College Selection – Why Choosing The “Right” School Is So Important

by | Sep 10, 2018

College selection is an integral part of any college planning strategy.   Where will your child fit in best?  What should they major in?  What financial aid, if any, can they expect to receive?  These can be difficult questions to answer for most families without some guidance.

As part of our “Personal CFO” team we’re fortunate to have Liz Smith of Rising Tide College Consulting with us to provide some insights into the college application process. We recently asked Liz a few questions regarding college selection and how her service helps match students with the right schools.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and areas of expertise?

I’m a graduate of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, and received my Master’s Degree from University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy in Public Policy with a concentration in Finance.  After receiving my Master’s, I spent 5 years working for Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service as an infrastructure bond rating analyst.  After my husband and I decided to start a family, I left S&P to work with my husband and help him grow his graphic design business.

When our son was finishing up middle school, the discussions I had listened to about college searches started hitting home. I heard about how short-staffed high schools had become, and I realized that the hardworking counselors at most schools were unable to provide in-depth guidance to families about appropriate college options for their students.  Friends told me how challenging it was to try to sift through the mountain of college information available in print and online, and that they didn’t feel they could dedicate the time needed to conduct a proper college search.  I decided that my background in research and financial analysis and my interest in the topic would be a good fit to meet this need, and began taking classes and attending seminars and conferences to learn more about providing this service as an independent educational consultant.

My practice, Rising Tide College Consulting, specializes in comprehensive college planning services for students seeking to identify colleges that best fit their interests and needs. Determining a good-fit college list requires thorough understanding of a student, which can’t be accomplished in a couple of 20 minute meetings.  It also requires broad knowledge of many colleges–not just a select few, which is why I hit the road on a regular basis to tour colleges both in the region and farther afield.  By visiting multiple colleges each year, I gain “on the ground” knowledge and can speak to the local environment, academic emphasis, support systems, campus life, athletics and more when suggesting a college to a particular student. College brochures are glossy and beautiful, but they are marketing pieces meant to highlight each university with its best foot forward. Families can find it challenging to determine the true character of a university from marketing materials and a half-day tour/info session, which is what makes my time commitment to detailed college observations so valuable.

What trends do you see in how parents and students are planning for college?

Academically, students planning for competitive colleges are increasingly focusing on course rigor—taking the most challenging classes that are offered to them. At times, this can mean a substantial workload of college level courses that the student may or may not be ready to handle. Taking courses that demonstrate rigor, or demonstrating increased rigor as the student progresses through high school are both viewed positively by colleges, but it is also important for students to take courses they are interested in, not just courses they think colleges want them to take. Outside of school, many students struggle to balance varsity sports, clubs, volunteer work and jobs in addition to heavy homework loads.  Media hype about popular colleges perceived as “elite” fuels this overload and creates a sense of frenzy by the time students reach their junior year.

From the parent perspective, I think most parents focus on how to pay for college as their primary role in college planning. Though some have taken college financing seriously and have set up savings vehicles to pay for college, many have not, and still others have not contributed regularly enough to make much of a dent in college costs, known as Cost of Attendance (COA).  Families who are unaware of rising college costs may be shocked by the COA of in-state public colleges and sometimes rule out higher sticker price private colleges as being out of reach without a second look.  A sweeping assumption like this may ignore great college options with a high level of need-based grant funding or colleges offering substantial merit aid to high performing students.

In what ways can you help students with the college exploration and application process?

Rising Tide starts working with students earlier than most families would think.  Generally, we begin the consulting process early in the students’ Junior year, though occasionally we may have a student who wishes to begin as a Sophomore. Our first job is to identify a student’s academic strengths, learning style, and other specific characteristics that would optimize a student’s college experience and outcome. We provide advice on high school course scheduling with the goal of emphasizing student strengths in light of college programs that match their interests and will help them achieve their goals. Identifying the timeline for standardized testing and which tests will allow the student to shine most brightly, along with recommendations for additional test preparation (if needed) is another feature of our individualized service.  Generally, families are most excited when the time comes for the customized college list we provide.  Rising Tide synthesizes information gathered in meetings, assessments, testing, transcripts and interest inventories and creates a targeted short list of colleges for the student to investigate further.  By providing a manageable list of good fit colleges, Rising Tide allows families to spend their precious time investigating appropriate college options instead of spending hours researching colleges that end up being poor matches. Once the student is able to narrow the college list down to a manageable college application list, we help students track their application progress in an easy to use software system designed to keep students on schedule and as stress free as possible.

What suggestions do you have for students who don’t know where to begin?

First, don’t wait! No matter where you are in your high school career, it’s never too early OR too late.  If a student wants to go to college, the first piece of advice I would give them is to own the process. It’s easy to sit back and think that your parents will jump in and figure everything out for you, but they aren’t going to college, you are!  There are many online resources that students can use to research potential college choices by major, location, size, activities and more. For students who still struggle to determine what colleges are a good fit to their academic record, or students who are unsure about what majors may fit their interests, an independent educational consultant might be a wise investment. Our job is to help students to identify the important factors that should be a priority in a college search, while also incorporating our knowledge of admissions and financial aid trends and our ability to find financial good fit college options.

In addition to college admissions, what other areas should students and parents focus on when developing their college planning strategy?

It may seem off topic but parents need to be sure they are sending a self-sufficient person out into the world.  You’ve heard the terms before: helicopter parent, lawnmower parent, snowplow parent. We all laugh about it, but the reality is a lot less humorous.  There are students heading to college who have never made a bed, washed or folded laundry, cleaned dishes, cooked a meal, managed a bank account, taken their car in for an oil change, established own homework schedule and habits, or turned in an essay that wasn’t first checked by a parent…the list goes on and on.  One of our responsibilities as parents is to ensure our students know and regularly perform these basic life skills, because as much as we would love to repeat college, we are not going with them!  Most parents view their student heading off to college as “launching”, but you can be sure that if your student doesn’t have mastery of basic life skills they will return for food, clean laundry, money, transportation, and a free place to live where everything is provided.  If you don’t want to be your student’s permanent hotel room, be sure to practice these skills throughout high school so that your student heads off to college with the necessary skills to succeed on their own. Believe me, their dormitory roommates will thank you!

Also, I think it is very important for students (and parents) to not think of college simply in terms of admissions.  Gaining admission to a college is not the achievement; instead it is the college experience culminating in the degree and entrance into the workforce or graduate school that is the true accomplishment.  If students head into the college exploration process with an open mind and an understanding that the goals extend past the first time they step on campus, they are able to gain a fuller understanding of the college experience and the factors that matter when selecting a college home.

As you can see the college selection process involves a lot more than just gaining acceptance to a few random schools.  It requires the integration of financial, academic and personal information in order to find a school where your child will graduate on time, optimize their financial aid opportunities and be prepared to enter the workforce.  Considering that some schools now cost over $300,000 to attend, it pays to be proactive and start planning today.