4 Game-Changing Ways That One Family Mastered the College Application Journey

Smiling young man holding a notepad and standing against a brick wall.

4 Game-Changing Ways That One Family Mastered the College Application Journey

Published January 27, 2024

Smiling young man holding a notepad and standing against a brick wall.

Kristin Bachtell, a parent in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group, calls herself a planner — but not just any planner. A very disciplined, pragmatic planner who likes to start projects early and provide plenty of checkpoints along the way to ensure things stay on track. 

“My goal was to make this process as stress-free as possible by spreading out objectives as much as possible,” says Bachtell.

Luckily, her son was more than happy to accept her help. Together, they mapped out a college application plan that started during his junior year in high school. The result was less stress and time wasted, which is what prompted Bachtell to share her story with our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group. Given that most parents and students have no idea where to start the college application journey, her post received hundreds of likes and comments.

If you, too, are wondering how to begin the process of applying for college, check out the Bachtell family’s journey below. While the process certainly can seem overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be, and this family’s play-by-play effort is a great model to follow.

Tip #1: What To Do Junior Year To Prepare For College Application Season

I read The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber and that was extremely helpful. One thing I had our family do after reading it was for myself, my husband, and my child to make a list of the goals and hopes we had for the college experience. These lists could be extremely pragmatic (a certain budget, the ability to earn a degree in four years) as well as idealistic (close relationships with professors, collaborative vibe, etc). This helped us focus and provided parameters that we kept throughout the process. 

I love to research and my son was happy to let me go at it as long as I kept his goals and values in mind. His priorities included undergraduates being able to have access to and work in labs, being in a collaborative vs competitive environment, and having a rock wall for climbing. Parents’ priorities included being under $35,000 a year and a place where students could have close relationships with professors. 

My son also set up a new email account that was strictly for College Board (SAT) and college communications. He gave me the password so that I could double-check it every once in a while so he didn’t miss anything crucial. This was so helpful!

He took the SAT in October of his junior year and again in December. He scored 1440 in December and was happy with that score, so testing was now “done” and off the plate. 

During the spring of his junior year, my son said he wanted to study plant genetics in college which was oddly specific but interesting. He was totally happy to let me “curate” a list of options for him. I researched liberal arts colleges with strong STEM programs as well as large flagship universities with a college of agriculture. My job was to run the Net Price Calculator (NPC) or look at merit charts to see if they would even be feasible before he dug in depth into the things he was interested in.

Over his spring break of junior year, he made several virtual college visits, which were extremely helpful. It allowed him to visit some farther schools without travel and he began to get a sense of what “vibe” he was looking for. Some schools were completely crossed off the list and some became contenders and helped us determine where to visit in person that summer. 

Before he left school for the summer of junior year, he asked two teachers for letters of recommendation. 

Tip #2 Summer Is A Great Time For College Visits, Writing Prompts, and More

That summer he continued with virtual visits and we visited a local liberal arts college, our state flagship, and a state school in a city center to see what type of environment appealed to our son. What we learned is that he felt comfortable in most environments and that would not necessarily be a deciding factor. 

He also wrote a rough draft of the personal statement that he would use to answer one of the prompts for the Common App. Although the Common App doesn’t release until August 1, they use the same or similar prompts every year so he was responsible for getting that done before school started.

Tip #3: Narrow Down Your Choices At The Start of Senior Year

By the fall he had a list of four schools he wanted to apply to. West Virginia University (our instate option), Iowa State University, North Carolina State University, and Purdue University. For most of them, he would be applying to their school of agriculture as a plant science major. At WVU he would be applying as a biochemistry major as they did not have a strong lab-based, plant science degree. He also applied to the honors colleges at WVU and Purdue. He had a top choice (Purdue) but was also totally comfortable at all of the schools. 

WVU and Iowa State are rolling admissions schools, so he received those acceptances in the early fall, which was very nice. Purdue and NC State did not send out decisions until the winter.

Ultimately he was accepted to Purdue University as well as their honors college. He also received $10,000 in scholarships from the School of Agriculture to bring the Cost of Attendance (COA) to $30,000 a year, which was below our budgeted amount. This meant he would not need to take out loans.

Tip #4: Go Beyond The Obvious When Choosing Schools To Apply To

One thing I learned is if you have a student who loves science but doesn’t want to go into engineering or computer science, look at schools of agriculture. They are amazing! I can talk all day about the different majors and experiences they offer. 

They also provide much smaller school environments within large universities. My son ended up loving the fact that he could have access to all the clubs, facilities, and research of a massive institution, but he is in a smaller major. There are only 50 undergraduates in his major at Purdue. His advisor spent two hours on Zoom with him one-on-one planning his class schedule for the fall and just talking to him. All the undergrads we met in the department are on a first-name basis with their professors, they can do as much lab research as they want, even since freshman year, and there was such an egalitarian feel when we visited. 

Looking back I realize that being transparent about our budget early on was key because it impacts choices you make along the way. After visiting one local liberal arts college, my son didn’t think it was a perfect fit, but he recognized that if need be he could have lived at home, and with merit aid, it would have cost less than $8,000 a year. As he said, “It feels good to know there is an option I like and would be successful at and that would work even if a financial crisis happens for our family.”

Get more tips about merit scholarships and so much more from parents just like you by joining our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group — it’s free and takes just seconds to join.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

How to Apply to College: A Comprehensive Guide

Advice from Parents on Applying and Paying for College

A Well-Thought Out College List: How to Narrow Down Which Schools to Apply To




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