When and How to Start the College Search

The best advice I can give is to start early, make a plan and follow it. Use the tools that are available to you and the process will be painless.
11/14/2013 06:29pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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By Suzanne Shaffer, College Coach


Seniors everywhere are settling in to the college application process. They are completing their applications to submit to the colleges they have chosen. But this decision process didn't begin at the beginning of their senior year; it started when they first entered high school.

If you're a parent of a college-bound teen, start the college search process with the following steps:

The preliminaries

The first thing parents and students should do is schedule a meeting with the child's guidance counselor. At this meeting you will begin to plan for college and discuss your student's interests and academic profile. Take with you a list of questions that will help you and your student understand the steps that need to be taken to begin the college search.

Start with research

Begin researching some colleges that interest you. Peruse their websites and use some college comparison programs online. Register with a college matching service like Zinch or CollegeXpress. Use the data and make some lists of colleges that interest you. On this list add colleges that compliment your student's desired location, degree program, style of learning and extra programs like study abroad or Greek life.

Follow up with visits

Once you have a list of possibilities, start making college visits during the early months of junior year. Don't neglect the visits because they are critical to helping you and your student with an informed decision. You can schedule vacations near the college campuses and visit the ones close by. Even though it might not be in the list, visiting colleges helps your student get the feel of college life and begin to know what they like and don't like on campus.

Compare the statistics

No college search is complete without looking at the statistics. These include graduation rates, freshmen retention rates, financial aid packages, tuition and other expenses. Look at the net price calculators on each college site to determine the actual cost of the college. Use programs like College Factual and College Abacus to compare side by side statistics.

Talk about money

You can't make a college decision without discussing money with your student. Have this talk early in the process before you finalize the list. Be honest with your student and let him or her know what you plan to pay and what you expect him or her to contribute. It's unwise for your student to apply to colleges you can't possibly afford. Be realistic and if scholarships need to be part of the process, your student should start applying as early as possible before the last minute senior deadlines.

Finishing with your Top 10

Once you and your student have examined all the data and made all the visits, it's time to narrow down the list. This should be done the summer before senior year, but at the very latest in the early fall. Make a final list of at least 10 colleges (3 reach schools, 4 perfect fit or matches, and 3 safety schools). The most important thing to remember when making this list is to make sure that every school on the list is a school your student wants to attend. Offers of admission often include safety schools and the financial aid packages can be more appealing at the reach schools. If a school is not a school your student wants to attend, it makes for a very unhappy household come acceptance time.

The best advice I can give is to start early, make a plan and follow it. Use the tools that are available to you and the process will be painless. That, of course, doesn't guarantee it won't be stressful. But it does guarantee that you won't be scrambling around at the last minute trying to make deadlines and forced decisions.