Choosing What Colleges to Apply to in Three Easy Steps
Every year, the formulaic responses from counselor to student is scrutinized and subsequently criticized, and it’s no wonder why. With the average public school guidance counselor in the United States having an obligation to nearly 500 students (a static ratio for over a decade) and half of the country’s public schools absent of a committed counselor all together, students are not getting the personal attention they require or deserve. Affluent private schools usually have the funding for their students to be walked through the process; but the less advantaged students who seek a better future or a competitive college are being wronged by this lack of funding.

In fact, the average prospective high school senior spent $37.88 in 2012 for each college application (while applications can be as expensive as $90 for schools as rigorous and choosy as Stanford), and it isn’t rare these days for an individual student to send out ten to twenty college applications when less than two decades ago, even eight was a perplexity. As paper applications turn to more common and standard electronic versions (the most common electronic application, Common App, is utilized by over 500 colleges), the deterrence usually brought on by excessive and redundant paperwork has been substituted with an encouragement to “over apply.”

This lack of counselors, which almost guarantees a lack of individual attention in low income areas, combined with expensive and easily accessible applications leaves high school students with a dire need for guidance regarding which applications are worth a hefty fee and time investment and which applications are not worth the lost time or money. Here's my recommendation on how to narrow down your choices while going through the college application process.

STEP ONE
Make a list of 15 to 20 schools where you think you would be happy. Consider the size of the student body. Do you want a small school with small class sizes or would you be more comfortable in a larger university? Consider the location. Do you want to be close to home or explore a new place for a while? Is the school in a city or rural area? Consider the academic selection. Do they offer your major or courses you would be interested in taking? Consider the personality fit. You can check out reviews from students who attend each college to explore the diversity, social scene, and general feel of each campus and see if they fit what you are looking for in a school. These 15 schools should contain both a few safety schools and a few reach schools, as well as practical schools whose SAT and GPA averages contain your scores.

STEP TWO
It’s time to do some research. Notice that price isn’t something listed as an important thing to consider—the price tag isn’t everything. Many students are too intimidated by a school’s tuition to even apply, but some of the most expensive schools are also those that give the most financial aid. Research the financial aid packages for the colleges on your list; some schools also have calculators on their websites to help estimate a ballpark number of what you will have to pay. Creating a spreadsheet of pros and cons for each school can be helpful in the narrowing process; this allows you to physically see if you favor the school or not by the length of each list.

STEP THREE
Narrow your list down to seven to eight colleges: two safety schools, two reach schools, and three or four schools whose scores match your own. In order to whittle your list to the perfect set of colleges, there a couple of things you should do. First, research, research, research. A college can tell when you’ve crammed as many applications as you could into the time frame to apply, but you need to know what you’re applying for and why going there would be mutually beneficial for both you and the school. Second, talk to a professional. If you have college guidance counselors, talk to them about what they know of each school and if they think those schools would be a good fit. If you don’t have a counselor, send emails to alums and current students, search for representatives of the colleges on your list on social media websites, and read or message them about their experiences. Some colleges have blogs written by current students that you can read. Lastly, if you can visit any of the schools on your list, do it! Some colleges and programs will pay for fly-ins if you qualify. While you’re there, try to talk to as many students as you can. Eat at their dining hall(s), attend a class or two, chat with a couple of professors or students in your prospective major, sit in busy areas, and see if you can imagine yourself as a happy and comfortable student in the coming years.

Ultimately, deciding where you want to go to college can be a stressful process, but it doesn’t have to be. Go with your gut, stick to your guns, and don’t make the price tag an issue if it doesn’t have to be. Talk to as many people as possible about their experience and listen to their advice. Choose and apply wisely instead of over applying to save yourself time and stress, and chances are you will nestle yourself a home at whichever school you decide to attend.


Photo Credit: Nazareth College

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