Our Family’s Journey Applying to Small Liberal Arts Colleges

University application with the word "Accepted" stamped in red at the top

Our Family’s Journey Applying to Small Liberal Arts Colleges

Published November 7, 2023

University application with the word "Accepted" stamped in red at the top

This story was first published in our Paying for College 101 Facebook community; the author has chosen to remain anonymous. It’s been edited for clarity and flow. 

As a parent, I’ve been through the rollercoaster ride of the college application process with my daughter. Now that some new folks are embarking on this exciting yet challenging journey, I wanted to share our experiences, hoping that you might pick up some valuable strategies based on our mistakes and successes. Here’s a glimpse into our college journey, covering everything from academics to financial aid decisions.

High School Achievements and Extracurricular Involvement

In high school, my daughter maintained a solid academic record, with a GPA of 3.79 (unweighted). She was a dedicated student who occasionally earned a B, but she mostly achieved A grades. She took advanced math and science classes from grades 9 to 11 and opted for advanced English in her senior year. In addition, she took on the challenge of AP courses, scoring a 5 in AP US History and a 3 in AP Art. She even took the AP Lit exam without taking the class and scored a respectable 4.

She was also involved in several extracurricular activities including the Writing Club, Art Club, and the LGBTQ+ Alliance, demonstrating her passion for both creative and inclusive spaces. Additionally, she contributed to the school community by assisting with backstage work for school musicals and participating in language classes during the summer. She also attended Engineering and coding camps and even worked as a camp counselor during one summer, gaining valuable experience and skills.

Financial Considerations and Strategic Testing

Understanding the financial aspect of college education was crucial for us. Our Expected Family Contribution (EFC) was $13,000, which significantly influenced our college choices. In addition, we made a strategic decision regarding standardized testing. When her ACT score of 34 fell within the range of average admitted students at most institutions, we submitted her application with test scores. However, for those schools where her score didn’t align with the averages, we opted to go test-optional to ensure that her application remained competitive.

One of the key criteria in our college search was identifying institutions that meet full financial need. A simple Google search for a college’s name followed by “meets full need” helped us identify schools that aligned with our financial goals. 

Selecting the Right Colleges and Applying Strategically

Since my daughter wasn’t sure about her major, we decided to concentrate on Small Liberal Arts Colleges (SLACs), where she could remain undeclared until her sophomore year. We also emphasized the importance of ensuring that her chosen schools offered the majors she was most interested in.

Visiting colleges played a crucial role in our decision-making process. We made it a point to personally visit all the institutions on her list to get a feel for the campus vibe and culture. It was an eye-opening experience that helped us eliminate some options while solidifying our preferences.

Finally, we decided to submit applications to a few Ivy League schools, considering them “lotto tickets” to see if she could get in.

The Application Journey: Results and Financial Aid Packages

We meticulously ran all the Net Price Calculators (NPCs) provided by colleges and thoroughly read the Common Data Sets (CDSs) available online. The NPCs were generally helpful but occasionally differed by several thousand dollars from the actual financial aid packages we received. However, the colleges whose NPCs indicated higher costs generally turned out to be more expensive.

The information from the CDSs proved to be invaluable. It provided insights into ACT scores, gender balance, demographics, admission off waitlist statistics, first-year retention rates, and graduation rates. 

The College List and Outcomes

Here’s a breakdown of the colleges my daughter applied to and the outcomes:


  • University of Pittsburgh (rolling) – Accepted in November (Cost of Attendance with Financial Aid: $27,557)
  • Bard (Early Action) – Accepted in December (Cost of Attendance with Financial Aid: $29,000)
  • Smith – Accepted (Cost of Attendance with Financial Aid: $5,568)
  • Mount Holyoke – Accepted (Cost of Attendance with Financial Aid: $8,600)
  • Dickinson – Accepted (Cost of Attendance with Financial Aid: $18,330)
  • Ursinus (applied on 2/1) – Accepted two weeks later (Cost of Attendance with Financial Aid: $22,294)
  • Bryn Mawr – Waitlisted, accepted on 5/22 (Cost of Attendance with Financial Aid: $6,482)


  • Swarthmore (Early Decision) – Denied in December
  • Brown – Denied
  • University of Pennsylvania – Denied
  • Vassar – Denied
  • Amherst – Denied
  • Haverford – Waitlisted and later denied on 5/21
  • Connecticut College – Waitlisted, ultimately denied on 6/8

Thrilled to Attend Smith College

In the end, my daughter is thrilled to be attending Smith College in the fall, where she can continue to explore her interests and make the most of her college experience.

Final Advice

My biggest piece of advice to future college applicants and their parents would be to determine whether you are seeking need-based or merit-based financial aid and then apply strategically to schools that align with your financial goals. It’s essential to understand your family’s financial situation and factor it into your college decision-making process.

Good luck to all of you embarking on this exciting journey! May the odds be ever in your favor as you navigate the college application process, make tough decisions, and ultimately find the perfect fit for your higher education journey.

Key Successes in the College Application Journey:

This family’s college application journey serves as an exemplary roadmap to success. Their story highlights the importance of careful planning, informed decisions, and strategic choices. By making well-thought-out moves, they secured a bright future for their daughter at Smith College. Specifically, these are the things they did right:

  • Academic Excellence: The student maintained a strong GPA and excelled in challenging courses and AP exams.
  • Diverse Extracurriculars: She engaged in various clubs, arts, and community activities, showcasing a well-rounded profile.
  • Financial Preparedness: They carefully assessed Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and strategically used standardized testing.
  • Strategic College Selection: They focused on SLACs (which are often more generous with aid) and ensured majors of interest were available.
  • In-Person Visits: They personally visited campuses which helped them decide which colleges to apply to or scratch off their list.
  • Financial Aid Research: The parent used NPCs and CDSs to understand aid packages and institutional statistics.
  • Meets-Full-Need Schools: They wisely targeted colleges offering full financial need support.
  • Ivy League Consideration: They submitted applications to prestigious institutions while prioritizing need-based aid.
  • Informed Decision-Making: The student chose a college with a favorable financial aid package aligned with their goals.
  • Guidance for Others: Finally, they advised others to understand their financial aid needs and apply strategically.


Use our R2C Insights Tool 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:

Colleges Meeting 90% or More of Financial Need

Our Full Tuition Scholarship Journey

10 Reasons to Consider Small Schools with High Acceptance Rates




In this article:

Upcoming Events

Similar Articles for You

Dear Roadie: Should I Drug-Test My Son to Ensure He’s Not Wasting His College Tuition?


Dear Roadie: Should I Drug-Test My Son to Ensure He’s Not Wasting His College Tuition?

Dear Roadie, My son will be attending a school that costs $80,000 per year. Am I crazy for wanting him...

How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps For The Answer


How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps For The Answer

After sending four kids to college with a fifth on the way there soon, I’ve learned a thing or two...

Dear Roadie: Should I Move to a Different State for Free Tuition?


Dear Roadie: Should I Move to a Different State for Free Tuition?

Dear Roadie, We are considering moving to New Mexico for my daughter’s final high school years as I’ve read in-state...

Become a Member

At Road2College you’ll find everything you need to make the admissions and paying for college process less stressful and more transparent.


Explore R2C Insights™ — your source for finding affordable colleges and merit scholarships.


Get coaching on admissions and college financing.


Join Road2College where parents and experts work together to inform and inspire college-bound families.