Episode 164: The Most Important Step in College Admissions

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Before we start today’s episode about the most important step in the college application and admissions process, we want to let you know that we are headed into our final season of USACollegeChat.  Well, I wouldn’t rule out coming back on Netflix or something by popular demand from our listening audience, but we are at least going to need to go on hiatus for a while.  Maybe we will be like Game of Thrones (which I have never seen) where there can be a year between seasons.  I am headed out to Phoenix and leaving my beloved New York City for a work-related commitment for a year or so, and Marie and I will have to figure out when it makes sense to bring back USACollegeChat, given our other commitments.  But don’t be sad.  We have a blockbuster set of summer episodes coming up for you, starting with today’s episode.

This episode is going to describe your upcoming summer homework.  We know it is summer vacation for only some of you, with others of you (like our fellow New Yorkers) still having to wait almost a month.  But those of you who live where school is already closed, you can get a head start.  Now, this homework is really for your upcoming high school senior, but our guess is that you parents will get dragged into it quite a bit.  And our further guess is that most of you will want to be dragged into it.

As we were planning out what to talk with you about this summer, we thought first of all the thought-provoking articles we have been reading about this and that and the other in higher education.  Then, we realized that those are intellectually interesting to those of us who spend our lives thinking about higher education, but that they are likely far less urgent to those of you who have a kid headed to college, you hope, in a year.  And so, we switched our plans and decided to do a series of summer assignments to help you take what we believe is the most important step in the college application and admissions process.

I am sure that people might argue about what that step is.  There are many other podcasts and Facebook groups and private consultants that focus on many different parts of the process–like how to write a great essay or how to finance a college education or how to get into an Ivy League school.  Some of them even charge a lot of money to do what they do, and we are sure that some of them do a good job.  But our focus for you this summer is more important than any of theirs.  Let us explain why.

1. The Most Important Step in College Admissions

You might think this is obvious; but, if it is, there are a lot of families out there not doing the obvious.  The most important step in the college application and admissions process is getting enough colleges on your list of options in the first place.  That’s it.  Just get enough colleges on your list so that you have enough options to consider.  Most students do not do this–even students who have college-educated parents and even students who attend great high schools that send most of their students to college.

A corollary to that, by the way, is to get enough of the right colleges on your list.  But that can’t happen if the first step doesn’t happen.  So, for now, we are back to just get enough colleges on your list so that you have enough options to consider.  Let’s tell you how to do that.

Several years ago, we wrote a book for parents:  How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students.  It was a discussion guide for you to use to talk with your kids about whatever deal breakers each of you had when thinking about colleges to put on the list.  The book was a map of the college world, which is like a foreign land for many parents.  We thought that it would be especially helpful for those parents who did not attend college themselves or who attended college in their home countries outside the U.S.  But, it turned out to be helpful to all kinds of parents.  The book is still useful and still available at Amazon, so take a look, if you think it would be useful for you.

Then, we wrote a book last year for high school students themselves.  It is titled How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  It is a workbook–as in homeWORK all summer for high school students getting ready to fill out college applications next fall.  The workbook is designed to help students (and you parents) figure out the best colleges for your kid to apply to–because figuring out where to apply is the most important step of this whole process, as we have said before.  I can’t emphasize enough how strongly we believe that.  If your kid chooses colleges to apply to wisely and with enthusiasm and if those colleges meet with your approval as well, then the choice of where to attend later on is a lot easier and more satisfying.  But you have to get enough colleges on the list to begin with?and we have discovered that most of you and your kids don’t know how to do that.

2. What’s in the Workbook?

Although the workbook could be used by younger high school students trying to get a jump on the college search process, here is what we said to your soon-to-be-senior in our workbook’s introduction:

Since 2014, we have been talking to your parents in our weekly podcast, USACollegeChat.  The truth is that we have given them more information about colleges than anyone could probably use.

We took them on a virtual tour of colleges nationwide and profiled many public and private colleges in every region of the country to try to get them?and, of course, you?to look outside your family’s geographic comfort zone when considering where you should apply.

When we put together that virtual college tour, we realized something very important:  There are a lot of colleges out there, and it is impossible to keep up with what is going on at most of them.

We also realized what your biggest problem is (well, yours and theirs, actually):  You don’t know anything about most colleges.  We have been doing this for a couple of decades, and there was a lot of stuff we didn’t know either, as it turned out.  So, how do you solve that problem?

The simple answer is just to ask a guidance counselor at your high school.  You would think that guidance counselors would know quite a bit about lots of colleges and that they could pass that information on to you.  Here’s why that usually doesn’t work.

Let’s start with public high schools.  As you probably already know, most public high schools don’t have guidance counselors who are dedicated to working only on college counseling.  That means that your guidance counselors, with caseloads in the hundreds, have to help students with college applications while dealing simultaneously with students who might be in serious personal or academic trouble.  That’s an overwhelming job, and that is exactly why most high school guidance counselors cannot help you enough when it comes to exploring many college options, narrowing them down, and finally choosing the perfect colleges to put on your list.

Some public high schools?and even more private schools?have designated one of the school’s guidance counselors as a college counselor, specializing in college placement and perhaps financial aid and devoting all of his or her time to helping students undertake and complete their college searches.  If your school has a college counselor like that, you are lucky indeed.  Of course, searching through hundreds of colleges to find the right ones for you and then working through those college applications (including all of the essays) is the work of a lot of hours?at least 20 hours and really closer to 40 hours, we would say.  Does your counselor have that much time to spend with you?  Unfortunately, probably not, even if you attend a private school.

What if you are homeschooled?  Without the help of a school guidance counselor or college counselor?even for a very limited amount of time?you might feel more at a loss than your friends who attend public or private schools.  Should you expect your parents to know everything you need to know about a wide array of college choices?  No, you shouldn’t.  Respecting your parents’ opinions about colleges is certainly important, even crucial.  But it is not likely that they are experts on the many, many colleges here in the U.S. (and abroad).

All high school students need to get help from somewhere or someone.  We believe that this workbook is a good way to get some.  That’s why we are talking to you now.  We want you to have a way to find out the information you need about many colleges so that you will be in the best possible position to compare those colleges and then to make the right decision about where to apply and, eventually, about where to attend.  While you will undoubtedly want and need some adult advice in thinking through the many options, what you need first is information?and a lot of it.

If you already have a list of colleges you are interested in, you will need information about each one of those.  But, just as important, you will need information about colleges that are not yet on your list?including colleges that you have never considered because you didn’t know they existed.  That’s not your fault now, but it will be if you don’t take steps to correct it.  So, let’s get started.

We are not kidding.  Most kids and most parents just don’t know enough to choose colleges.  The only solution to that is to get information.  And the only way I know to get information is to do some work–that is, the homework we designed for your kids in our workbook.

3. Before You Start Gathering Information?

But, before your kid actually starts gathering detailed information about colleges, it is important to expand that list of options, as we have just said.  We call this the LLCO in the book–that is, your kid’s “long list of college options.”

In our workbook, you might say that homework assignment #1 is to expand the LLCO.  Until your kid’s LLCO is created, the real homework cannot begin!  So, go to Amazon and grab a copy of How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  It’s the best $9.95 you will ever spend.  Tell your kid to get ready to work.  We start next week by telling him or her how to put together that LLCO.

So, can you do the work with us each week without buying the workbook?  You can indeed.  But it will be easier to hold your kid accountable with the workbook.   And accountable he or she will need to be in order for both of you to get through the next six months!  Remember, the work starts next week.

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 130: Opening Your Eyes About College Options

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

We are in the second week of our new series, Researching College Options. Now that it’s August and high school students in some parts of the country will actually be returning to school this month for their senior year, it’s time to get to work. So, for this new series, we are going to be talking directly to you, parents of high school seniors. Hang on because it can be a bumpy ride.

In this episode, we are going to read you some excerpts from what we call Step 1 in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Step 1 of what you might ask? Well, it’s Step 1 of making a good decision about where to apply to college. Like all first steps, it is important–maybe the most important–and a little scary. But like all first steps, if your senior skips it, things are not likely to go as smoothly as you and he or she might have hoped. If you need more help, more examples, or more fun stories, go get the book at amazon.com.

1. Just Expand the College List

So, the second chapter of our book opens in a very unpleasant way. Here is what we wrote to your senior:

This chapter focuses on something that you are just about to do totally wrong. Really, totally wrong. In fact, our advice in this chapter is probably the opposite of what many school counselors and college consultants are telling you as you start a serious consideration of where to apply . . . . We bet they are telling you to start by narrowing your list of colleges, but we would like you to start by expanding your list of colleges.

There is plenty of time later to narrow down your options–once you get to . . . October or November . . . . While expanding your list might seem unnecessary, time consuming, or even wasteful, we believe that expanding your options now could mean the difference between an okay college choice and a great college choice for you later.

In other words, taking off from what we talked about last week, having your senior expand his or her options now could mean the difference eventually between just an okay college “fit” and a great college “fit.” And that could be the difference between graduating on time and not graduating on time–or even graduating at all. (Regular listeners: You know what we think about graduating from college on time–that is, in the traditional four years. It’s one of the best ways around to save money, and it might just let your kid go to his or her first choice, even if the annual sticker price on that choice is a bit higher than you all had hoped.)

2. That Dreaded Geographic Comfort Zone

So, what stands between your senior and that great college fit? It might well be the dreaded geographic comfort zone. As we said to your senior in our book, there is nothing we dislike more than your “geographic comfort zone.” Here is what we wrote:

The great majority of high school graduates who go to college choose a college in their home state?perhaps as many as 70 percent of them. Undoubtedly, you have one or more colleges in your home state on your list of college options right now. That’s okay with us. However, what’s NOT okay is to have nothing BUT colleges in your home state on your list.

Here’s why: It’s a big world out there. There are so many intriguing colleges in it that we hate for you to limit yourself to those nearby. We hate for you to limit yourself to those that are likely to have a majority of students a lot like you from the same part of the country as you. Your first step in making a list of college options should NOT be to narrow down the choices and to close off opportunities. You should NOT be settling either for colleges that are nearby or for colleges that you and your parents and your school counselor already know a lot about.

We know that there are some good reasons for kids to stay close to home for college. We understand that some families want to keep their kids close to home for cultural reasons, perhaps in order to participate in family events or religious activities. We understand that some families need to have their kids stay at home in order to help with family responsibilities. Those reasons are hard to argue against.

We know that staying close to home might make going to college more affordable for some families, especially if living at home saves on housing expenses. But we also know that it is hard to know in advance how generous a financial aid package might be from an out-of-state college. [Just look back at Episode 127 if you don’t believe us on that one!] Did you know that some states offer an attractive discount at their public colleges to students who come from nearby states? We bet you didn’t. Check out, for example, the Midwest Student Exchange Program or the Western Undergraduate Exchange or the New England Regional Student Program, if you live in those regions of the country, [or the University of Maine’s new tuition program for nonresidents].

We also know that you can sometimes get into a better college when it is far from home. Why? Because almost every college likes the idea of geographic diversity in its student body. Colleges like to claim that they draw students “from all 50 states and from 100 foreign countries.” You will see this kind of statement on many college websites. Pay attention, because you might be far more attractive to a college halfway across the country than to one in your own back yard. That’s because you will give that faraway college bragging rights. This is especially true for private colleges that do not have the same mission to serve students in their own state as public colleges do.

We also know that some parents just can’t imagine sending their kids away from home for the first time. In fact, you might not be able to imagine leaving home for the first time. But, we encourage you and your parents to think hard about that. Isn’t college the perfect time to make that break–a time when you can live somewhere else under the supervision of college staff in relatively secure surroundings, a time when you can learn to function as an adult in a safe environment (that is, learn to manage your money, do your work, plan your time, and make new friends)?

We urge you (and your parents) to get outside your family’s geographic comfort zone. You have nothing to lose at this stage in the process. Researching colleges outside your hometown, outside your state, and outside your region doesn’t mean you have to attend one of them–or even apply to one of them. But it does mean that you will have the information that you need to make a better decision when the time comes.

I really can’t make any better case for getting outside your geographic comfort zone than that. Here is what we wrote to your senior about how to do it:

Conveniently, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has divided the U.S. into eight regions:

  • Far West–California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawai?i, Alaska
  • Rocky Mountains–Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah
  • Southwest–Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas
  • Plains–Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota
  • Southeast–Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia
  • Great Lakes–Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio
  • Mideast–Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia
  • New England–Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine

However, we thought that the Bureau stuffed too many states into the Southeast; so, we divided the Southeast into two regions (southern and northern), and you should, too. That will give you nine regions to investigate.

We used these nine regions when we did our virtual college tour [at USACollegeChat]. You should listen to the tour in Episodes 27 through 53 of our podcast or simply read the show notes at usacollegechat.org. . . .

We thought hard about how you should create what we will call your Long List of College Options?your LLCO, for short. We decided to start with this advice:

Make sure that you have at least two four-year colleges in each of the nine geographic regions of the U.S. on your LLCO.

So, that would give you at least 18 four-year colleges. But, our guess is that your list already had some regions covered with more than two colleges–especially the region you live in. That’s fine. Have as many colleges on your LLCO as you like from each region. But don’t ignore any region! That’s what it means to get outside your geographic comfort zone.

3. How To Find College Options

We hope that we have convinced you. If we have, we don’t ever have to bring it up again. Here is what we wrote to your senior about what to do next:

How should you choose the colleges for your LLCO? Well, you probably know about some colleges already–from family, friends, school counselors, and teachers. You should discover some more from our virtual college tour, in which we talk about several hundred four-year colleges. You might find some more through a variety of online searches and quick looks at those college websites. Remember, you don’t need too much information about each one just to put it on your LLCO.

You will soon see that you can learn a lot from reading a college website. Furthermore, you can learn not only about that one college, but also about colleges in general and about what to look for on the next website you go to. It’s an education in itself. You really need an education ABOUT higher education.

By the way, don’t start looking at two-year colleges, or community colleges, yet. Two-year colleges can easily be added to your LLCO closer to application time, partly because their applications are typically less demanding to complete. We are also assuming that you are most likely to attend a two-year college in or near your hometown and, therefore, you will not need to do much investigating before applying.

We do have some reservations about two-year colleges, especially for students who have just graduated from high school and are moving directly into college full time. We know that two-year colleges are a great choice for saving money and for helping kids who need a bit more maturity or a bit more academic preparation before heading into college. . . . However, we worry because student graduation rates and student transfer rates from two-year colleges to four-year colleges are scandalously low, and we worry about what opportunities end up being closed off for too many kids.

But back to your LLCO. Those of you who have listened to our podcast or read the show notes know that this suggestion is coming:

Make sure that you have at least one college that is not in the U.S. on your LLCO.

This is a favorite topic of ours, and we can’t say enough about it. There are truly great options outside the U.S. We hope that every one of you will take advantage of studying abroad for at least a semester, no matter where you end up in college. Studying abroad is for everyone these days–not just for rich kids, not just for kids studying foreign languages, not just for kids at private liberal arts colleges. But you can actually study outside the U.S. for more than a semester or even for more than one year; you can simply go to a college outside the U.S. full time for four years.

So, you must be up to at least 19 colleges on your LLCO–likely more. But we can’t resist one last piece of advice:

Make sure that you have at least two public flagship universities on your LLCO–probably one from your home state plus one more.

We say this to ensure that you have some great public options to consider. Maybe you already had them when your chose two colleges from every region, but add them if you didn’t. To be clear, we mean public “flagships,” not just any public universities–though you are also free to put other public universities on your LLCO. If you are an excellent student, the public flagship in your home state is likely to be your very best choice for a “safety school” (with some exceptions, like California, which can’t accommodate all of the excellent students in their own state). If you can’t identify the public flagship in your own state or in most other states, you aren’t ready to be choosing colleges yet. Go learn about all 50 of them on our virtual college tour.

As we have said numerous times in our podcast episodes, public flagship universities might be the hidden jewels in the college landscape. They are often the very best place high school kids in those states can imagine going. Why? Because they are relatively inexpensive for state residents (because they are public), academically respectable (even outstanding), well regarded across the state and across the country, competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for lots of their high school classmates. They are often truly the place to be, if you live in that state.

As with everything, some states have better public flagship universities than others, and some public flagship universities are better funded by their states than others. Nonetheless, we are convinced that you can find at least two that you think might be great for you.

Well, that is a lot of colleges: colleges from nine geographic regions, one or more colleges from outside the U.S., and a couple of public flagships from your state and/or someone else’s. Of course, don’t forget to ask your parents and other important family members and teachers and school counselors for input about colleges to put on your LLCO. For right now, the more, the better–at least within reason. But our “within reason” is probably a lot bigger than your “within reason.” Remember that your senior is not necessarily applying to all of the colleges on his or her LLCO. Your senior is just going to start gathering the information he or she and you would need in order to decide whether it is worth applying. We will start talking about that information gathering next week–that is, what information to gather and how to gather it. So, stay tuned.

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…