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How To Start The College Search Process: Making A List of Colleges

For many teenagers, the college search process begins with in a surprisingly simple way: putting together a list of prospective colleges by writing down a bunch of familiar names. Some may be singularly focused on the Ivies while others want a state university. Unfortunately, this approach can mean passing up the really “perfect” college for your teenager—one that not only suits them academically and socially, but is also affordable, thanks to a decent package of aid.

So is there a better way? Yes and this is where Michelle Kretzschmar, founder of is happy to help teenagers and parents. Kretzschmar’s son attends Beloit College in Wisconsin, which is not exactly where many baseball-loving Texas teenagers end up. But for Kretzschmar’s son, Beloit has been, well, perfect. He’s studying the classics. He’s playing baseball. And to top it all off, he’s getting $15,000 a year in merit aid.

Starting The College Search Process

When it came time for Kretzschmar’s son to begin the college search process, she knew she would have to do a lot of the heavy lifting herself. That’s because as a homeschooler, she was also her son’s de facto college counselor. But it didn’t start out so well.

“When I first began looking at a lot of the available websites, I was frustrated to find I couldn’t easily search on the data that were important to me,” recalls Kretzschmar.

Then Kretzschmar discovered, which is where the U.S. Department of Education publishes all the data it collects each year from the more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. “This site is fantastic because they don’t limit any search parameters,” Kretzschmar explains. (The popular College Navigator website also uses the same data.)

But then she took it a step further, downloading the data into a spreadsheet program. This gave her complete control over the data. With access to so much information, Kretzschmar realized she needed to come up with a list of priorities to help narrow her search. “You have to decide what’s most important to you. My son wanted to play baseball and study the classics. He wanted a small college with an undergraduate teaching focus, and we needed merit aid,” she explains.

There were also the realities of his scores, as well as other criteria that Kretzschmar added along the way. “The first thing I did was to sort the data for graduation rate. That was important to me. I wanted a graduation rate of at least 50 percent. That eliminated two-thirds of schools,” she notes.

“Next I sorted by enrollment. After a while, I figured out what was important to us and what wasn’t. For example, student-faculty ratio became less important, but percentage of full-time faculty became more important. I could also search on test score percentiles,” Kretzschmar explains.

After crunching the data to meet their needs, they ended up with 150 schools, which, says Kretzschmar, may seem like a lot, but it wasn’t. She and her son used college websites, as well as a couple of books, including Colleges that Change Lives, to cull the list. “It narrowed quickly. As I mentioned, my son wanted to play baseball, so we knew the coach would have to be interested. Then we also wanted to find schools where he would have a good shot of getting merit aid. And he wanted to study the classics.”

The last step was visiting campuses. “There are some very impressive schools out there, like Gustavus Adolphus College. I’d never heard of that school. But it’s a really great school,” Kretzschmar says.

Merit Aid Mattered

By the end of the college search process, the family’s list of colleges stood at ten schools, including Gustavus Adolphus, St. Olaf, Roanoke, Allegheny and Beloit. “We thought he could get merit aid at these colleges. We also thought he had a chance of playing baseball, but they had to be schools that if baseball went away, he would still be happy there,” Kretzschmar says.

“Once you have the data in a spreadsheet, you can look for colleges where your teenager will be in the top quarter of applicants, so they’ll have a better chance of getting merit aid,” she explains. (Note that not every college offers merit aid. In fact, the most exclusive colleges typically don’t provide any.)

It worked. Kretzschmar’s son was accepted to all ten schools on his list with merit aid offers ranging from $7,500 to a whopping $20,000 a year. He chose Beloit, mostly because it “just clicked,” she says. “He’s very happy there.”

Investing time in the college search can lead to a better college investment. “In fact,” Kretzschmar adds, “the best college for your kid may be one you’ve never heard of.”

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.

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