College Search Navigation: Don't get bogged down in the mire!

My son is now a junior in high school. You know what that means. It's time to start thinking about post secondary schooling. I'm overwhelmed, plain and simple. My son even knows what he is going into, and I'm still frazzled. It's a daunting task and one I'd love to find reason to avoid, but my son needs my assistance and support with his search.

I've learned that a good place to start is with other parents and students who have already gone through the process. There is a plethora of information on the Internet, so one can easily get more confused. Find out the sources others deemed most beneficial.

Put it in Perspective

Your teen's college search should be an exciting and gratifying experience, so don't put too much pressure on her.

Bruce G. Hammond, co-author of Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College and Fiske What to Do When for College (Sourcebooks, Inc. 2007), advises, "When parents cannot control their anxiety, the college search process becomes miserable for everyone. Parents must remember that attending a particular college will not make or break a young person's future. A young person's life trajectory will have much more to do with what happens after they get to college than with which one they attend."

Narrow it Down

Many believe that narrowing down your choices by location is a necessary first step. Does your teen want to be close to home or does he want to experience life in a different part of the country? Will he want to be part of a large school community or a small one? Does he prefer a serene, rural environment or an urban lifestyle? You'd be surprised how much you can narrow your choices just by location alone.

Next, find the right academic fit. Many websites provide you with various search options, such as searching colleges by specific majors. If your teen is unsure of his course of study, look at schools with a variety of choices in majors, rather than colleges that specialize in a few areas. Don't get stuck in cyber space either. Consult a variety of sources - counselors, teachers, alumni, and guides.

Financial Restrictions

Don't automatically disregard colleges which you deem "unaffordable" at first glance. For instance, you might consider a community college for the first two years. Successful community college graduates are often offered scholarships for their next two years at selective universities.

As you look into financial aid, don't forget to pursue merit scholarships. Hammond explains, "Don't believe the hucksters who claim that there is free money for college hiding under a rock. The vast majority of money for college comes via the institution where the student chooses to enroll. Colleges use scholarships to offer discounts to students they are particularly interested in. Students should keep in mind their odds of getting a scholarship are best when they are at or near the top of the applicant pool."

Make the Most of a Visit

Try to narrow down the list to about seven to ten colleges. Be sure to include colleges where acceptance seems certain. Campus visits are the next step. You might find that your teen just doesn't like the "vibe" at a particular school. This is what the college visit is all about - experiencing those things that you just don't get from a text or video. Talk to students on campus and ask them what they like most (and least) about the school.

Hammond advises, "Students should take a comparative approach to college visits. Identify a few important criteria, and look for the same things at each place. Record your impressions soon after you leave. Try not to be influenced too much by whether you like your tour guide. Focus instead on what the tour guide is telling you."


  • "Your teen has to own the process. Parents should act as a strong support, but not take over by determining what is best for their teen."
    Leslie Koscielniak - Raleigh, NC
  • "Visit colleges when classes are in session. You do not get the same sense of what the school is really like on summer or weekend visits."
    Lynne Schiffer - Hyde Park, NY