Finding and Applying to Colleges

Which Resources or Services Have You Found Most Valuable When Helping Your Child Research and Choose a College?
Services/resources offered through my child's prospective college (e.g., campus visits) 44%
Services/resources offered through my child's high school (e.g., high school counselor) 46%
Talking with other college students/parents of students 34%
Books 7%
Online resources 42%

Parents and students should begin the process of researching and comparing prospective schools as early as possible. We asked Becky Claster, founder of Claster Educational Services and a college counselor at Blyth-Templeton Academy in Washington, D.C., what timeline she recommends for students:

"Students should start exploring college in a broad way in the first half of high school… Once students have finished 10th grade, they should get more focused on researching specific colleges where they'll find the academic programs and campus environment they're looking for and where they might be competitive for admission. Students should have a tentative list [of colleges] by the end of their junior year."

The number of schools you apply to may depend on a few factors, such as your willingness to live in a new area. In general, though, more is better. "Most students are in good shape with a list of 6-10 colleges," Claster said. "I like most of a student's list to be in the 'target' category, which is where they have a good shot but are not quite certain of the outcome. Students should also have at least two 'safety' schools where they can be confident they'll be admitted, and at least one of these should also be a 'financial safety school' — a school where they can expect the cost of attendance to be manageable."

Of course, every student aspires to attend schools where they might not get in — the so-called "reach" schools. As Claster points out: "Students should certainly have high aspirations, so two, three, or possibly four 'reach' schools would be reasonable. But since these are schools that the student is unlikely to get into, these should not be the bulk of the list."


To determine whether schools are "reach" or "safety" schools, check out the school's profile on the College Board's BigFuture or The Princeton Review, or check the school's admissions webpage. A FAQ page will usually provide a glimpse into a typical student profile, including average test scores and GPAs. When asked which resources and services they found most helpful as they helped their children choose colleges, the top three responses from parents in our own College Prep Survey were:

  • Services or resources offered through their child's high school
  • Services or resources offered through their child's prospective college
  • Online resources

If you're having a hard time comparing schools, don't sweat it. "I don't place a lot of value in an ideal number of schools or a mix of 'safe' and 'reach' schools," says Jeff Gant, the director of undergraduate admissions at Montclair State University. "What's important is to apply to schools where students feel there is a genuine fit and where they feel they will be set up for success."

In the following sections, we go over different resources for college planning and how they can help parents and students during their search.

High School Counselors

Most high schools have counselors or advisors on-site to help students navigate the college prep process. According to Mary Gamache, a college counselor at Randolph-Macon Academy, high school counselors play as central a role as parents: "Once the student begins examining college options, the counselor should be the overall facilitator in the college search and application process."

In general, counselors are very familiar with the college landscape, particularly in your region. Gamache added, "The counselor can help guide the discussion and offer suggestions about colleges he or she has visited or heard about." They also provide help in a number of other areas, including the following:

  • FAFSA/financial aid questions
  • Tracking graduation requirements
  • Securing recommendation letters
  • Sending transcripts to colleges

Unfortunately, high school counselors can sometimes be difficult to access. According to a report from the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), only two states maintain a counselor-to-student ratio lower than 250-to-1, the standard recommended by ASCA. This need for additional resources is mirrored in our own survey results that suggest parents want more informative and more accessible high school counseling services.

If your child doesn't have access to a high school counselor, or if you simply need additional support, you can consider an independent college counselor. For a fee, these professionals can help guide your child through the application process. However, this may not be necessary, according to Gamache:

"A lot of parents will go to independent educational consultants, but it is going to cost money to have a professional dedicate time to your college search and career path. I would suggest asking private school counselors in your area for assistance — I have helped students from our community with their college search. It gives me the experience of working with a different demographic."

Gamache also recommends the public library for college books or free online resources such as BestColleges and Khan Academy. In addition, the College Board provides BigFuture to help students find colleges. Lastly, there are books with worksheets for students and parents to work through. Gamache suggested a few of her own favorites:

  • "Sending Your Child to College: The Prepared Parent's Operational Manual" by Marie Pinak Carr
  • "College Match: A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You" by Dr. Steven Antonoff'
  • "Prepare, Compete, Win: The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students" by Peter Van Buskirk

College Fairs

College fairs are events that bring together admissions officers from colleges and universities around the country. School professionals at these events represent their respective colleges and provide informational overviews and printed resources; they are also available to answer questions from students and parents.

