Episode 139: Narrowing Your Teenager’s List of College Options

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Last year, we spent the month of September suggesting some steps to take in order to narrow down your teenager’s long list of college options (or LLCO, as we call it in our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students). We talked about a number of filters you might use to narrow down that list, which we hope was really quite long at the beginning. Why do we hope that? Because a long list shows that you and your teenager thought about a wide variety of colleges that might be appealing, perhaps for various reasons. As we have said too many times, there are thousands of colleges out there (most of which you never heard of and don’t know nearly enough about), so don’t be too quick to come up with what we will call “the short list.”

You can go back and listen to Episodes 92 through 96 for a recap of reasonable filters you might apply now to narrow down your teenager’s LLCO. Or you and your teenager can force yourselves to think a bit harder and look at the 52-item questionnaire in our new book. That questionnaire is carefully designed to help you and your teenager judge all of the relevant pieces of information about a college before your teenager, with your help, decides whether to apply. To review, the 52 questions cover these important aspects of a college:

  • History and Mission
  • Location
  • Enrollment
  • Class Size
  • Academics
  • Schedule
  • Housing
  • Security Measures
  • Activities and Sports
  • Admission Practices
  • Cost

Our opinion is that you really shouldn’t have put colleges on the LLCO anymore than you should take them off now without knowing these basic facts and figures about them. Fortunately, it’s not too late to find out, but it will be soon! Even for those of you who are facing Early Decision and Early Action deadlines of November 1 or November 15 (or thereabouts), you still have enough time to find out what you need to know and to decide wisely. As we have said in many USACollegeChat episodes, deciding where to apply is the first domino in this long process and, for obvious reasons, it is at least as important as deciding where to enroll. These application decisions will limit your teenager’s future universe, so be careful.

And, let us remind you of something we hope you already know: Don’t forget to fill out and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as soon as possible. There is absolutely no reason not to!

1. The Short List

So, let us be the first to say that we are okay if your teenager’s short list of colleges is still relatively long. Interestingly, the Common Application online system will allow a student to keep up to 20 colleges on the student’s list. Of course, you have a bit of leeway because some colleges do not take the Common Application, so those colleges wouldn’t need to be counted as part of the 20. We know that many “experts” will complain about a long list, including high school guidance counselors or college counselors, who understandably see long lists from seniors as a lot of extra work. But we don’t want your teenager to lose out on a good option next spring because of some extra work for the professionals–or for you and your teenager–this fall.

When push comes to shove, doing 20 applications will be a lot of work, mostly because of the supplementary essays that many colleges, especially selective colleges, require. But it’s doable. I just spent some time with a smart senior going through her LLCO, which had about 25 colleges on it when we started. I think we are down to a more reasonable 15, and I don’t see a reason to try to make her list any shorter. So, what’s the right number for the short list? There’s no right answer, but 15 is probably a sensible average, plus or minus 5. I believe that number is slightly up from the 8 to 12 we recommended in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. Well, live and learn!

It probably makes sense to look at your teenager’s short list now as a group of college options, rather than just as individual colleges. In other words, we believe that your teenager should have a number of bases covered. We looked at several bases to cover last year, but we would like to narrow that down to just three, in order of least important to most important.

First, we would like to see some variety in the size of the colleges on the short list–that is, size in terms of undergraduate student enrollment. As we said last year, we did not believe then and do not believe now that high school seniors are well equipped to know whether they would prefer a small or large college–or even whether size makes any difference at all to them. We can show you lots of seniors’ short lists that have huge public universities and small private colleges on them, and we are not sure that some of them even realize it. We would like kids to have some size options to consider next spring–after acceptances come in–when they can think more calmly about whether size really makes a difference to them.

Second, it is no surprise to our regular USACollegeChat listeners that I think there should be variety of college locations on the list. Obviously, that means some out-of-state options and some in-state options. But it also means some options in your region of the U.S. and some options outside your region. And, it even means at least one option outside the U.S.

We have talked about studying full time outside the U.S. many times here at USACollegeChat, so go back and listen to a few of our episodes on that very intriguing topic (see, for example, Episode 123 about colleges in Canada or Episode 122 about Richmond, the American International University in London). Because colleges outside the U.S. offer an exciting alternative to studying in our own country, you might not be surprised to learn that these colleges are often popular choices among students at private schools and students from wealthy homes. You should know, however, that studying outside the U.S. does not have to be any more expensive than studying in the U.S., so don’t rule it out without doing your homework.

