13 tips to start the college search

As this summer winds down and gearing up for a new school year begins, instead of buying new crayons and construction paper for elementary school, I find myself shopping for extra-long twin sheets and shower caddies.

Our little boy is going to college.

And as exciting and daunting as that is, I can’t help but think back to a couple of summers ago when this whole college search process began.

Admittedly, I was absolutely clueless as to how to even approach this overwhelming task of helping my son choose a school. The decision-making process didn’t resemble my own 25 years ago which consisted of a total of three applications in my home state and a mailbox filled with postcards from schools I had never heard of and promptly ignored.

But after wading our way through together, sorting through the endless stacks of information, advice and counsel, I think we ended up in the best possible place for him.

I’ve decided to write this down because I wish I had a jumping off place when I started, so hopefully you’ll find some tips here if you find yourself as confused as I was.

1.) Forget everything you thought about every school. Period. Chances are fairly high that all of the old rumors, reputations, stigmas, unearned loftiness that you ever applied to any school is either unfair, untrue or outdated. You owe it to yourself and to your child to look at a particular school with a fresh and open mind free of old prejudice.

2.) Now there are eleventy billion colleges and universities to narrow down. Consider starting with a geographic radius—are you comfortable with a 3 hour drive? 6 hours? 2 day plane trip? Urban or rural? A very specific program or major? This begins to answer the questions of what is going to be the right fit for your student.

3.) Hello, Internet. This handy dandy tool can answer immediate questions like size, specialties, costs and activities. You should visit every website of schools you’re interested in—and not just the home page. Here’s also a great place to start in general: Collegeboard.org.

4.) Attend every College Night your high school offers. These may seem like a waste of time when you’re trying to schedule an already busy week, but the information you get from unexpected sources and schools you may not have ever considered is invaluable. Your high school probably has a department dedicated to college—use the resources and counselors there. They’re professionals and can really help navigate the process.

5.) Now start making a short list of schools. The real contenders—the ones you like, but mostly the ones your child expresses interest in. Make sure to include some of varying size and distance. Some safe and some reach schools—some you’re familiar with and others that are new.

6.) Now the visits. These trips to different schools and towns make up some of my fondest memories with my teenager. Not only was it an excuse to spend a lot of time together his junior year, but we learned so much and I can’t imagine having to make the eventual decision without having that real-life experience. College visits not only introduce that specific school, but provide constructive comparisons and tangible feelings that no website or brochure could possibly give.

I remember one particular weekend where we visited two schools—the first was one of my favorites which he really didn’t have much interest in and the second was one of his dream schools. After visiting the first he instantly fell in love with everything about it. The second we were halfway through the tour when he whispered, “I really can’t see myself going here.”

We were able to talk about what was appealing and what wasn’t, and it really helped narrow our search from there.

On these visits, do yourself a favor and sign up for the free tour offered by the school. You are getting a lot more solid information and access to dorms and classrooms which you wouldn’t necessarily see on a drive-by or unaccompanied campus tour. More often than not, these tours are led by student ambassadors who have already figured out how to navigate the process in the not-so distant past.

The magic number of schools to visit? That’s up to you. But start with a few and see where it goes from there. Try to fit in a couple over a weekend or break or combine a college visit within a family vacation or visiting friends.

7.) A warning about Dream Schools. Oh, we all have them—you and your child. Maybe your child has talked non-stop about the University of X since they learned to talk. They have every jersey, T-shirt, sweatshirt and foam finger and never misses a Saturday game during football season. THAT DOESN’T MEAN THEY HAVE TO ATTEND THERE 18 YEARS LATER. By the time the decision time is close, chances are their needs and interests have changed as well. Maybe that school is too far away now. Maybe it’s too big. Or too small. Or it doesn’t even offer the program your child is interested in. That doesn’t make the school or your child any less awesome, it just means that the dream has evolved, and that’s okay.

8.) More warnings about Dream Schools if they happen to be out of state. If you feel like instantly vomiting or developing a heart condition, look up the out-of-state tuition costs for your dream school. That number could well be over $60,000 a year conservatively. A YEAR. If you are not independently wealthy, this may be a deal-breaker. If you are independently wealthy, you probably didn’t get that way by tossing around hundreds of thousands without looking into all of the options.

Some states offer in-state tuition rates to students in reciprocal neighboring states, so it’s worth knowing what those are. There are also individual schools that may offer those rates as well, so be sure to ask the school counselor where these options are.

You won’t know how much—if any—a particular school is going to offer for merit, financial need, or athletics for many months, so proceed with caution here. And even with the grades, test scores and money, some schools are notoriously tough on out-of-state students. You may have exactly the same or even better credentials as a local student but still not get in. Some decisions are out of your control and should not be taken personally.

9.) Factor in the intangibles. As your list narrows, so will the factors that are important to your family. Distance, costs, athletics, safety, campus life, housing and academics. Don’t discount these things. They all have a place in the decision-making process.

10.) It ain’t over til it’s over. You may think that once you’ve found that perfect school on paper, it’s time to embroider their fight song on a pillow. I wish. The application process now begins and that’s a whole other process of grades, test scores, essays and fees. So don’t put the cart before the horse and encourage your child to have that final short list comprised of multiple really good and comfortable options so that application process can start with clarity.

Make notes on each of the schools you’ve visited right afterward when it’s fresh on your mind and then you can refer to them when application time comes around.

11.) If we all had our life’s path figured out completely at the age of 18, there’d be a lot more movie actors and art historians. Did you have it all figured out upon high school graduation? Of course not. Don’t expect your child to, either. It’s an exciting time and a place to explore the options out there. Be flexible, supportive, and the best sounding board you can be.

12.) The amount of criticism you are allowed to levy over another person’s college search and eventual choice is exactly zero. I mean it. This is a difficult and uniquely intimate process, and you have no idea the considerations that went into another family’s decision, so leave it alone regardless of your feelings and offer your unwavering support. There is a school for everyone out there and finding the one that fits best is something we should all root for when it comes to our kids.

13.) I’ve written this from a parent’s perspective, but ultimately, it’s their choice. Yes, even if you’re paying for it. By this point, the short-list won’t (or shouldn’t) include anywhere that isn’t a realistic possibility for your family for any of the reasons listed above. So when the applications finally do go out, they are going to a set of schools already-agreed upon between you and your child. This is the time for the discerning of those schools, not after they’ve applied and gotten their hopes up if it never was going to be a consideration.

Parents and students both ultimately want the same thing: to succeed at the perfect school for them. Hopefully, you’ve found that mutually-agreeable place because you’ve journeyed together discovering all of the wonderfully important pieces that went into the decision.

©2014 Tracey Henry


  1. I wish someone had told us to start looking and touring colleges the summer before his junior and senior year. Once the senior year starts you must already have a short list and be ready to apply since the scholarship applications usually need to be in before Christmas. Also, recommend applying to those 60,000/yr. colleges if they feel like your dream college – scholarship money sometimes makes them the same out of pocket expense as the state schools.

    • Very good point. The earlier the better makes a big difference in a lot of ways–often a school requires certain classes (like a language or 4 years of math and science) that your high school may not. If you don’t know before your senior year, it may be too late to take it.

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