Top Ten Questions to Ask While Making Your College List, Part 1
First, let me say that making the college list is really personal so you should contact me to help further or sign up for the college list workshop (the workshop is actually a meeting with me rather than a large workshop as I did with the first one).
Second, since this is the time of year 11th graders should be making their college lists, you have a lot of people telling you how to make them. My priorities are the three fits I have been discussing: academic, social, and financial fit, especially as they relate to underrepresented groups. You’ll find that some people when they are talking about fit, they are mostly discussing one or prioritizing one over the other two, if they are talking about all three. Or worse—as has become my major frustration—they are giving outdated advice based on how college admissions worked ten or more years ago. As I keep saying, things have changed a lot, as have our priorities as a community, so the way you approach this aspect of the process should have changed too.
Finally, I am still thinking about the student from Memphis who rejected all eight Ivy League schools, NYU, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins to attend the University of Alabama. At first, I read that Alabama was the only school to offer him money, but I later read that the other schools didn’t offer him enough money. That’s a huge distinction. The other thing to note was that his parents and the student said that they were saving up for medical school. I have read a lot of bloggers and reporters say that was a smart move. College is expensive, they all say so he made the correct choice even if it is a bummer that he had to do it. I’m not sure if you watch Suze Orman. I tend to read her books and catch her show on occasion. I am always surprised when she advises people to spend money. She talks about how circumstances elsewhere in one’s household should be ideal first, and then to look at things as investments. I don’t know how much they offered, but, as a guess, is $50K of debt at Stanford when one is going to medical school worth it? Absolutely.
And that was the question I asked a client when we were creating her college list: If you got into that school fully-funded and that school and needed to pay back some amount, are you really telling me you would go to the fully-funded school?
Now, with all that said, I do know and understand people who cannot take on any debt because they do not have a social security number. I work with a lot of these families and the reality is that I started my career in college counseling working with these families. And I have come across instances where even after negotiating, families have been left with some amount of debt. But again, this is an investment, one greater than buying a car, house, or stock, because unlike any of those, a college degree has the greatest growth potential for one’s family and the community. Once that is understood, approaching everything, including this college list, looks a bit different.
With that, here are the last five of Ten Questions to Ask While Making Your College List:
10. What is your dream school?
Usually when I ask this question, students name a specific college. Berkeley! Stanford! Harvard! I don’t discourage students from thinking about specific schools. I know there is certainly the set that is aiming for a specific school to get points with their friends at the country club. I don’t work with those folks. So when regular folks are aiming for a specific school, there is something huge drawing them to that school and I like to tap into that: Do you like that school because of the football rivalry and the school spirit around it? Do you like that school because hanging out on Telegraph on the weekends sounds like fun? Do you like that school because it is close enough yet still far enough from home to give you some sense of independence?
Once you understand that, you can understand schools just like that. A student should never apply to just one or two schools, especially if you are aiming to hit all three types of fit. So if a large university with a huge campus life is your thing, Duke, Gonzaga, and Michigan might also be calling your name. If you’re into small, quiet schools where you can sit under a tree and discuss Chaucer with your professor and six other students, Connecticut College, Vassar, and St. Mary’s might be calling you. If your priority is developing social and political awareness around people who look like you, Spellman, Howard, and Florida A & M might be right up your alley. The point is with over 4,000 universities in the country (and hundreds of awesome schools abroad), you have a lot of options.
9. What are your numbers saying?
Now, just because that’s where you want to go, doesn’t mean you are getting in. Your numbers are your test scores (SAT, ACT, AP) and GPA. I advise students make a list of 12 to 15 schools in three categories: Reach, Probable, and Safety based on those numbers, and that half be public. Never apply to too reachy a Reach school because that school is not likely to pay for you to go to there too (don’t forget the other fits). In other words, it is not as difficult to get into a school as it is to get the school to also cover most or all of your tuition. Think about that student from Memphis again. While your student may fall well into the numeric demographics of that school, the rest of your application will determine if you get in and with funding. In the case of the student from Memphis, I’m sure Harvard sees lots of applicants with that GPA, and those test scores, and those students are also president of their class. But what else are you offering?
Some people think that labeling the schools is a bit archaic. I will admit that I am not sure why people labeled them in the past, but I’ve found that the labeling to be tremendously helpful today. It helps to guide a student’s application (aim for your reachiest Reach) and develops the skill of risk-taking, one of the soft skills that colleges are looking for today. I would also say that looking at the Memphis student’s list, he applied to ten Reach schools, one Probable, and one Safety and ended up enrolling at the Safety. With a list like that, of course he went to the Safety. The Ivy League tends to be very competitive amongst the eight of them so it can be pretty likely that if a few of them really like a candidate, the rest will follow along. Add Stanford to that mix, and a few of those Ivy Leagues get really competitive. But other than that, there really isn’t a point to applying to all of them unless you intend to attend all of them. I’m not saying that you can attend more than one university but the student who HAS to go to Cornell versus the one who would be okay he went there are very different students and that reads on your application. The student who thinks Yale and Alabama could provide identical experiences, probably shouldn’t go to Yale, and in this case, shouldn’t even apply. This is not to disparage Alabama or give too many shout-outs to Yale, but there are very different and valuable experiences at each school that fit into one’s academic and social fit parameters as well, that should not be dismissed for the financial fit. For that student, if I did his list, it would have included Duke, UNC, and Emory rather than the schools he selected. If your dream schools seem out of reach due to the financial costs, but you find it to be an academic and social fit, the finances (probably the easiest of the three to meet) can be meet. If the schools agree with you, they will be the first to meet that need.
