The amount of information you find online about the college search and application process can be overwhelming. I’ve drawn on my years of experience and included some basic advice and favorite resources below. One key to navigating the admissions world is to find a few trusted websites and guides and rely on them, rather than descend into the rabbit hole of often conflicting and untrustworthy information you can find on the Web.
Some Advice &
General Rules to Live By
Don’t take admissions advice from friends, family and neighbors. It usually is based on old information, dubious sources, or misunderstood comments from colleges and universities.
When colleges and university admissions offices say things that don’t ring quite true, such as “standardized test scores are not very important in our process” or “early decision/action does not convey any advantage,” trust your gut. (Although Georgetown and Boston College really mean it about their early programs.)
Look beyond “the usual suspects” in the college search. There are lots of gems out there.
The northeast corridor has lots of fantastic colleges and universities (I went to one and loved it). It does NOT, however, contain ALL of them.
Driving 3 hours and flying 3 hours to get to a college takes the same amount of time.
If you can afford it, test prep is a good idea, especially if it is one-on-one. It often pays for itself in merit-based awards from colleges resulting from higher test scores.
A lot of test prep vendors are not very good and/or are overpriced. Choose carefully.
Don’t pay attention to how quickly your friends are completing their college applications. Speed does not equal quality.
Application essays should sound like a kid wrote them. And don’t try to guess what a college wants to hear. They are sick of hearing that.
Don’t have a lot of people read and comment on your kid’s essays. It becomes contradictory and confusing.
Trusted Websites and Other Resources
There are a lot of college guides out there. Some are good and helpful, some are not, and you don’t need to use very many. Below are my suggestions:
My favorite college guide is the Fiske Guide to Colleges. You can buy it at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Fiske-Guide-Colleges-2020-Edward or, better yet, at your local bookstore. As with any guidebook, take what it says with a grain of salt. In general, the more extreme the observation about a place, the more likely it is one person’s opinion or perception and not a fair characterization of a place as a whole.
An interesting and popular guide that is a little different is Colleges that Change Lives, by Loren Pope. You can find it at Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Colleges-That-Change-Lives-Schools) or at your local bookstore. The book has spawned an organization by the same name; it’s website (www.ctcl.org) is informative and also lists dates that member colleges will be doing events in cities nationwide.
Another great website is www.finaid.org. If you have any questions about how financial aid works, this is the place to start. I’ve been lucky to hear FinAid’s founder, Mark Kantrowitz, speak at a conference; he really knows his stuff.
The most likely places to obtain merit-based scholarships are the colleges and universities themselves. Many colleges automatically consider students for merit-based aid when they apply, while others expect students to apply separately. Searching each institution’s financial aid website can help you uncover specific scholarships that require separate application—and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call colleges to ask about scholarships as well.
Other places to find scholarships, albeit typically smaller ones, are employers, places of worship and local civic and service organizations.
Many websites offer scholarship search engines. Two you can trust are College Board’s Big Future site (https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/scholarship-search) and Fastweb (www.fastweb.com).
Four rules to remember: 1. Beware of scholarship scams. 2. Never pay a fee to apply for a scholarship. 3. Never attend a “free program” by a private service that will tell you how to find scholarships. 4. Do not hire a company to find scholarships for you, even if they offer a money-back guarantee.
Gap Year and Summer Programs
Let’s start with this article on the Harvard admissions website: https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/apply/first-year-applicants/considering-gap-year. It includes a long analysis of the ridiculous pressure many high school kids face as they try to do things that they, or their parents, think will distinguish them from the pack. It talks about the importance of free time in the summer, and of the things students can learn from holding a summer job that requires them to work hard, toiling side-by-side with kids whose backgrounds are very different from theirs. And it discusses the value of taking a gap year, which a significant percentage of admitted Harvard freshmen do every year.
A longtime player in helping kids find gap year experiences, the Center for Interim Studies is highly respected. https://www.interimprograms.com/
The National Outdoor Leadership Program (www.nols.edu) is a leader in outdoors programs for kids and adults. They offer everything from several-week summer adventures in Alaska or Baja to semester programs in South America, thus providing both high school summer program opportunities and gap year experiences.
Many, many colleges and universities host summer programs. But don’t expect that completing a summer program at a first-choice college will improve one’s chances of admission—many college summer program courses are not taught by full-time college faculty, and I think there usually is little if any link to the college admissions process at the host institution. With summer programs, as well as with so many other things kids can do during high school, the important takeaway is what you learned—about a subject, yourself, or the world—not where you learned it.