For those parents and students starting the college search, I recommend www.collegeconfidential.com
Here are other lessons I learned when helping my daughter with the process.
1) Try to visit some colleges now (junior year in spring break or so) if possible so that they can get a visual of what college is like and what they are looking for.
2) Don’t apply to any schools that you don’t want to go to.
3) If your kid doesn’t know what they want to major in or seems reluctant to go to college, consider Community College. It will be a more supportive environment for a lower cost. Usually it is no problem to transfer to the State University.
4) Strongly consider applying to a college that has Early Action (not one that you are bound to) so you have at least one acceptance before January 1. It is very nice as you are waiting for the April 15 decision date to know you have an acceptance.
5) Make a rough draft of the application essay over the summer. It is like pulling teeth to get them to do this, but Senior Year is often very busy with advanced classes and it is also very hard to do difficult school work plus the essay plus the early applications. This way when the senior gets back to school they can start having teachers and guidance counselors look over the essay ASAP. Try to convince the kid to use those people as resources so they have the best essay they can do to help get into what ever school they want to. And if your kid won't start early, make sure they don't take a killer course load. That can make a difference in the stress level.
6) If your kid really wants to apply to an Ivy league college, then work with them to make sure their essay is spectacular and that they have really focused on what they bring to the university. Try to really focus on an area of extra curriculars that is unique or that you bring a unique spin to, or that you are really good at. I think my daughter did an average essay that didn’t highlight why they needed her. When only 8% of applicants get in, you really need to stand out.
7) PSAT and SAT/ACT scores really do count for a lot and are used to determine scholarships. I think it is worth some sort of formal study program to maximize those scores.
As early as possible in the process (way before it’s time to actually apply for financial aid!), do a rough Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) calculation on the FAFSA and College Board websites. These are the official websites where you enter all your financial data so that it will be determine how much your family can “afford”. That will give you a ballpark figure of what the colleges will think you can afford to pay. But note that except for the most competitive/Ivy league schools, most colleges do NOT meet 100% of need (not even close!), so in most cases the kid/family will be expected to pay a LOT more than the EFC.
9) Once this is determined, be realistic up front with how much your family is willing pay every year for college. Sit down and talk to your kid about what you will have to spend on their college so they know what they have to work with. I wouldn’t discourage them from applying to expensive schools because they may get financial aid or merit aid, but if it ends up being $30,000 more than you can pay then they know that won’t be in the cards.
10) There are only 2 ways to end up paying LESS than your computed EFC: apply to a school whose total costs are less than your EFC, or get a very generous merit aid offer. For this reason, if you don't think you can afford your EFC, look for schools where your kid will be near the top of the application pool, and that are known for giving good merit aid.
11) If you get need-based financial aid, keep in mind that the loans the student can get will usually be included in the aid package -- those loans are not usually available to go toward meeting your EFC. Also, if your student earns outside scholarships, your need-based financial aid will usually be reduced by the amount of the scholarship, though if you're lucky they'll reduce the loans and work-study portion and not any grants.
12) When you look at the financial aid that a college awards, look closely. Sometimes they say early on in the letter that you have $5500 in financial aid, and you find out when you look more closely that it is only a loan.
13) However, if you don’t have very much money at all, don’t let that stop you from applying to more expensive schools if you have a chance of getting in. The financial aid need may be covered.
14) When it comes time to compare schools and make decisions, you can Google “common data set college” to see a whole bunch of info about specific colleges, all displayed in a consistent way. The first match will probably be was a College Confidential website listing with the links for a bunch of colleges; the ones that are missing from that list can be Googled directly instead. There’s admission data, financial aid data, the most important factors considered in students’ applications, class sizes, faculty info, and tons more.
15) Don’t be afraid to contact the school if you have questions or something seems off. For example, my daughter had applied to our State public University. She had gotten partial scholarships at all the other state public universities and since ours is also known for partial scholarships I contacted them. I had read that they award them based on GPA/Class Rank in addition to SAT scores. But my daughter’s GPA is very difficult to compute (2 different non-4.0 scale systems) and she has no class rank (schools are too small). But I sent them an email saying that if lack of information was the reason that we could provide any that they needed. They must have looked at her grades/SAT and the next day awarded her a partial scholarship in line with the other schools.
Useful websites include:http://collegesearch.collegeboard.com
for basic stats, size, admissions percent, mid 50% test scores etc.www.unigo.com
for “reviews” of collegeswww.kiplingers.com
for best value collegeswww.collegeconfidential.com
for discussion forums for all things collegiate. http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/
New York Times Blog for “Demystifying College Admissions and Aid”http://www.finaid.org/fafsa/maximize.phtml
for strategies to maximize financial aid.