One of the very first steps of the college application process is determining what criteria will shape your student’s list of potential schools. At SFC, we focus on three pillars when constructing a college list: academic, personal, and financial fit. We recognize the importance of finding the intersection of the family’s financial circumstances in terms of the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and the student’s overall profile. Our aim is to create what we refer to as responsible lists by filtering out colleges that may be appealing to a student but are not within the family’s budget. This disparity typically happens when a student falls in the bottom quartile of the college’s candidate pool, which reduces the likelihood of merit awards that may be crucial to bridging a financial gap between the EFC and the total cost of attendance. With over 4,000 colleges in the United States, there will be many options that meet a student’s needs and fall into their family’s affordability range. Using these guidelines, students are then able to explore what matters most when it comes to their future college experience.

Here are some questions and considerations to discuss with your student so you’re both prepared to begin this journey toward college.

Negotiables vs. Non-negotiables

Identify which elements of the college experience are requirements and which factors your student may be willing to compromise on. Maybe your student wants to stay within a certain mile radius of their hometown so they can easily visit family—how far away is too far? Make a list of must-haves with specific ramifications so you and your student can use it as a quick reference when looking at a school’s stats. Some examples are:

  • Geography
  • Degree programs
  • Clubs/campus culture
  • Sports
  • Student-to-teacher ratio
  • Class size
  • Internship options
  • Study abroad programs

Be realistic, but stay curious.

Your student might be a big fan of Grey’s Anatomy or crime procedurals, but do they really want to commit to nearly a decade of schooling based on their favorite TV show? While pop culture could very well be their introduction to a lifelong passion, remind your student that TV often provides an unrealistic depiction of any given field. On the other hand, however, your student shouldn’t feel as though they have to limit themselves exclusively to subjects they already know they’re good at. There are far more majors at any given college than high school classes, so there’s a chance that they haven’t even heard of the subject they’ll eventually major in or the career path they’ll be on. If a particular major sounds intriguing but your student hasn’t had a chance to explore it yet in school, consider reaching out to coordinate a meeting with an alumnus of that university’s program to learn more about the subject.

Look at the past.

Encourage your student to consider their academic strengths as well as their interests outside of school. What activities and accomplishments have made them feel proud of themselves? Which options—academic and social—feel familiar and which have the potential to expand their sense of self?

A good teacher can make even a student’s least favorite subject come alive. Have your student dig deeper into what made their best teachers special and what made their favorite high school classes so enjoyable. Were there a lot of group projects involved, or were they encouraged to work independently? Was the class discussion-based or lecture-based? Did the teacher frequently offer to help students one-on-one?

As part of SFC’s comprehensive services, students work with our assessment specialist to discover various aspects of their own learning style. We use these tools along with professional guidance to create a framework for a lifetime of self-discovery based on being aware of their own strengths and motivations. For example, do they thrive when they are smarter than the majority of the class, or do they like the challenge of learning from classmates who ask more thought-provoking questions? Is having a personal connection to the instructor important to them? Do they prefer to learn by doing or by observing?

Reflecting on your student’s learning style and the environments in which they were able to excel can provide insight into what kind of college program might be best for them based on school population, class size, general education requirements, etc.

Look to the future.

Consider what kind of overall college experience your student wants to have. Are school pride, big sports games, lots of structured activities and/or Greek life what your student pictures when they think about college? Or do they think they would be happier in a less “conventional” college environment where students are more independent and less concerned with the overall school community?

Another important factor to contemplate is the flexibility of the academic program. Does your student want a school with a lot of different options for concentrations or paths they can take within a major, or do they want to be in an environment where students are all focused on the same specific topic? How easy is it to switch majors or colleges within the university—in other words, will they be penalized if they apply to one college within the university and later try to move to another? Unfortunately, we are starting to see a trend where students who wish to transfer into a very competitive major part way through their college career (such as biology, nursing, computer science, or engineering) are compelled to reapply to that school entirely before they are accepted into the program. This is done to prevent students from “backdooring” into more competitive majors, but it also limits possibilities for students who discover their true passion isn’t the subject they initially planned to study.

When your student begins making their college list with the help of their SFC advisor, all of these aforementioned criteria will be taken into consideration. As they delve deeper into the college application process, your student’s vision for the future of their education will only become clearer. The next step will be to explore these colleges individually with further research and campus visits, where students and their families can really get a sense of what the school community is like.