there is still time to do so, but get moving. I would recommend taking his or her top 20 college choices and running through the 10 assignments at breakneck speed, because the time to narrow down that list is fast approaching.

1. The Numbers Game

We have promised you some ways to filter your teenager’s long summer list of college options, and I guess we will have to pay off on that promise. But, I have to say, that I don’t want to make the final list too short. We have said in our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available at that we would expect to see about 8 to 12 colleges on your teenager’s final list--that is, the list of colleges that he or she will actually apply to. However, if our summer challenge led you to put more colleges on your teenager’s list of options than you had expected and if you now hate to see them go, I could be happy with a somewhat longer list than 8 to 12. Maybe not 20 applications, but surely as many as 15.

We know that applying to too many colleges has become an unpopular notion, partly because people believe that applicants themselves have caused colleges’ increased selectivity by applying to a slew of colleges and, thus, giving too many colleges too many applicants to choose from. Regardless of that, we still believe that kids should have the best selection of colleges possible--both when applying and hopefully when choosing, after admissions decisions have been sent out.

And we know that it is not free to apply to most colleges, unless you have received a waiver based on your income or based on your teenager’s excellent high school record, and we know that money does not grow on trees. But I think it is hard to argue that paying $50 or $75 to add a college to the list is a bad investment--if that college might indeed accept your teenager.

If our 10 assignments this summer worked correctly, you and your teenager should have found yourselves putting colleges you had never before considered on your list. We wanted you both to branch out, look outside your geographic comfort zone, and consider types of colleges you had not thought about before. We challenged you to pick one college in every state, for goodness’ sake. We were serious about persuading you to look beyond what you already knew about colleges.

We have found that the biggest problem many of you have is that you don’t know anything at all about most colleges. That’s not your fault, of course. Worse yet, there is really no one to tell you about most colleges. That’s why we started this free podcast.

Let us say again that you should not rely on your teenager’s guidance counselor or college counselor in school. I was reviewing the college options of the daughter of close friends of mine last month. Let’s call her Kate. Kate and her parents had met with the counselor at Kate’s private school to have the college discussion. Kate’s father came away impressed by what the counselor knew and by the counselor’s advice to them. I could not have been less impressed. Not only did the counselor suggest colleges that made little sense to me, given what I know about Kate, but she also took colleges off of Kate’s list that made far more sense for Kate than the ones she put on. This is not an isolated example. Parents, you have to do your own homework. Most counselors know only what they know--and what they know tends to be about colleges that many previous graduates of the school have attended and colleges that are located in their home state. That’s not good enough.

And so, it’s a numbers game. Keep enough colleges on the list to ensure that your teenager ends up with some choice. If the colleges are chosen well to begin with, that number should be 8 or 12 or maybe 15. But don’t adopt an arbitrarily low number now and use it to filter out too many colleges on your teenager’s list before he or she can even apply.

2. The Visiting Game

Here is another filter we are concerned about: the college visit. Recently, I spent some time talking with parents who were in the process of taking their daughter on several college trips in August. Let’s call her Maia. I listened to Maia’s reaction to a college that I had thought would suit her fairly well. Maia didn’t like the college. I asked her mother why. This is what her mother said: “She liked the campus. But everyone she met was snotty, and the tour people had no idea what they were talking about. She hated the feel of the school.”

Let’s think about that for a minute. My feeling is that, if you visit a college in the summer, about all you can legitimately react to is the campus. I don’t think there is an obvious “feel of the school” when the regular students and professors are not there. I am not sure whom she could have met--perhaps other kids on the tour, perhaps kids there in some kind of summer program, who might not attend the college during the year. Finally, I never took a college tour where I thought the guide didn’t know a heck of a lot. I do know that colleges try very hard to choose personable guides and train them quite seriously. Look back at Episode 57, which focuses on college tour guides, if you don’t believe me. So, I am not sure what Maia was reacting to.

What I do know is this: It is very difficult to tell what a college is like when you visit it in the summer. I would urge you not to use a summer visit as a filter for ruling out colleges that you thought were otherwise appropriate for your teenager, unless it turned out that you or your teenager truly hated the actual campus or the surrounding area or the campus housing or felt that it was somehow unsafe. Those things don’t change from summer to winter.

As we have said before, visiting colleges is a time-consuming, hard-to-schedule, often expensive undertaking. There is actually plenty of time to visit colleges after your child has been accepted, when you can see the college in full swing in the winter or spring. If you have used reasonable criteria for putting colleges on your teenager’s list, that is a good enough first step. Once acceptances come in, you and your teenager can decide which ones are still worth visiting. It might be that you can narrow the choices down to just two or three among the acceptances, thus saving a lot of time and money and effort.

What is probably necessary is for your teenager to have seen a couple of college campuses, just to get the idea of what a college campus is. Showing your teenager a variety, even if they are all relatively close to home, would be most instructive--for example, a sprawling rural campus with many buildings and natural areas and its own transportation system; a walkable, enclosed suburban campus with ivy-covered buildings and manicured grassy quadrangles; an urban campus without any boundaries that tell where the campus stops and the city starts; and a commuter campus without housing. Giving your teenager an idea of what a campus could be might be enough for right now.

3. Next Week

As we mentioned last week, the first deadlines for Early Decision and Early Action admissions--mostly around November 1--are fast approaching. If your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already started to use your own filters to narrow down your teenager’s list. However, you will still need a few colleges on the list to apply to if the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices are unsuccessful. The rest of you will certainly need to start thinking about which colleges will stay on your list and which should come off now.

So, next week’s episode will focus on filters we think you should be using to get that list down to 8 or 12 or 15.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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