It’s college application season and families with high school seniors are looking for answers to their college admissions questions.
To help with the process, I reached out to parents in Paying for College 101 (PFC101) who’ve been there, done that. I asked what they wished they knew before beginning the admissions journey.
The results? From setting realistic expectations to working on applications in advance of senior year, here’s what parents had to say:1
Set Financial Expectations Ahead of the College Search
College lists often begin with schools your student has heard of (but knows little about, including how much they really cost to attend). While it’s a step in the right direction, this approach can lead to disappointment later.
Parents and pros will tell you to start at the beginning: with the price. Once you’ve weathered sticker shock, use an EFC (estimated family contribution) calculator to help you understand what financial aid your student may qualify for.
When you get a sense of the aid you might receive, you’ll also be able to estimate your college budget. This will help you begin a realistic college list and open the door to a discussion with your student about financial expectations. Our members shared some of their experiences and tips:
I mainly let my daughter apply to schools where full tuition or better scholarship opportunities were available that she had a good chance of receiving.
— Robin S.
My daughter didn’t apply anywhere that the financial picture wasn’t doable before subtracting any merit or scholarships.
– Kimberly M.
Examine your income, savings, and other sources of money (student earnings) to figure out what you can come up with after you determine a baseline EFC. That also helps guide the college search.
– Joanna N.
Do Your Research and Create a Well-Rounded College List
PFC101 parents stressed the need to create a balanced college list—one that mixes reach, target, and match schools. It not only becomes a guide to where your student will apply, but also how many applications they’ll need to submit and how much work is involved. Other ideas include:
Make sure you have schools on your list that you can afford. My first kid had only schools they couldn’t afford. Then she fell in love with one and is now working a ton to afford going there.
– Mary D.
Have a good mix, but not too many schools that you can’t dig deep into the details. Parents are better diggers than kids—help your kid with a list, but make sure they also do their own research and ultimately own [that] list.
– Cindy Y.
My boys’ first list was basically every college with a major football team plus some [Ivy Leagues]—not because they actually wanted to go there, but [because] they had heard of them. We talked about size, proximity to home, urban or not, etc. Then we took one college and researched it together through the website, focusing on the majors and exploring the courses for all the majors they thought they might be interested in. Before too long, they started changing the list (and major) to fit them better. The final list was very different from the first one but getting started was the key.
– Amy M.
Additional factors to consider:
- Campus demographics
- On-campus life
- Clubs or campus organizations
- Job placement numbers for graduated students
Show Demonstrated Interest to Top Choice Schools
Demonstrated interest is the level of engagement your student has with the schools they’re applying to. Not every school tracks it, but for those that do, interest puts a check in the “plus” column. How will they know that your student is interested?
Schools can see how many emails your student opened and engaged with, the number of phone calls and texts between them and the admissions counselor, and if they went on a campus tour (online or in person – they both count!).
You can check if demonstrated interest is used in admissions in the school’s common data set.
– Susan N.
My daughter was deferred from Early Action to Regular Decision at one of her top choice schools. We went down, took the tour, and met with her admissions counselor. He told her directly that her visit and her stating it’s her top school would make a difference in how he presents her to the committee who will decide whether or not to accept her.
– Kristen K.
Visit as Many Schools on the List as Possible
Our parents had lots to say when it came to visiting schools.
Before you go, reach out to the admissions office to set up an official tour. This way you can plan a tour, schedule meetings with specific professors/programs your student is interested in, and meet with the financial aid office. If you visit during the school year, your student may also be able to sit in on a class in their major to get an idea of what their classes will be like.
As for timing, the general consensus is to start as early as possible:
For my daughter, we started campus tours in the summer before her junior year. I knew she would benefit from getting a feel for various types of campuses [beforehand].
– Denise B.
I think touring during the spring break of junior year is ideal. Make appointments with the department they are interested in majoring in. Make sure the tour is official so it gets recorded by the school that they are interested [in], which can help with admissions. If they’re on spring break, they can see what it is like with students around.
– Mary K.
I’m taking my sophomore on a couple local tours this spring break to get a feel for campus sizes and types. We did things very late for her older brother and it wasn’t fun.
– Deborah S.
Work on Application Materials Before Senior Year Begins
It’s no surprise that one of the biggest pieces of advice our group shared was that students shouldn’t wait until senior year to start the application process, especially including their resume and “brag sheet.” Here’s more on that:
Write your Common App essays in the summer so you can focus on school in the fall.
– Kiban T.
Ask for letters of recommendation in [the] spring of junior year and have a draft essay done by the start of senior year.
– Kerri C.
Have your student shore up their resume “theme.” There’s still time to round it out with a good passion project, job, or volunteer work. My daughter thanked me for having her do her essays over the summer before senior year. She wasn’t happy about it at the time, but said it made senior year that much more enjoyable for her!
– Jenn W.
Take a DEEP dive into all their social media accounts. Make sure posts and comments are not anything that could cost them scholarships or admissions. Do this BEFORE they apply anywhere. If they have zero social media presence, at least set up a LinkedIn profile. Use the info from their resume to make sure their profile is good.
– Brina M.
Team up to Create a Successful College Admissions Plan
By the time our children are in high school, we’ve learned that life is full of surprises — some better than others — and while we can’t control everything, there are steps we can take to be prepared for whatever comes our way.
These steps include doing your research, making plans, and talking through them. The information in this guide is meant to get you started. Customize an approach that works for your family.
1Quotes have been edited for clarity and flow.