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How to Help Your Child Build a Balanced College List

By Laura Whitmore

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a seminar entitled How to Build a Balanced College List with Dr. Steven Antonoff. Dr. Antonoff has been an Educational Consultant for over 35 years; he even created the certification process for others to become Educational Consultants as well! Over the years, he has helped thousands of students choose the colleges they should apply to! He undoubtedly is an expert on the topic and was gracious enough to share his wisdom with me.

A troubling topic that was addressed during the seminar was the “brand name” school syndrome, where most students only want to apply to schools they have heard of before (think Harvard, Yale, Princeton…). If the school name doesn’t sound familiar, students aren’t interested. The problem with this approach is that these ivy league and top-tier schools have become so RIDICULOUSLY selective that even the most impressive students are getting denied. For instance, Harvard’s acceptance rate this past year was 3.5%, meaning less than 4 out of 100 kids who applied got accepted! For some context and a personal anecdote, please see this article released last week in the Wall Street Journal: "Extraordinary Isn't Enough These Days"

It is important that we encourage our kids to build a balanced college list to ensure that they have admittance letters and options. But, how should a parent go about convincing their child that this is the right approach?

1. Talk to Your Child About What They Want In a School

Do they want big? Do they want small? Do they want religiously-affiliated? Close to home? Far away? Are they interested in stellar engineering programs? Sit down with your son or daughter and start to brainstorm qualities they want in a school first so that you both can start to build a list of potential candidates that could be a good fit for them. If they aren’t sure what they are looking for, encourage them to schedule an appointment with their guidance counselor. At Strategic Test Prep, I can also assist with this process and I’d be happy to tell you about my service if you’re interested.

2. Create a diverse list of 20-25 Schools to Start

Think about creating a well-rounded list that embodies schools in each of these four “buckets:”

  • Bucket #1: Very Likely to Get Accepted

  • Bucket #2: Somewhat Likely

  • Bucket #3: Not Very Likely

  • Bucket #4: Shooting-for-the-moon

For Bucket #1, your son or daughter will have a GPA and Test Scores that put them higher than the median student at that school. Their metrics will be exactly on target for bucket #2 and so on. Aim to find 5 schools that fit into each bucket. Bucket #4 are the ivy’s and other top schools whose admit rate is less than 10%. They will be “shooting-for-the-moon” because acceptance is so iffy. When tens of thousands of well-qualified students are applying, it becomes less about credentials and more about luck. For instance, maybe the school needs more boys to round out their freshman class, so your daughter goes into the rejection pile simply because she was the wrong gender.

3. Encourage Them to Apply to One School that is Outside of What They Want

If they decide they want big schools, have them throw one little school into the mix. It might surprise them to realize they like the little school better after a visit and more research on it!

4. Fully Utilize Campus Visits to Help Them Whittle Down the List to 8-10 Schools

Campus visits form a crucial part of the process for students to have a better sense of what schools they actually want to apply to. When you go on campus visits with your son or daughter, encourage them to sit in on a class, eat in the dining hall, and talk to other students on campus about student life. A college tour, though helpful, does not provide a full picture of what going to the school is like. After the visit, sit down with your son or daughter and talk about the pros and cons of the school, then you can help them decide if that particular school should be on their final application list or not. Aim to have them apply to at least 2 schools in each bucket.

5. Have Fun!

This is a very exciting time for your son or daughter and a great opportunity to bond with them. Just remember that being supportive without being pushy is important: the school that they choose is ultimately their decision in the end and it is our job as adults to serve as a guide for them as they embark on this process!


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