Parent Advice on Starting the College Search

Start the College Search

Parent Advice on Starting the College Search

Published June 13, 2020 | Last Updated October 31st, 2023 at 10:06 am

Start the College Search

If your child is a high school sophomore or junior, you may be thinking about your college search process.

But with more than 4,000 colleges around the United States, it can be an overwhelming thought.

Yikes – how to begin?

We talked to veteran college parents about how their families got started and gathered a lot of valuable insights.

Suggestions ranged from soul searching with your student to hiring a private counselor.

Surprisingly, the topic of college costs did not come up as frequently as we would have thought. Because we feel it’s such an important topic, we’ve included it at the top of the list.

Families shouldn’t avoid talking about costs, even though it can feel overwhelming.

Starting Your College Search

Here’s a summary of what our experienced parents recommend…

Look at cost

Many families don’t consider cost until spring of senior year when the financial aid letters are rolling in, but other families believe cost is the most important factor of all when it comes to fit.

Your family’s finances and how much debt you’re willing to let your child shoulder will contribute to how much and how early in the process, college costs play a role.

The key here is to not rule out a college because of sticker price, but to research the statistics on projected financial aid for your family’s income.

If you have a top scholar and you’re a middle income family, your child may earn good need-based aid at a well-endowed private school.

But it’s better to know ahead of time before your child gets too sold on a particular college.

Tips for analyzing cost

Determine your family’s “expected family contribution” (EFC) for public universities and private colleges.

Use this calculator to estimate it, so you have some idea of what colleges will expect you to pay.

Hop onto a school’s “net price calculator” with last year’s tax return and your student’s grades and SAT/act scores (if the calculator doesn’t ask for these, it likely doesn’t award merit aid and may be out of reach if you earn too much).

The more information required, the better the calculator, and the more accurate the offer.

Unfortunately, not all calculators are accurate so keep that in mind as you try to ascertain cost.

As early as possible, start understanding the financial aid process and terminology.

Most financial aid is based on filling out the FAFSA.

This form uses tax information from the tax year when your student starts junior year of high school (tax year ending December of your student’s junior year in high school).

That’s almost two years before they start college.

In order to maximize your financial aid, you’ll need to understand the process and formulas sometime when your student is in 8th grade or at the beginning of 9th grade, so you can make whatever changes you can before the tax year that FAFSA is based on for the freshman year of college.

[ Tips to Maximize Your Financial Aid Eligibility]

[10 Income Strategies To Reduce Your Cost Of College]

Compare college data

Comparing college data sets can show you things like how many students graduate in four years, what kind of financial aid is offered (grants, scholarships, loans), majors and difficulty of getting in, and how much fees increase year over year.

  • College Navigator is a great place to start. This federal website contains valuable data on the nation’s colleges and universities.
  • Another good website is College Results online to tell you about graduation rates. Find out more about how to use College Results Online to research colleges.
  • It’s possible and extremely advisable to use information that is available through IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) and the common data set to better research colleges. Using this type of information will help you target colleges that are more generous with need and merit based aid. 
  • Spending time with this type of information to find colleges that are more likely to offer your student a merit scholarship is going to be the best return on your investment (thankfully it’s not a money investment, but an investment of your time).
  • R2C Insights is most helpful in helping families do a “reverse look-up” where they can enter their student’s academic stats and any requirements for location, school size, and major. Once entered, R2C Insights provides a list of schools that meet that requirement and where the student has a likelihood of also receiving merit scholarships.

[More on using data to research merit scholarships.]

Soul search

Have your students do some deep thinking about who they are and what their goals are.

What does she love or not love to do? What bores her? What is she good at?

Does your child already know he wants to be a teacher? Does he love writing? Does she love diversity or like-minded people?

Does he want to study abroad?

Begin with basic questions in order to narrow in on some answers before embarking on the search process.

Consider size, distance from home, desired region, programs/majors of interest, and whether your child wants to be big fish or a small fish surrounded by top-tier students.

Through the course of these conversations, it may become obvious you student would prefer a gap year, a part-time job to take a break, or a more technical path.

Many colleges will let you apply and defer for a year, if admitted.  

Use a college match program if available

Some high schools offer Naviance and have guidance counselors to help with the college search process.

Naviance is a college match program that helps students search by major, take a personality survey, explore prospective careers, and more. It can be a great starting point, but unfortunately many schools don’t offer it. If yours doesn’t, your family will need to use outside college match tools and do research on your own (more below).

Attend a college fair

Many school districts offer college fair events in the fall. These can be great opportunities to learn about the colleges in your area, from community college to a nearby four-year school.

The fairs often include colleges from outside your region whose admissions reps have flown in.

Check out the brochures, talk to the reps, and ask about majors, campus culture, study abroad opportunities, and financial aid.

Attending a college fair and having your student interact with the college rep is a great way for them to start showing “demonstrated interest,” which more and more schools use to factor into their admissions decisions.

Visit college websites

These days, colleges have sophisticated websites chock-full of information. Explore the type of students they accept, required GPAs, popular majors, extracurriculars, and what students go on to do after graduation. Many college websites offer virtual tours of the campus.

Sample a few colleges on for size

Some students may know they want a large football school or a small liberal arts college, but many kids don’t have any idea.

Develop itineraries for school breaks and visit colleges within easy driving distance or while on a family vacation you’re already planning.

Visit colleges of all sizes for a sense of how they feel, as well as colleges in rural and urban settings.

A college in a big city will offer a completely different experience from one in rural Maine or Minnesota.

Consider the seasons, too.

Does your student mind bitter cold winters? Prefer sunshine?

Does the nearby airport get routinely snowed in for winter break?

Try to space these visits out if possible and keep the focus light and exploratory initially. Your visits can become more targeted later on.

Work with a private college counselor if budget allows

Private counselors offer anything from the full search package for several thousand dollars to a simple cost analysis for under $1,000.

They can be very useful if your budget allows, taking the mystery out of the search process and helping your student whittle down the choices.

Be sure to ask whether a counselor examines financial aid possibilities if this is important to your family.

Not all counselors do.

Ask veteran college friends for recommendations.

Other Resources


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:

Common Data Set Ultimate Guide: Use It to Find the Right College

Need-Blind Colleges: Expanding Access to Education

Colleges That Change Lives: The List of 44, Comparisons, and How to Choose




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