Creating a Balanced College List: 6 Ways Parents Can Help Their Teens

“It’s all in the toss,” my tennis instructor said as we practiced our serves.   If the toss is too high, you will have a hard time making contact.  If it is too low, you will not have enough time to reach all the way back and your serve will be weak.  If you throw it too far off-center, your chance of getting it in is greatly reduced.

As I drove home from my lesson, I started thinking how much the toss in tennis is like creating a college list as part of the application process.  If you aim too high, your chances of getting in are slim; if you find schools that don’t match your personality and interests, you may get it in, but it won’t be a good fit.  But when you hit it right, the ball pings and almost always gets in.

So how do you help your teen create a balanced college list that pings?

How to help your teen build a balanced college list.
Parents can help their teens create a college list.

6 Ways to Help Your Teen Build a Balanced College List

1. Understand their needs.  Start with your teen’s needs, academic interests, academic abilities, and personality to gain a clearer understanding of what schools would be a good fit.  It’s easy to get caught up in rankings or what your friends, relatives, or Uncle’s step-son thinks is a good school, but in reality, your child is the one attending college, not them.  So start with your kid and look for fit.  For example, if they want to major in science or think they want to go to medical school, identify schools that will allow them to thrive in a science major since med school is all about grades.  Watch Malcolm Gladwell’s video on how to excel in science regardless of how you did in high school.

2. Use rankings cautiously.  US News and World Report is a good starting point to give you a sense of how schools rate against each other, but that is all it is.  There are so many other factors that you must consider when making a good match.

3. Be realistic.  It’s easy to create a list from the top schools in the country. But those same schools are also the most selective and difficult to get in.  Even if your child is a top student in their high school, are they a top student in the country?  The world?  How do they compare with other top students globally? Because that is whom they will be competing with.

On the flip side, do not aim too low.  Find out where they stand in comparison to other students applying and recognize that having the grades and test scores gets you in the game but having something unique makes them a viable player. 

4. Identify Schools Where They Can Contribute Their Strengths. Are they a nationally ranked chess player or debater?  Are they a talented musician or artist that will contribute to the school in a meaningful way? Are they a recruited athlete? Have they done meaningful research that has been published? Have they overcome adversity and still succeeded academically? Are they kind and have they demonstrated this character in a tangible way? Figure out which schools value your child’s strengths and how they can contribute to their community.

3. Understand the financial component.  One of the first discussions you should have about college with your kids is how much money will you contribute and how much will they have to contribute?  Find out if you are eligible for financial aid.  Go in armed with your budget and choose schools that will meet your need or that you can afford without any financial aid.  See which schools provide merit aid and what percentage of need they meet CollegeData is a good place to start. The Money Matters section shows financial aid broken down by need and merit.

4. Be open-minded. Just because you have not heard of a school, does not make it a “bad” school. There are over 4,000 colleges in the United States and sometimes going to one that is different from where everyone else in your child’s school is going, can be a wonderful adventure that allows them to thrive.

5. Think strategically.  Why does your child want to go to college?  Depending on the answer, their choice of school will vary.  If they want to get into a PhD program in history, then see which schools have the highest rate of students accepted to PhD programs in economics.  If her goal is to get a job on Wall Street, then speak with career services and find out where most of their students get jobs and which companies come to recruit.  If you know someone working in their field of interest, ask them which schools they recruit from most often.  If they want to go to medical school, research acceptance rate and medical school advising programs.

6. Encourage them to love their likelies and safeties.  They are called this for a reason, because their chances of acceptance are high.  The worst thing you or your teen can do is remove all their safety or likely schools and only apply to possible and reach schools.

For a balanced college list, I recommend 1-2 reach, 1-2 possible, 3-4 likely, and 1-2 safety. How do you know which category a school falls into?  If your child has Naviance, you can look at the scattergrams to determine where they fall in comparison to other students from their high school.  Most colleges also publish their admissions data on the Common Data Set or school publications.  For examples, click University of Michigan’s admissions profile here and Dartmouth’s Common Data Set here .

Good luck helping your teen create a list that pings!

Related Posts:

Scholarships: Where to Find Them and How to Apply

Here are the Best Books for College Admissions and How to Pay for College 

She mentors students from all over the world on the college application process, helping them uncover their strengths and develop a personal plan for success.
Lisa holds a BA in European cultural studies and French from Brandeis University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She is a Professional Member of IECA, HECA, and NJACAC. She lives in New Jersey.  She has three daughters, all of whom have successfully survived the college application process!
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