Creating the Right College List: It’s all in the Toss

“It’s all in the toss,” my tennis instructor said as we practiced our serves.   If the toss is too high, you will have a hard time making contact.  If it is too low, you will not have enough time to reach all the way back and your serve will be weak.  If you throw it too far off center, your chance of getting it in is greatly reduced.

As I drove home from my lesson, I started thinking how much the toss in tennis is like the list in the college application process.  If you aim too high, your chances of getting in are slim; if you find schools that don’t match your personality and interests, you may get it in, but it won’t be a good fit.  But when you hit it right, the ball pings and almost always gets in.

So how do you create a list that pings?

Understand your needs.  Start with your needs, academic interests, academic abilities, and personality to gain a clearer understanding of what schools would be a good fit.  It’s easy to get caught up in rankings or what your friends, relatives, or Uncle’s step-son thinks is a good school, but in reality, you are the one attending college, not them.  So start with yourself and look for fit.

For example, if you want to major in science or think you want to go to medical school, identify schools that will allow you to thrive in a science major since med school is all about grades.  Watch Malcolm Gladwell’s video on how to excel in science regardless of how you did in high school.

Use rankings cautiously.  US News and World Report is a good starting point to give you a sense of how schools rate against each other, but that is all it is.  There are so many other factors that you must consider when making a good match.

Be realistic.  It’s easy to create a list from the top schools in the country. But those same schools are also the most selective and difficult to get in.  Even if you are a top student in you high school, are you a top student in the country?  The world?  How do you compare with other top students globally? Because that is whom you will be competing with. 

On the flip side, do not aim too low.  Find out where you stand in comparison to other students applying and recognize that having the grades and test scores gets you in the game, but having something unique makes you a viable player.

Identify Schools Where You Can  Contribute Your Strengths. Are you a nationally ranked chess player or debater?  Are you a talented musician or artist that will contribute to the school in a meaningful way? Are you a recruited athlete? Have you done meaningful research that has been published? Have you overcome adversity and still succeeded academically? Are you kind and have you demonstrated this character in a tangible way? Figure out which schools value your strengths and how you can contribute to their community.

Understand the financial component.  One of the first discussions you should have about college with your parents or guardians is how much money will they contribute and how much will you have to contribute?  Find out if you are eligible for financial aid. 

Go in armed with your budget and choose schools that will meet your need or that you can afford without any financial aid.  See which schools provide merit aid and what percentage of need they meet CollegeData is a good place to start. The Money Matters section shows financial aid broken down by need and merit.

Be open-minded. Just because you have not heard of a school, does not make it a “bad” school. There are over 4,000 colleges in the United States and sometimes going to one that is different from where everyone else in your school is going, can be a wonderful adventure that allows you to thrive.

Think strategically.  Why do you want to go to college?  Depending on the answer, your choice of school will vary.  If you wan to get into a PhD program in history, then see which schools have the highest rate of students accepted to PhD programs in economics.

If your goal is to get a job on Wall Street, then speak with career services and find out where most of their students get jobs and which companies come to recruit.  If you know someone working in your field of interest, ask them which schools do the recruit from most often.  If you want to go to medical school, research acceptance rate and medical school advising programs.

Love your likelies and safeties.  They are called this for a reason, because your chances of acceptance are high.  The worst thing  you are your DS/DD can do is remove all their safety or likely schools and only apply to possible and reach schools.  I recommend 1-2 reach, 1-2 possible, 3-4 likely, and 1-2 safety. How do you know which category a school falls into?  

Good luck creating a list that pings!

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