“On an important decision one rarely has 100% of the information needed for a good decision no matter how much one spends or how long one waits. And, if one waits too long, he has a different problem and has to start all over.”
Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant As Leader

6344886156_0e1da57c76Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

If you are a prospective college student, making a campus decision, you’ve run out of time! May 1st is the typical deadline for choosing where you will spend the next four years. Maybe this list of tips will offer the one final thought to help solidify your decision, but at this point my post today is here to help next year’s seniors.

The following list is derived from an exhaustive, diverse, and intensive search that my son and I just completed after journeying through his own college decision. We shared this through my Chicks with Choices Facebook page, and I have included additional tips/information from readers who walked with us (thank you for your added insight).

Tip #1: Is College Right for You?

All following tips assume that you are clearly on the path toward college, but I am desperate to start with the fact that college is not for everyone, and that’s okay! DO NOT blindly move in this direction before seriously considering the investment you and your family will make if college is your choice.

I am a huge advocate on the truth that there are many ways to do things. Shake up your thought process first. Ask alternative questions such as: What are my gifts? Is there a trade that better suits me, and therefore trade school is the better choice? Am I so undecided about my future that a year off to work makes more sense? How do I feel about a Community College and the money I’d save if choosing that option for a year or two?

Please do not make the decision to go to college because “that’s what my parents did”, or “that’s what all my friends are choosing.” You have the Chance to Choose in all aspects of life, including your future education!

Helpful Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-schawbel/college-alternatives_b_2159310.html

Tip #2: Consider the Time Needed for Your Search & Plan For It on Your “To Do” List

Both of my sons did most of the primary work toward their college decision making process. They solicited the help from high school counselors, principles, resource rooms, and informational meetings. If you are a parent reading this, let your child take the reigns on their own journey! You can be a huge source of support, and administrative help as a back up, but do not do the work for them!

Where a parent can be of help is in scholarship searches (more on this in tip #4), college tour scheduling, and a sounding board through all the details the student must keep track of. I will also add that I offered a lot more assistance to my second son because of the complexity of his search. (He looked at private universities on another coast-that complicates things).

Bottom line: College decision making takes time, attention, and work. There is no going around it, so plan for the time needed. And the more complex the search, the more time required. If this is your situation and both parents work full-time, you may need a coach to guide you. Feel free to contact me as your College Decision Making Coach. I’m happy to assist you!

Helpful Link: http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2013/09/23/create-a-to-do-list-for-your-college-search

Tip #3: Prepare to Complete Taxes Early

As the student, chances are that your own tax history is not complicated. This tip is certainly for parents. My biggest advice is to throw out the idea that April 15th is your tax deadline. Think early February. You’ll be glad!

While I’m kind of addressing parents, here’s a bonus tip: Try to be clear with your child on the dollar amount you can or are willing to pay for their education. My dad was very specific with me, and I now see the benefit. Especially in an age of entitlement, kids need to know what to expect. This is fair and helpful. Be clear. Be firm. Stick to the plan.

Tip #4: Understand the FAFSA (& Maybe the CSS)

The main reason you’ll be glad is that the FAFSA (and certainly the CSS) is frustrating to navigate without updated tax information. You can complete the form with the prior year’s tax information (“I intend to file”), but you’ll have to go back in and update it once the current year’s taxes are complete, which makes for double work.

An added tip from a reader: For those of you doing both the FAFSA and the truly nasty CSS Profile: Do the CSS Profile first. I know that it is very long and complicated, but it spells out a lot of line items more clearly than the FAFSA. After you do the CSS Profile, the FAFSA is an easy plug-in the numbers you’ve already calculated.

You may still be asking, what are these two forms and do I need to complete both? See the link below to assist you.

Helpful Link: http://www.gofinancialaid.com/blog/the-css-profile-and-the-fafsa-whats-the-difference

Tip #5: It’s Never Too Early or Too Late to Apply For Scholarships

Not until I began really searching for scholarships did I realize that we could have been doing this for years! There are scholarships that our freshman daughter can begin applying for! I also didn’t realize that you can continue this search and application process all the years you’re in college!

I was also astounded by the variety of options available. Davis applied for the “Tall Person” scholarship and the “Left-Handed” scholarship. There seems to be an unlimited bounty of options. Having said that, we spent a significant amount of time spent applying for these random funds, but we have seen limited results on our efforts (most require an essay). The very best scholarships to pursue diligently are the actual college scholarships, and these are awarded early! If you are a junior in high school, I’d suggest looking at the websites of your top three college picks, as of today. Look at their scholarship offers and begin working toward that process now (i.e. write the essay over the summer when you have more time)!

Helpful Link: http://www.fastweb.com/ (this is just one of many!! