College, College Board, Test Prep, Oh My!
College, I am learning, is WAY different to prepare for as a parent than as a student. Given that my oldest is now a high school junior, we are currently in the thick of it! In truth, I honestly don’t remember the process being nearly as exhausting. Perhaps this was because things were simpler in 1991 (yes, I am that old). Then again, maybe it was because my first choice school was in-state (i.e., cheaper) and I had the grades and test scores I needed to be accepted. Regardless, the amount of information I received in the meeting with my son and his college counselor was mind numbing!
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ACT? SAT? Test Prep?
Another thing that is totally different from when I was applying to college are the ACT and SAT. More specifically, the fact that test prep courses and private tutors are HUGE. In contrast, when I was in high school a few kids who struggled took test prep courses as extra help, but most people did not. Moreover, I took the SAT once and the ACT twice (and only a second time because I needed one point higher to get into a specific college within my first choice university). I took a few practice tests and managed to increase my score THREE points without spending any extra money.
In contrast, I keep hearing of kids taking these tests 3, 4, and even 5 times! Instead of being an accurate reflection of a student’s academic abilities, the ACT and SAT are now a contest in which those with the most money and resources usually come out as winners.
In truth, paying for test prep for my son was not even a question. Despite being an honors student, going to an ACT tutor was the only way to keep up with 1) the kids getting straight A’s in honors classes, and 2) the kids whose parents have substantial money and can pay for tutors, test prep, you name it.
On a positive note, some colleges are no longer requiring applicants to submit the ACT or SAT. While my son thankfully scored well, I know that standardized tests are extremely difficult for many students, including those who do well in school. There are many factors that must be considered when determining potential success in college, and I for one hope that other schools will follow soon and do away with the ACT and SAT.
During the time your child is dealing with the ACT and/or SAT, he or she will likely begin to think about possible schools. While some kids know exactly what their dream school is, others (my son included) have no clue. So where to even start?
Given that there are now more than 5000 colleges/universities that award 4-year degrees, the first step is to decide which are a good fit. Seeing that this is more than double the number in 1991, it is no wonder that things are more difficult today! That said, thank goodness for the Internet. In order to learn about schools in
However, this abundance of information is overwhelming for both kids and parents. True, it is nice to have the data for average GPA and test scores. Further, it is important to know about financial aid and scholarships. But it is confusing to see so many sites that rank colleges. This is because the lists are often very different, with some schools in the top 10 on one list not making the top 50 on another. For this reason, I believe that it is very important for kids to look at many different resources. Equally important, kids must form their own opinions.
So, where to start?
First, realize that there is no one correct answer to this question. Since every kid is different, every college search will be as well. Accordingly, it is important to get a sense of where your child will be happy. Specifically, not which college, but geographically. For example, urban or rural? Or really big or the size of their high school?
I am fortunate to live in a community where college planning is a big priority. As such, students at the high school are assigned a college counselor, who is different from their guidance counselor, during their junior year. The very first thing all students are required to do is to fill out a
Although my son filled this out at school, we received a copy of his responses in the mail. To be sure, I was both sad and amused to see that his answer to “is there anything that might prevent you from attending college stated: “if it is in the middle of nowhere or
Notwithstanding the cornfield comment, the form is a truly valuable resource. For example, my son realized that location and majors offered are more important to him than Greek life. Since he knows what he wants, it is important that a school offers his major. As such, a large number of schools were easily eliminated. Here is a similar form from Cappex that you can download:
How to find matching schools
So your child now knows if he/she prefers an urban or rural
Talk to people who have been through the process
First, good old word of mouth is a powerful tool. Thus, ask friends and relatives their experiences with certain schools. Your child should ask friends too, as many have older siblings that have been through the process and usually jump to share opinions (good and bad). While rankings and stats are great, learning about schools from real live humans is always best.
Surf the web
Next, the Internet is a wealth of information. However, as stated above, there is often conflicting information, so be sure to explore several different sites. To be sure, universities are businesses; therefore, attracting the best and the brightest is extremely important. Why? Because better students equal better rankings, which then equals MORE students. So what’s the big deal about this? Well, money, of course.
Notwithstanding, the Internet is an amazing tool that should absolutely be used. So which sites are best? Again, while one person may think a site is awesome, another may think it is terrible. Therefore, it is wise to visit several. In addition to allowing you to see which sites you like best, this also allows your child to compare data. My son’s high school gave us this list of websites it recommends:
- Peterson’s Education Center http://www.petersons.com
- College View http://www.collegeview.com
- College Navigator http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator
- Cappex http://www.cappex.com
- College Board http://www.collegeboard.com
Of these, my personal favorite is Cappex. As said, this is a personal preference so definitely check them all out and see which you like. In addition, I like how College Navigator allows you to compare up to 4 school side by side. Further, you can print out the comparisons in spreadsheet form, which includes admission stats, cost and financial aid info, and more. This is super helpful now as well as down the road. Moreover, I also like Niche, which is very user-friendly and has tons of rankings, from academics to party schools and everything (and I mean everything) in between.
Next, as you play around with these sites, create lists of possible schools. I emphasize possible because at this point it is basically just brainstorming. To be sure, most of these sites have tools that allow you to create lists with just a click. Moreover, they all have great search tools which filter schools out based on your selections. Even so, you’re likely to end up with a large list. However, don’t worry about that at this point. See below for suggestions on how to ultimately narrow down your huge list!
With this in mind, head on over to some college sites and have a look around. Moreover, encourage your child to do the same. Although I am lucky that my son wants me to be a part of this process, some kids may not want help. In this case, I would still make your own list, and use it if you feel your child overlooked a potentially good fit. Most important, don’t be quick to discount certain schools just because of their names. Further, make sure your child knows this! It’s possible, even likely, that a school that was never even considered becomes your child’s first choice!
So now what?
Undoubtedly, you’re feeling a bit of information overload right about now. Trust me, I am still feeling the effects! But don’t worry! Your child is now one step closer to actually applying to schools. That said, there is still a lot more to consider, such as the actual application process, and applying for financial aid and scholarships. Be sure to look out for my next post about college which will cover these things. In the meantime, happy searching!