College Selection

How to Create a College List

by | May 4, 2020

Building a college list is one of the most critical parts of the college application process. A good college list can make sure that you have many excellent choices at the end of the process, and that college doesn’t turn into a $200,000 mistake.

The statistics are frightening. Nearly 25% of 4-year college students drop out after the first year. Only about 60% graduate with a degree in six years. These numbers are scary, given the cost of college and the fact that the average student graduates with nearly $35,000 in student loans. But even if money is no object, these statistics point to the difficulty of finding a college where your child will thrive and succeed. And amid a worldwide pandemic, the job market students will graduate into is uncertain.

So if you’re concerned as a parent, you should be. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do things to improve the odds your child faces. Doing so involves not paying attention to conventional wisdom and some social signals. Many myths keep parents and students from making the best choice for them.

Myths About College Selection

The Best School is the Local State University

For many students, an out-of-state public university or a private university is a much better choice. They can often provide better financial aid packages and end up being more affordable than the local state school. In many cases, they are also a better cultural fit, and sometimes offer programs that are a better fit for some students. Schools also differ widely in how well they prepare students for the world of work, so the state university nearby may not be the best choice. Widen your perspective. It can pay off handsomely.

The Best School is the Highest Ranked One

Many families focus on college rankings: whether those by U.S. News and World Report, or Petersons, or others. These rankings are often just a measure of a school’s wealth and selectivity. They’re not a good measure of how well they do in terms of preparing students for the workforce, or of providing a cultural fit, or the best program in a field they want to study.

The Best School is the One Your Child’s Friends are Applying to

High school students are often eager to apply to the same schools where their friends are seeking admission. Given all the conversations in the hallway, at athletic practice, or in social situations, it can be tempting to apply at the same places, either due to competitive instinct or to maintain a social circle in college. But while having a social circle in college is essential, the same college is rarely a fit for students with differing academic capacities, goals, personalities, and cultures.

The Best School is the One Where Your Child Will Get an Athletic Scholarship

If you need money to afford a college education, investing time in athletics in the hope of winning a scholarship is not a great idea. The percentage of high school athletes who get athletic scholarships is minuscule. And most of those aren’t full-ride scholarships. Your chances of winning scholarships for academics, writing, art, or other activities are much better.

The Best School is the One You Attended

Many parents have high hopes that their child will attend their alma mater, whether that is Harvard, Stanford, Ohio State, or the State University of New York. But it’s worth remembering this not about you as a parent. This process is about your child’s future. So help them find a college or university where they fit, where they can get an excellent education, and have a good future.

Six Tips on Picking a Great College List

Here are six tips to help you and your child pick an excellent college list

  • Consider Post-College Earnings: Students from different universities make vastly different incomes after college. Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce found that the discrepancies are valid even after you adjust for the level of preparation of incoming students, and after you adjust for different majors. LifeLaunchr’s College Match provides you with this data on each college and can factor it into your search.
  • Consider Your Cost: Colleges will provide you with a sticker price for tuition and fees. But very few students pay this price, so when you do your college search, make sure you use each college’s net price calculator to estimate your cost of attendance. Look for schools where the combination of merit aid and need-based financial aid can meet the cost of college, so your child graduates without debt.
  • Consider the School’s Size and Diversity: Be honest and ask whether your child could benefit from the resources, diversity, and relative anonymity of life at a large university, or needs the individual attention and community a small school might offer.
  • Consider Cultural Fit: Finding a school where your child will fit culturally can be critical. At some universities, the sports teams are the most crucial part of campus life. At others, the sports teams aren’t that prestigious. Some emphasize conformity, discipline, and heritage. Others focus on individual expression and creativity. Ask yourself which one your child needs the most.
  • Consider Whether the School has the Programs You Want: Before you apply, check to see whether the school offers the majors or programs your child might want to study. Many students don’t declare majors until after their freshman or sophomore year, but having a good sense of what you’d like to study can help a lot in picking a college.
  • Consider Canada and Europe: For many students, the best college for them may be in Canada or Europe. Universities in those countries can be very affordable, despite citizenship issues. They can also provide an excellent education, cultural exposure, and academic rigor.

When it comes to finding a great college for your child, you don’t have to fall victim to the odds. Investing a little time upfront can help your child thrive, save you tens of thousands of dollars, and help build a better future for your son or daughter.


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Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan (Swami) is the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, the world's first virtual college admissions coaching platform, and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Swami has been an executive in the education and technology industries for over 25 years. He has an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois, and a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He is the father of a child in college, and in his spare time, he is a jazz and Indian classical singer and pianist.

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