Episode 97: An Overview of Your Teenager’s List of College Options

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In our last four episodes, we have been suggesting some steps to take in order to narrow down your teenager’s long summer list of college options. But let us be the first to say that we are okay if your list is still long–say, 15 colleges or so. Let us say again that we know many “experts” will complain about a longish list, including guidance counselors or college counselors, who understandably see long lists from seniors as a lot of extra work. But we really don’t want your teenager to lose out on a good option next spring because of some extra work this fall.

And, let us say once more: Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and file it now. No reason not to!

Finally, we know that some of you have Early Decision and Early Action deadlines just days away, and we wish you all luck and calm as your teenager wraps up those applications.

So, where do we stand? Well, after 10 summer assignments to expand your teenager’s list of college options and four episodes devoted to filtering that list a bit, you are just about ready to finish the college applications that, we hope, you have already started. But, there is still plenty of time, even if you are running behind and your teenager has yet to open up that Common App. Wherever you are in the process, you should have a list of college applications your teenager plans to submit on time–or early!

1. The Overview

It probably makes sense to look at that college list now as a group of college options, rather than as individual colleges. In other words, we believe that your teenager should have a number of bases covered. Let’s look at a few.

The most obvious is some variety in the selectivity of the colleges on the list. We talked about that as the first filter in Episode 93. Your teenager’s list should have perhaps two or three selective colleges that might be a reach, perhaps two not-so-selective colleges that could serve as safety schools (including, ideally, a reasonable public four-year school in your home state), and maybe 10 or so colleges that seem just about right academically.

Personally, I think there should be some variety in the size of the colleges on the list (in terms of undergraduate student enrollment). I do not believe that high school seniors in the fall are well equipped to know whether they would prefer a small or large college–or even whether the size makes any difference at all to them. I would like them to have some size options to consider next spring after acceptances come in.

Similarly, I think there should be some variety in how traditional or innovative the colleges are academically (in terms of their schedules and grading practices and distribution requirements). I would love to see every teenager have a choice next spring between a traditional college program and one that breaks a number of the rules. I believe that, as the time to go to college gets closer and as teenagers mature in their final year of high school, they might be better able to consider which academic environment is more appealing to them.

And 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 and some in state. I am less concerned that some be in urban, suburban, small town, and rural areas, though I certainly wouldn’t fight that idea if your teenager is not sure of the community surroundings he or she would prefer.

Here are some other things you might look for from the colleges on the list, keeping in mind that including colleges with these various characteristics will help make your teenager’s selection from among acceptances next spring a better experience–even if every college on the list can’t have every characteristic:

  • Attractive on-campus housing options
  • Many engaging extracurricular activities and clubs
  • Great sports teams, either to play on or to cheer for, whatever your teenager prefers (of course, sports teams can be seriously important for those students who are hoping to get an athletics-based scholarship, but that is a whole separate topic)
  • Availability of fraternities and sororities (especially if your teenager is accustomed to hearing you or other family members talk about theirs)
  • Sponsorship of study abroad programs (although students can usually take part in study abroad programs operated by other colleges or by independent organizations, like the excellent American Institute for Foreign Study, it is just easier to do one that the college itself sponsors)

2. One More Question

As your teenager and you look over the final list of college options, we would say that it is important for you to ask him or her one more question about each college: “Would you want to go to this college if you got in?” If you and your teenager have been diligent in putting together an expanded list this summer and then in narrowing it down, if necessary, in the past month or so, we know that you two know quite a bit about each college still on the 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 you want to go there.

Can your teenager tell you several pros for each college on the list–that is, several reasons why he or she would be happy going there? Does your teenager seem proud of his or her options–for example, does he or she talk about them with friends? If the answer is “yes” to these questions, then it is likely that your teenager would want to go to each college if he or she got in. 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 sad, I think.

3. The Community College Option

And that brings us to a topic we haven’t discussed much recently: Do you put a two-year public community college on the list? Although we remain concerned about the low graduation rate and the low transfer rate of most community colleges, it is still possible that a community college is your teenager’s best or only choice or best safety school choice. If you can be sure that your teenager will be admitted to a public four-year college in your state, personally I would go with that option instead of a two-year community college option.

However, if you cannot be sure that your teenager will be admitted to a public four-year college in your state or if your family circumstances would be too strained by sending your teenager to a public four-year college (either financially or otherwise), then put the local community college on the list. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area that has more than one conveniently located community college option, then choosing among them can be as important as choosing among four-year college options. All community colleges are not created equal, any more than all four-year public or private colleges are. So do your homework or give us a call.

4. What About Cost?

One final word about cost: Sometimes I think that almost all some parents talk about is the cost of a college before allowing it to stay on the list. We understand how cost affects your lives, but we are concerned that it is very difficult to judge what kind of financial aid package your teenager might get from what kind of college. Therefore, using cost as a filter for taking colleges off the list is risky. (If you’re concerned about cost, listen to Episode 74: 17 Ways to Make College More Affordable.)

Again, we would advise that you make sure you have a good public four-year college in your home state on your teenager’s final list–maybe more than one. Those colleges would be your best defense in a world where cost is going to have to be a major part of your teenager’s final decision in accepting a spot in a college next spring.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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