The College Application Advice I Wish Someone Had Given Me

There's a lot of misguidance out there.
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So your high school senior is in the throes of preparing his college applications. He’s retaking the SATs for the umpteenth time, hoping to squeeze out a few extra points there. He’s collapsing under the weight of the multiple AP classes that he felt compelled to take. And you honestly don’t see how to narrow his college list down from 25 schools, even though you know that applying to so many would be the definition of insanity.

Here is a list of eight things I wish I had known when my daughter was applying to schools last year. A version of this appeared previously on The Huffington Post.

1. The word “fit” gets bandied about quite a bit. It doesn’t mean what people tell you it means.

Fit, you will be led to believe, is whether the vibe of the campus matches up with your student’s goals and personality. Some campuses are perfect for save-the-world peaceniks like my daughter; others are better suited for the future engineers of the world. Fit is also sometimes interpreted as “don’t apply to schools in New York City if you find cities overwhelming.”

But “fit” in the truest sense of the word should probably mean “financial fit.” Can you afford it? If you can’t, don’t let your kid apply. Yes, it’s that simple. Would you book a vacation that you couldn’t pay for? Buy a car with no way to make payments on it? Rent an apartment that costs more than you bring home each month? No, you wouldn’t do those things. So don’t do them with colleges either.

Shop in your price range. There is no point in applying just for the hell of it if you can’t afford it. The chances of your kid getting a “hail Mary” scholarship are pretty much zero to nil.

2. Getting accepted to schools is very affirming, but ultimately meaningless.

My daughter was admitted to pretty much every school she applied to, except one.

Sure, it felt great to open the email or envelope and read the news that she’s been selected. She certainly worked hard and earned those good grades and community honors. But do you know what they say about college acceptance letters? “That and $5 bucks will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.”

Colleges are businesses. They sell you an education and a degree that will hopefully lead to a job and a means to a livelihood. A college acceptance is Bloomingdale’s telling you that you can shop there. Open your wallet wide. And if you don’t have enough in that wallet, the acceptance letter is just something to get the fire started in the fireplace.

3. Colleges have hidden costs.

With so much disclosure, I was shocked to learn about the hidden cost of health insurance. While it makes sense — and is the law — that every student carry health insurance, many colleges are quick to reject the idea that your son is still covered under your employer-provided family plan. Instead, some schools adapt the default position that they are going to provide Junior with health coverage — to the tune of about $2,000 or so a year — and will charge you for it upfront! Then you have to jump through hoops and prove to the college that he’s covered under your plan — with the same coverages as the school plan — and appeal to get your $2,000 back. Meanwhile, the school has your money.

Oh, and $2,000 may be a bargain. Stanford University’s Cardinal Care program costs $4,680 per year. Given that college students are probably the healthiest segment of our population, how is this even remotely right?

4. Scholarships are the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself.

When a school costs $60,000 a year — or even $30,000 — getting a $500 scholarship really isn’t going to make much of a difference in your ability to afford it.

My daughter spent countless hours tracking down and applying for scholarships ― and she did pick up a few grand in outside money. Some scholarships require multiple essays, financial forms, and letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors and spiritual leaders. A few of them require as much effort to complete as the college applications. Others are so crazy narrow in who qualifies for them that it becomes a joke. We actually found one scholarship that was for “Undergraduate Jewish students who are orphans and preparing for graduate study in aeronautical engineering.” For real. And what’s the big prize? With the exception of a few national competitions where students can earn $10,000 a year, the vast majority of scholarships are in the $200 to $2,000 range. For a chance at winning $200, your kid’s time may be better spent babysitting.

The real scholarship money comes in the form of merit aid. A school will look at the student’s GPA and test scores and determine how much they want them to attend. Kids with really high scores get offered more aid. It’s that simple. So if affordability is a concern, it’s smarter to apply to schools where your kid is at the top of the class. Reach schools aren’t going to give you as much financial help as the ones where your student is a top applicant.

5. Love and merit aid may not last forever.

Merit aid is a college’s way of enticing the best students to accept their admissions offer. But it behooves you to read the fine print. It could mean they love your son now, but plan on breaking up with him next year. Merit aid is sometimes just a one-year deal. Sometimes, it is dependent on a student maintaining a certain grade point average, which seems reasonable enough. But what will happen to your ability to pay for college if merit aid disappears at the same time tuition and expenses likely rise? Just think about it.

6. Beware of Tufts Syndrome.

Colleges want to appear highly selective and don’t want to be rejected by those who they do admit. Having a high yield — meaning the percentage of the students who they offer admission to who actually chose to come to that school — enhances a school’s desirability. Tuft’s syndrome is when a school protects its yield by waitlisting or denying admission to over-qualified applicants. The logic is that the over-qualified applicant likely won’t wind up at that school, so why not skip him in favor of someone who has a keener interest in actually attending.

So Junior may get waitlisted or rejected by a safety school where his GPA and test scores vastly surpass the average — and yet get admitted to a much harder college. How do colleges know they were his “just in case Harvard says no” school? Well, for one, they actually gauge an applicant’s interest. Did the student come for a campus tour? Did they ask for an interview or stop by to introduce themselves when the college rep visited their high school?

And, college admissions officers have been around the block a few times. Unless there is some expression of interest or reason shared (mom is sick and I want to stay close to home), nobody likes to be the fourth person you asked to the prom.

As for why this practice is named after Tufts University, well, we can only guess.

7. Waiving the application fee should not be interpreted as interest in a student.

Silly you, for thinking a college wants your daughter so much that they waived the $65 application fee for her. In most cases, what the college really wants is to be able to say it got a large number of applicants. And there is no better way to do that than to plant the idea that since this is now free, you have nothing to lose. And maybe you don’t.

8. At the end of the process, it’s best to just go Zen.

For real. The college application process is one of those things where the best laid plans of mice and men may just lead you in circles. Try not to worry about it too much. There are lots of paths to get to a goal. The beauty of picking a college is that if your student winds up not being happy there, the world won’t end; he transfers and you revisit the idea of community college which continues to make great sense.

Before You Go

1. Princeton University

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