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A Targeted College List: The First Step in Creating a College Road Map

When our high school junior began her college search, we had a lot of questions about how the process should go. And we had a fair amount of anxiety as well. At our first meeting, her school counselor spoke about finding the “best fit.” She said, “When you start visiting colleges, ask yourself, ‘Is this a place that could feel like home?’”

But with more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, how would we create a road map that would lead her to that home? Luckily, we learned there are plenty of great free resources available to help families navigate the college search and application process.

Finding the Right College Fit

The first thing we grappled with was just how to get a handle on what type of schools our daughter should include on her list.

“I like to tell parents and students that there are concrete steps to finding a best-fit college,” says Andrew Elwell, senior director of student communications and marketing at the College Board. “Our free college planning website BigFuture breaks down what a ‘good-fit’ college means.” For example, the College Search Step-by-Step tool guides them through the college search process and helps them figure out what colleges will fit their specific needs.

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“By going through a list of questions—urban, suburban or rural; close to home or far away; small or large—students begin getting a sense of what’s important to them,” says Elwell. “When students bring what they’ve learned to their school counselor, they can begin building their college road map together.”

Taking the First Step

BigFuture contains data from nearly 4,000 accredited colleges and universities in the United States and internationally, along with interactive tools and videos created to help students navigate the college planning process. The free College Search tool on BigFuture lets students search for schools on a variety of factors, from location to size to majors and more.

“I tell students and parents to begin by doing a general college search, then change up the filters several times to see other colleges that fit within various parameters. Once you begin saving schools to your college list, you’ve completed your first step on your college journey,” says Elwell.

Make Your School Counselor Your Co-Pilot

Using the tools online, our daughter was able to get enough information to put together an initial list of colleges that interested her. Then what?

College counselor Nikki Danos of Forest Ridge School in Bellevue, Washington, says this starter list can help counselors introduce students to colleges they potentially have never heard of before. “I love telling students that they will get into a college; it’s just a matter of us figuring out a short list that includes three reach schools, three possible schools, and three that they are likely to be admitted to.”

If, like us, you worry about how hard it is to get into colleges these days, there is good news. “The latest statistics show that 80% of colleges are accepting more than 50% of the students who apply,” says Danos.

Danos recommends approaching your counselor with four questions in hand:

School Counselor Questions:

  • Can you help us identify some colleges that would be an academic, social, and financial fit?
  • Can you help us identify colleges and universities that have strong merit scholarship programs?
  • Can you walk us through the financial aid process?
  • Can you talk to us about the advantages and disadvantages of applying early to colleges?

Danos also recommends that students set foot on three different types of college campuses sometime during their sophomore and junior years. “These schools can be near home, but make sure to visit a big university, a middle-sized urban school, and a small liberal arts school within a residential community,” she says.

It Can Pay to Get Started Now

Here’s something else we learned: it can be hard to motivate your student to get started on the college process when they’re so busy at school. But if your student needs an incentive, here’s a really good one: The College Board now offers a chance at scholarships for checking off items on the college to-do list.

The College Board Opportunity Scholarships lay out six simple steps that all students can take to get to college. Completing each step will earn students a chance for a scholarship; completing all six will earn them a chance to win $40,000 for their college education.

The College Board Opportunity Scholarships are currently open to all class of 2020 students in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories, regardless of their family income. However, at least half of all the scholarship awards are designated for students whose families earn less than $60,000 per year. The next round of scholarships will open to the class of 2021 in December 2019.

The Six Steps to College

  1. Build your list of colleges: Search for colleges on BigFuture and save colleges to your list.
  2. Practice for the SAT: Khan Academy offers a free tailored practice plan based on diagnostics or a student’s PSAT score.
  3. Improve your SAT score: Continue to practice with Khan Academy to improve your score. Most students do better the second time they take the SAT.
  4. Strengthen your college list: Update your BigFuture college list to include a mix of safety, match and reach schools.
  5. Complete the FAFSA: Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the required form for students who are applying for federal aid. The 2019-20 FAFSA becomes available October 1, 2019 and is due June 30, 2020.
  6. Apply to colleges: Most students begin working on applications during junior year and the summer before senior year. Many colleges have early admission deadlines in the fall and regular admission deadlines in the winter; they vary, so be sure to check online.

Laying out a road map can be a sanity-saver for families.  

Elwell says, “While the college process can certainly feel overwhelming to students and families at times, knowing the steps to take can go a long way toward alleviating that anxiety.”

It certainly helped our family stress level to know what steps to take and how to get started. And knowing that our student could get rewarded for taking those steps? Even better.

Nancy Schatz Alton is the co-author of two holistic health care guides, The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. She lives in Seattle with her husband, a teen, a tween, and two Havanese dogs. For more, check her blog or Facebook

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