8. How much debt can your student and your family take on?
When I ask this question, the first response is usually “none.” When I ask how much debt they can take on if their student got into Georgetown, for example, the answer changes.
I was watching some special on the environment for Earth Day and some celebrity said that if everyone pressed “no” when asked for a receipt at the ATM or gas station, some ridiculous amount of forests would be saved. She made the point that you can see your balance on the screen or simply remember how much money you spent without having it on paper to look at for another few seconds before you toss it out. I saw someone else talking about the bags we use to put produce in, and how it’s really just for a few minutes of convenience until you get home. And once you get home, there is almost no use for those bags and we toss them out. We can’t reuse or recycle those bags. Those are the two examples that I think of when I think about saving money. In most ways it’s as easy as pressing the “no” button or re-defining convenience or at least re-prioritizing it.
I will admit—I am horrible with money. But I’m getting better. I started with calculating how much money I spent at Peet’s each week and found that making it at home was cheaper. Then I thought, coffee isn’t a need; I could just get enough sleep. So I chucked the coffee maker and the coffee, and saved even more.
When I think about the investment one makes when financing a college education, there are a lot of things that we would all chuck or alter in order to do that. One of the first things I noticed when I was working with super wealthy families is that a lot of them (definitely not all, but a lot) didn’t have a ton of clothes. They would buy one quality pair of shoes for their kids and wear the mess out of that pair before buying the next. It took a moment for me to recognize why: those are bad investments. They spent money on quality food, upgrades to their homes, etc. but even their cars were at least a decade old. The point is to think about the money you are spending as investments rather than single purchases.
While I’ve gotten a lot of push back from low-income families when I say that, I still believe it to be true. And I ask that you consider investments to be financial AND mental or temporal, as in time. How much convenience can you give up? How much convenience can you give up knowing there is a financial incentive at the end?
7. How does your family define “far”?
18. Tough age. Technically an adult, but so close to the baby, toddler, and child you remember.
First, as I’ve said, there are plenty of great schools in California that are not the questionable publics so we are fortunate in that students don’t have to go too far to get a great education.
Second, consider why you want your student to stay close by. The reality is that person is an adult now and she or he may not be living close to you for much longer anyway. Wanting your adult child to stay close to you just for the sake of staying close…just be careful. Moving away is part of the growing up process, and you may even think about it as the final test for all the good that you’ve done for the last 18 years.
Third, of the top five or so reasons that underrepresented groups, especially low-income, first generation, and students of color, drop out of school early, about two of those are related to family being too close. There are family obligations that families being to rely on their students more when they see them around more. For example, when you were in class for eight hours per day in high school, the lead in the school play, and on the tennis team, no one saw you. Now your student is in class for only four hours per day and studying at home or in the dorm; she just seems more available even when she is not. Families ask them to begin working more to help at home, take care of an ailing family member, or just be around more, all at the expense of their school work. Consider having your student live at least out of daily driving distance or definitely factor in living on campus that first year, even if the school does not require it.
6. Are you going to graduate school?
I think one of the biggest mistakes that we make with 15, 16, and 17 year olds is that we tell them to pick a college, pick a major, and pick a career and focus on that for the rest of their lives. Economists say it’s much different. The average person changes careers, not jobs, about three times in their lifetime. Most employers are looking for a graduate degree now. And with innovation, employers are seeing value in various majors and the merging of those thoughts. Psychologists are saying that our minds are not fully capable of understanding responsibility until we are 25. And there isn’t even a such thing as pre-med or pre-law since those are things that can be taught in medical or law school, but the skill of learning to take meaning from words or understanding people can be done in an English or History class, for example. And if that isn’t incentive enough, liberal arts colleges give out way more money. Point is, you don’t have to know right now or even four years from now what you want to do or be, but you should know that you will put yourself in a better situation to do whatever by knowing your student is going to graduate or professional school.
With that said, things look a little different again. If your student already knows that he will earn an MFA in creative writing, for example, how does that change the Bachelor’s degree? If you know you might want to go to law school or perhaps earn a Master’s in Education, how does that change the undergraduate degree? The Bachelor’s is not the endgame anymore so think a bit further out when making your list.
Part 2 is coming soon…