In many households around the country, the start of a new calendar year marks the start of the college planning process. After much holiday talk about possible college destinations, high school Juniors now gird themselves for the inevitable rush of activity that will culminate in college applications less than a year from now. And many younger students will soon find themselves on the “college trail” as well. Wherever you, the student, are in the process, keep the following in mind as you engage in college planning.
1. Stay student-centered. This means, before starting to draft college lists, contemplate important questions such as: “Why do you want to go to college?” “What do you want to accomplish by the time you graduate?” “In what type of academic environment do you function best?” In other words, put yourself—and your needs—first in all deliberations.
2. Resist the temptation to start with a list of destination or target colleges. You still have plenty of time for that. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to see what is “out there.” Go window-shopping. Check out colleges of all sizes, shapes and locations. The more you know—the broader the perspective you can gain now—the easier it will be to make critical distinctions later.
3. Keep rankings and reputations in perspective. We’ll talk about rankings later but know this: by allowing yourself to be strongly influenced by rankings and reputation at the start of your search, you risk denying yourself an awareness of options that might be more viable for you in the long run.
4. Focus on fit. Student-centered decision-making means that the optimal solution (college choice) will be the one that fits you best. It will:
1) Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs.
2) Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn.
3) Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation.
4) Offer a community that feels like home to you.
5) Value you for what you have to offer.
As you consider a range of college possibilities, be deliberate about making sure that each passes the “best fit” test.
5. Establish a hierarchy of importance. As you sort through the various factors that seem to influence your decision-making (i.e. location, distance from home, presence of a top-ranked athletic program, etc.), consider their importance in your choice of colleges. Are they “essential,” “very important” or do they fit in a “would be nice” category? Be honest in your assessments. Don’t let the “would be nice” factors drive your decision-making.
6. Road trip! While the Internet provides a ready opportunity to search for colleges from the comfort of your home, now is a good time to start visiting college campuses. Take tours. Participate in information sessions. Record your visits—take notes (and pictures).
7. Don’t rush to judgment. There is plenty of time before you need to worry about focusing on specific schools. Allow your list to grow. As you do, reflect on what you are learning about yourself and the factors that define a good fit for you. Later, as you begin working toward a short list of colleges, utilize the “hierarchy of importance” to make sure you are targeting the places that make the most sense to you.
8. Get on colleges’ radar screens. As you learn about colleges, make sure you get credit for the contacts you are making at college nights, information sessions at your school and campus visits. Fill out information cards and registration forms whenever possible. Many places are keeping track and will eventually, when you become an applicant, try to predict the likelihood of your enrollment based on the nature of your engagement with them.
9. Talk with your parents about cost/affordability. You need to go into this process with your eyes wide open. It is no secret that a four-year college education can be very expensive. Try to get a sense as to what your family can or is willing to afford relative to college costs. Consider yourself lucky if you are fortunate to be able to afford four years of college out-of-pocket. On the other hand, if you need assistance, realize that hundreds of millions of dollars of institutional funding is available to students each year. In order to tap into this support, you will need to manage your expectations around places that will value you for what you have to offer.
10. Develop a strategy for testing. On which test, SAT or ACT, do you want to focus? It’s generally a good idea to take a test at least twice—but not more than three times—over the next twelve months. It is important to remember, though, that you own the results and that means that no results should be released to colleges, universities or scholarship-granting organizations without your authorization.
11. Make good choices. Every day, you have the opportunity to make choices that have a domino effect on how you live the next day. Now, more than ever, the choices you make in school—and in life—will have a bearing on how you will compete for admission. Like it or not, everything counts. So, make choices that will give admission committees confidence that you are well prepared and best suited for their environments. Don’t wait to become a college applicant—you are already one now!
The College Planning Workbook (4th Edition, 2011) is an excellent resource for students getting started with college planning. It includes timelines, tips and exercises for students that walk them through the college search and application processes. The College Planning Workbook is available ($20 plus shipping/handling) in the TAG Bookstore.