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  • Writer's pictureJason Flurry, CFP

Getting Your College List Right Is Everything!

How to avoid the mistake 87% of people make when making their college list.

The college selection process is one of the most difficult and most stressful parts of the planning process. When you’re first starting out, it’s too early to have any direction and the lack of momentum combined with the stress of needing to get things moving, especially if you’ve waited too late to begin planning in the first place, can be overwhelming.

In order to have a successful journey, you need to know your destination up front so you can stay on course and know that you’re headed in the right direction. However, when it comes to mapping out potential college choices, 9 out of 10 people do things incorrectly. I’m going to show you why that happens and how you can approach building your college list the right way so you can get the best results possible.

The college list is the foundation of everything that follows in the college planning process. If you don’t get it right, you can’t expect anything else to fall into place. And, with college costing so much these days, you can’t afford to make such a critical mistake, right?

So if the college list is so important, and it is, how do most people consistently mess up this foundational piece of the process? Well, as you’ll see, their problem is actually quite simple.

The vast majority of people start building their college list by browsing various sites online and gathering information about colleges at college fairs and from the volunteers at their high school’s College and Career room. They may also talk with their counselor and even do some college visits to see things in person.

All of this information gets piled up and added to the schools the students are already familiar with, even if it is only because of college football. And eventually you see them selecting 5 – 10 colleges they like enough to apply to.

Okay, so you may be thinking, “That all sounds pretty normal. What’s wrong with that?

I’m going to show you and I think when you see it, the light will come on for you in a way that can change your whole college planning experience.

The Problem

The problem with this type of approach is the order by which things are usually done. See, in the process I outlined for you one very important thing is missing – The attributes your student values most in his or her ideal college experience!

Gathering info about colleges tells you a lot about what they offer, but it does very little to identify what your kids want and need. You just have to hope they recognize it when they see it or find it once they’re on campus. But, with the average 4-year degree taking over 5 1/2 years for most people to complete, it’s clear most people are NOT finding it in time.

The Solution

So what should you do to fix this problem? Fortunately, it’s not a complicated solution.

The way to build your college list the right way is to start with the attributes that are most important to a student and their success and then, and only then, search for colleges that offer as many of those key attributes as possible in the same place. That way you’ll know that every school on your list will have a realistic chance of working out.

What attributes are we talking about here? Your student’s attributes can be a lot of things ranging from which careers they find most interesting to which majors lead to opportunities in those careers. Find a couple of potential options that look good and then search for colleges that offer as many as possible on the same campus. That way your kids don’t have the pressure to make such a huge final decision selecting their major as a high school student. And, if for some reason, your kids do change their mind about which direction they want to go with their studies, you’ll likely have other attractive options close by that can help them avoid losing credits in a transfer and adding costly years to their college careers.

Other attributes will be things like location (the part of the country the college is located), the setting (is it in an urban environment, suburb, city or town, or a rural campus), and school size (large university, small college, or something in between). Some of these preferences can be developed, or at least confirmed, by doing college visits, but in the beginning this type of filtering is designed to be a process of elimination. Rule out the ones you obviously don’t want and investigate the others to refine your preferences over time.

With a strong list of attributes in hand, you can then filter colleges based on the ones where your student can likely get accepted. And it’s important to understand which ones in that group offer scholarships and financial aid. Paying for college is just as important as getting into college, maybe even more for a lot of people! Learn that BEFORE you waste a lot of time visiting colleges and gathering information. There’s no sense in continuing down a road that will only end in a cul-de-sac…

With each attribute you add to your filter, you’ll naturally reduce your college list count. Eventually you’ll have 6 – 8 or maybe 10 colleges you know offer what your kids want most at a price point you can afford. You’ll also know what their chances of success are with Admissions and with scholarships, which greatly reduces the amount of guess work and anxiety most people struggle with along the way. And finally, if you’re managing your time well, you can do all of this before the first admission applications go out. That way you can actually enjoy the journey instead of worrying about how it is going to end.

What’s in a name?

Alright, now that you see the bigger picture, let me ask you a question. At what point have I mentioned selecting colleges by their name or name brand recognition?

That’s just it – I didn’t! It’s the last and least important thing in the whole process for most people, yet that is where most everybody else starts – with the college name.

Think of this process like buying a house (after all it is just about as expensive and you can’t finance it over 30 years like you do your mortgage!). Let’s suppose you were interested in moving so you called a realtor and asked for a list of address he or she thought would be good for you and maybe could offer you some discounts off the asking price (like people do when looking for colleges with scholarships). With no more information than that the realtor can’t really help you.

What that person needs are the attributes of what you are looking for in your dream home. Things like location, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, architectural style, and price range, just to name a few, are the essential attributes the realtor needs to consider when analyzing potential opportunities for you. Those are your unique attributes and they are more important than the popular features random homes offer by themselves. As you begin to evaluate what’s available on your list of ideal features, you prioritize some as “must haves” and others as “nice to haves.” And as a byproduct of your search, you eventually end up with a list of addresses, but they are the last things you learn about your future home.

In the grand scheme of things, as long as your primary attributes have been adequately satisfied, the actual street address is probably a rather insignificant factor in your purchase decision. After all it alone isn’t THE reason to buy the house, right? It’s the same with colleges. If you have your key attributes covered, the name of the college doesn’t matter as much as the rest of the value that college offers.

Obviously, some college names are important because of their recognition and reputation, but chasing after those colleges without determining your “must have” characteristics first is a mistake! It’s a mistake that is so easy to make that it trips up most people who work with professional counselors and lower level college planners, like those who host workshops at your local high schools. It takes the insight and experience of a seasoned College Planning Specialist to navigate this essential part of the college planning process successfully, and only the smartest parents recognize this.

Now that you know it too, build your student’s college list the right way and enjoy the benefits it brings into your family’s life. You’ll be ahead of the pack and have the best chance possible to beat the colleges at their own game. Good luck!



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