Third and most obviously (this is the one we won’t have to convince you about), there should be some variety in the selectivity of the colleges on your teenager’s short list. Every so-called expert has some formula for how to make up the list: how many “reach” schools, how many “target” schools, and how many “safety” schools–or whatever your favorite vocabulary is for these three types of college options. We think that this is a matter of common sense and that you don’t have to be an expert to figure it out. Your teenager’s short list should have perhaps two or three selective colleges that might be a reach (they might be highly selective or somewhat-less-selective, depending on how good a candidate your kid is); perhaps two or three not-so-selective colleges that could serve as safety schools (including, ideally, a reasonable and as good as possible public four-year school in your home state or maybe in another state), and maybe 10 or so colleges that seem just about right academically.

2. A Closer Look at Safety Schools

Let’s take a moment to look more closely at the notion of safety schools because we think that they are often chosen poorly.

When I work with a kid to put together his or her short list, I get these two types of colleges on the list as safeties: (1) a public university where I am sure the kid will be accepted; and (2) a private college where I am sure the kid will be accepted.

Now, true, some of this is a matter of experience. But, looking at the data on admitted or enrolled students that you can find on a college’s website or on the College Navigator website will give you one indication of the likelihood of a kid’s acceptance. (By the way, see Step 13 in our new workbook for further detail on this.) And, of course, some of this is a matter of how good a candidate your kid is. A college that serves as a safety school for some kids is a reach school for other kids, obviously.

But, the biggest mistake I see in kids’ short lists is the inclusion of a bunch of expensive less-selective private schools as safety schools when the kid really doesn’t want to go to them. Once you have one decent public university option and one decent less-selective private option on the short list, every other college on the list should be weighed against them.

For example, a young woman I was working with recently here in New York City is blessed with great high school grades and very good SAT and ACT scores. Her safety schools are a good public university in the West and a good private university abroad. I am confident that, given her high school record, she will be admitted to both. Other adults have suggested a variety of additional private colleges that might serve as safety schools for her. For each one, I simply asked her, “Would you rather go to this one than the two you already have, which you are going to be admitted to?” In every case, she said, “No.” Then why have them on the list and why spend time and money applying to them?

You don’t need a lot of safety schools. You need only one or two or maybe three that your kid is happy about and would look forward to going to. A young woman I worked with last year ended up at one of her two safety schools this fall. We chose them carefully to make sure she liked them, and she was, in fact, accepted to both. She ended up at the private one, and she loves it. I knew she would, and that’s why we chose it.

3. Other Colleges on the Short List

By the way, a similar question should be asked of all of the colleges on the short list. Once you can establish that a college (whether it is selective or not selective) is not a place your kid would rather go than the safety school you are sure he or she will be admitted to, take that college off the list.

To be clear, as your teenager and you look over the short list, ask him or her one final question about each college: “Would you really want to go to this college if you got in?” If you and your teenager were diligent in putting together a LLCO this summer and then in narrowing it down, we know that you two know quite a bit about each college still on the short list. We would say that it is likely that you know more about each college still on the list than the majority of students applying to it. But knowing all about a college doesn’t make your teenager want to go there.

I can usually hear it in the kid’s voice when I ask, “Why College X?” The kid is silent for a minute or says something vague. Can your teenager tell you several pros for each college on the short list–that is, several reasons why he or she personally would be happy going there? If not, it might be time to take it off the short list. “My mother suggested it” or “I’ve heard some good things about it” is not a reason to keep a college on the short list.

Now, of course, there are some colleges on the list that your teenager prefers. Maybe there is a first choice; maybe there are several top choices. But no college left on the list should make your teenager feel apathetic or disappointed. Take those colleges off and, if you need more colleges on the short list, then look at some new ones to add. There are plenty out there.

Next week, we are going to talk about a serious problem with transferring colleges in case you are thinking about that as a long-term strategy for your kid as you two are making up the short list. Let me just say, “Buyer beware!”

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

2 thoughts on “Episode 139: Narrowing Your Teenager’s List of College Options”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *