Episode 93: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 1

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We have put off narrowing down your teenager’s long summer list of college options as long as we can. I hate to start the narrowing because it always seems to me as though the colleges taken off your list might be opportunities missed. But we all have to remember that there is not just one college that is a good choice for your teenager. There are likely quite a few colleges that would be not just good, but excellent, choices for your teenager. So, in that spirit, let’s see where we stand here at the end of September.

First, let us remind you that October 1 marks the opening up of the online avenue for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, lovingly known as the FAFSA. There is no earthly reason not to fill it out and file it ASAP. We are not FAFSA experts, but there are many people who are. If you are unsure about FAFSA, look at available websites or seek help from your teenager’s high school. But, whatever it takes, get the form filed, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting a financial windfall in financial aid.

Second, let us remind you, as we have been doing for the past couple of weeks, that the first deadlines are approaching for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1. If your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already narrowed your teenager’s list of college options. However, your teenager will need to keep a few extra colleges on the list in case the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices don’t work out. In that spirit, let’s look at Step 1 in narrowing down the list.

Let’s review your 10 summer assignments because, if you didn’t do them, there might not be much of a list to narrow down:

We are hoping that you still have at least 20 or so on your list right now.

As we look back at the 10 assignments, we notice that some have to do with college location, some with size, some with selectivity, some with the student body, some with academics, and some with logistics, like housing and safety. We did not talk much this summer about the cost of attending each college because it is hard to figure out cost without knowing what kind of financial aid package your teenager might get from any given college, based on your family’s income, your state of residence, and the academic or other qualifications of your teenager. Everybody else seems to want to talk only about cost, so we would like to start somewhere else.

We found it difficult to choose which filter to look at first, knowing that it would knock some colleges off your list right away and being sorry about not giving those colleges a chance to stay on your list based on their other really great qualities. But something has to go first. So, let’s look at selectivity of the colleges on your list.

1. Step 1: College Selectivity Filter

As we said in our book How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (on sale at amazon.com through 2016), this question is the one most high school guidance counselors bring up first. You have probably heard people say that a student should apply to a “safety” school that he or she is sure to be admitted to; a couple of “reach” schools that would be great, but might be beyond or just beyond what the student’s high school record warrants; and then some others in the middle that the student has a reasonable chance of being admitted to, though not guaranteed. Of course, that is really nothing more than common sense.

As for a safety school, we like to say that you should consider public four-year colleges (especially branch campuses of your state flagship public university, rather than the main campus, or a second-tier state system of public colleges that is not as prestigious as the state flagship university system). Some states have more public options than others, thus providing an array of safety school choices. We continue to focus only on four-year colleges in our search, believing that you can add the local public community college as an option at any point without too much difficulty.

As we find we still have to say to parents of teenagers, it is our opinion that not-very-selective private colleges that could reasonably serve as safety schools for most high school students are not likely to be academically better or more respected than whatever well-regarded public colleges are available in a student’s home state. Why would you pay more money to have your teenager go to a college that is not better? And, as we said many times during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges in Episodes 27 through 53, there is no prestige in going to a private college that is not as good as a great public college.

As for “reach” schools, keep in mind that applying to colleges is time consuming and not free (unless you have application-fee waivers, which are sometimes based on family income and sometimes based on a student’s excellent high school record). Applying to reach schools that enroll a majority of students with significantly higher high school GPAs (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) and/or or with significantly higher SAT or ACT scores than your teenager has might turn out to be a waste of time. So, should your teenager rule out applying to the most selective schools, given the chances that being admitted are slim, even if he or she is a good student? No, but perhaps consider applying to just two or three–and only if your teenager is truly interested in going to them. Applying to too many will likely make a disappointing acceptance season for your teenager.

What should you be looking for in terms of selectivity? I would say that you should feel okay about colleges where your teenager’s high school grades and SAT or ACT scores are average or just above average for that college. But, further, you should feel good about colleges where your teenager’s grades and test scores are above the 75th percentile of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen. This is part of the information–along with class rank–that we asked you to research and record back in Episode 82 in Assignment #2.

As we have said before, the two obvious academic problems for applicants are that their GPA is not as high as it might be or that their SAT and/or ACT scores are not as high as they might be. Either of these problems makes choosing to put too many truly selective colleges on your teenager’s list a risky move. However, as we have said before, having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades.

While students’ test scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges–including some really good colleges–that do not put so high a priority, or indeed almost any priority at all, on these test scores. Check out our book or earlier episodes of USACollegeChat for more information about and a long list of what are referred to as “test-optional” colleges and “test-flexible” colleges, which might be a help for your teenager if those scores are not what you had hoped for. You can also search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online, including at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing website.

Remember that admissions policies change, and you should check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like homeschooled students and international students, but not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S. So do your homework–again.

The next part of the college selectivity filter is something less obvious, and that is to double check the number of credits or courses required or recommended for admission to the college or to the college or school that you are interested in within the university, along with any specific courses required (e.g., Algebra II). We asked you to research and record this information for each college on your list back in Episode 83 in Assignment #3. Keep in mind that a college does not usually penalize a student whose high school does not offer a course that the college requires for admission–like the third year of a foreign language. However, the closer your teenager can get to meeting all of the required courses and all of the recommended courses, the better chance he or she has for admission–obviously.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, what I would do if I were you, is look back at the data my teenager recorded for Assignment #2 and compare each college’s figures to my own teenager’s high school GPA, SAT or ACT scores (that is, whatever scores you currently have, even if he or she will retake the test this fall), and class rank (if he or she has one). I might divide the colleges into three piles: (1) those that look out of reach or almost out of reach, given the grades and scores of admitted or enrolled freshmen; (2) those that post average grades and scores about like my own teenager’s; and (3) those where my teenager’s grades and scores look well above average.

With that done, I would keep all of the colleges in the second pile on the list for now, especially if my teenager had taken or will take this year the required and recommended high school courses.

Next, I would talk with my teenager about the colleges in the first pile–that is, those that seem like a real long shot academically. I would look particularly favorably on those where my teenager had taken or will take this year the required and recommended high school courses. I might keep my teenager’s two or three favorites from that pile on the list for now, but I would try to help my teenager let the others in the first pile go.

Finally, I would talk with my teenager about the colleges in the third pile, where my teenager’s grades and scores are well above average, to see whether my teenager is holding on to too many “safety” schools, especially ones that are not truly appealing to him or her. I often find myself saying something like this to kids: “Why is that on your list? You are going to get into a better private college than that and you are also going to get into a better public flagship university than that. You don’t need it on your list, and you shouldn’t go there even if you get in.”

So, Step 1 is to narrow down your teenager’s list of college options by being brutal in reviewing the first pile (those that are too academically demanding of their applicants) and equally brutal in reviewing the third pile (those that are not academically demanding enough). We would like you to have at least 15 still on the list as we move forward.

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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