This time of year, I receive the following question about the college search process nearly daily: “I am a parent of a high school junior…where do I start?”

From a birds’ eye view, the college search process can be daunting.  Here are a dozen items you know have to be completed in the next year, but do not really understand:

  • SATs
  • ACTs
  • Subject Tests
  • Safety Schools
  • Reach Schools
  • Target Schools
  • Early Decision
  • Early Action
  • Regular Decision
  • Teacher Recommendations
  • Transcripts
  • Alumni Interviews
  • Campus Tours
  • Scholarship Applications
  • Common App
  • Common App Essay
  • Supplemental Essays

…I could go on and on.  The point is, with a list this daunting (and a list that contains so many confusing phrases), a lot of high school students (and parents) struggle to start. Waiting to start is a mistake.

The #1 characteristic I’ve seen time and time again with my most successful students is a willingness to start the college process early. For you juniors, that means now.

Ok—you’re reading this and feeling super motivated this Friday morning.  You’re eager to begin. So, where to begin?

Campus visits.

Where do I go?

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter?

Yes, that’s right. For high school juniors, the actual location of your introductory campus visits is significantly less important than simply completing a few.  It’s too early in the college game to actually have a strict college list.  What is important at this stage is identifying qualities in colleges you like & dislike. From there, you or a personalized guidance counselor can help you build out a school list based on these likes and dislikes.

For example, I often hear the following from students: “I’ll never get into Harvard so why would I visit?” I understand this question, but it is misguided.  Visiting Harvard, even if you know it will never make your final list yields many, many positives.  Let’s say you return from your Harvard visit and identify the following characteristics:

  • Mid-size student body (5,000 to 10,000): LIKE
  • Closed campus environment: LIKE
  • Walking distance to major city: LIKE
  • Lack of sports passion/ NCAA football gameday vibes: DISLIKE

Identifying these four characteristics, and your likes/dislikes will do wonders as you build out your school list.  As you can see, for the student above, a strong sports culture is important.  Once identified, a guidance counselor can help you identify 8, 9, 10 other schools that have the qualities the student likes about Harvard without the qualities she doesn’t like.

This fall, visit 2 or 3 schools.  Make it easy on yourself and keep them within driving distance. Then analyze your likes and dislikes.  The college search process doesn’t have to be complicated…but is does need to be organized and calculated.  Give this calculated approach a try and you won’t be disappointed…

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-Jack & Jordan