Choosing the Best College for Your Student

You may may have a very organized child who already knows what he or she wants to do with their career and has already picked out their top three colleges. More than likely however, you have a child who is overwhelmed with the college search process and needs some guidance. How do you help your child pick a school where they will be happy, and get a great education without getting overloaded with debt?

Here are some tips to get your child on the right track, and to find a college that really is their best fit!

1. Take Some Time to Find Out What Your Child Really Wants.

Before jumping into any search, have your child spend some significant time thinking about what it is they really want out of their education. How near or far is their ideal college? Is it in the city or the country? Does it have a large football stadium, or just the opportunity to play intramural volleyball? Does the school offer opportunities for research in a particular area?

Your child will probably not be able to come up with all the answers right away, and some priorities may shift during the search process. But taking some time for them to consider what it is they are really looking for will go a long way to focusing them on a school that’s a good fit for them.

Have them also consider what majors they are considering. Focusing on just schools that are strong in a particular cluster of majors is an easy way to start your search. This article has more tips on choosing a major.

2. Create Your List.

Start broad by building lists of colleges that are all in your ideal location, or that offer a specific program, or that meet your financial aid requirements, or some combination of factors.

After that you have to narrow down your list. Make sure you look at outcomes-specific data like graduation rates, student loan default rates, and average salaries of graduates just to name a few. 

Eliminate any school that is too far out of your price range or that you know your child has no chance of getting in. You may keep one or two schools on your list that are considered "reach" schools, but the majority of the list should be considered "good fit" schools. A good fit means the school fits your criteria, they offers the majors you want, are affordable for your family, and your child has the grades to make it in. 

Hint: Students in the top 30% of applicants usually receive the best financial aid packages.

3. Plan Your College Visits.

For most students the college visit is the most important factor in deciding on where they will go. For this reason, and because visiting a lot of colleges can get expensive, it’s important to only plan visits to schools that have met all of your initial criteria. You don't want your child to fall in love with a campus that is completely un-affordable or impossible for them to get into. 

During campus tours it's easy to get swept up in the beauty of the campus and romanticize the school as tour guides usually put a positive spin on everything. To make the most of visits, come prepared with a list of questions. If possible, try to sit in on a class and eat a meal at the dining hall. Speak to faculty, employees and students to get a better feel of what it's really like to attend this school.

For more on campus visits, see these articles:

4. Apply and Compare Offers.

Applying to a lot of college is a lot of work, and can also be pricey if you have to pay an application fee for each school. Although some of your child's classmates may be applying to as many as 20 schools, most experts recommend sending out about six to ten applications. The final list of schools your child is applying to should include two to three safety schools, two to three reach schools, and three to five good fit schools.

The good news is if you've done your homework your child should expect to be accepted to most, if not all, of the schools he or she applied to. You should also expect to receive a fair financial aid package from schools that your child is a good fit for.

Use College Cost Cutter for help comparing your financial aid offers and learn how to negotiate with colleges if you feel that your financial aid package is not fair.

5. Make the Final Decision.

Use all the information at your disposal to choose the college that's offering you the right education at the right price! Best of luck, and congrats to you and your college-bound student!