Claster, a college counselor, thinks college fairs are worth the time for some students: "Since many students can't make it to every campus they're interested in, college fairs and visits from campus representatives to the student's high school can be good alternatives." For example, NCAC hosts well-known national college fairs in different cities across the country starting every September.

Campus Visits

Campus visits may be the most valuable step in the college decision-making process. According to Claster, "campus visits are really the best way to get a feel for a particular campus and its culture or vibe, and whether you'll be happy there — whether it has those things you can't quantify that make for a great fit."

Not only do campus visits demonstrate interest in a college, which some schools factor into their admissions decisions, but they are also the only way to determine if a college meets all your wants and needs. In addition, these visits may be advisable for students applying to colleges that require in-person interviews, since these interviews are sometimes conducted on campus.

If you can't manage a visit before applying, Claster points out you can still check out campuses following acceptance: "Most schools have visit opportunities specifically for accepted students to help you make a final decision, and you should take advantage of these if at all possible. If the cost of travel is genuinely prohibitive, you might ask if there is financial assistance to make it workable."

In the end, students should consider the fact that they will be attending this college for 2-4 years of their lives. A campus visit is a negligible expense compared to making a wrong choice and needing to transfer colleges down the road.

"While it may not always be possible for every student to visit their future campus before committing, I do think it's important to try," explains Claster. "There are things you simply can't learn from a website or a view book. You can't tell how faculty and staff interact with students, how engaged students are with their peers, what the buzz on campus is like on game night, or how frustrating it is to find parking during peak hours. All of these things and more add up to a unique campus culture, and you want to have at least an understanding of what you're getting into before joining the community."

Best Books for College Planning

When it comes to college planning, there are many reputable and authoritative books and online resources. They are an inexpensive (and sometimes free) option for parents and students who may not be able to visit campus or attend college fairs.

"College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step"

Featuring the wise counsel of more than 50 deans of admission across the country, "College Admission" by Robin Mamlet walks students through the importance of various admissions factors, including extracurricular activities, standardized tests, and athletics.

"College Match

A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You": This book has provided guidance to students and parents for over 27 years. "College Match" by Dr. Steven R. Antonoff debunks myths about the application process and leads you through some essential steps that can make college admissions less stressful.

"Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps"

Written by Alan Gelb, a professional writer and college essay coach, this book helps students choose engaging topics and use creative writing techniques to compose college essays that reflect their individuality.

"College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay"

There are really only four types of admissions essay, according to author and college counselor Ethan Sawyer. What kind should you write? This book guides you through the conceptualization, drafting, and revision process in a few easy steps.

"U.S. News Best Colleges 2020"

You can hardly begin the application process without knowing the full landscape of potential colleges. U.S. News & World Report publishes this annual compendium of the best colleges in the United States.

Online Resources for College Planning

BigFuture

This easy-to-use website from the College Board contains guides and databases that let students search for school profiles, create a college wish list, search for scholarships, and explore potential careers.

The Princeton Review

A staple resource among students and parents for decades, The Princeton Review can guide you through college prep with school profiles, admissions advice, private tutoring, and practice tests.

U.S. News Best Colleges

As a companion to the published guide, U.S. News & World Report provides an online platform with nearly 50 different types of numerical rankings to help students in their college search.

ACT College Planning

From the same company responsible for the beloved ACT test, ACT's college planning webpage is a step-by-step guide with application tips and a list of to-do's for each year of high school.

BestColleges College Planning Guides

Last but not least, BestColleges' guides cover topics such as college applications, financial planning, and test preparation. The BestColleges "Office Hours" blog also provides personal insights from educators and students.

Helping Your Child Choose a College: What to Consider

Colleges are as diverse as the students who apply to them, and while they have many common attributes, there is a lot that can set one college apart from another. Gant, Montclair's director of undergraduate admissions, had some advice: "[Talk] with your student about what the family can afford and if the student will be taking on loans. If your student wants to go to school far from home, help them understand what that will be like by speaking openly about the challenges they'll face and by visiting schools farther afield."

When researching and comparing prospective colleges, it's good to keep a few things in mind. For example, most colleges can be grouped into certain categories that cater to the needs of particular student groups. Below, we've compiled a list of the most important factors to consider when researching and choosing a college.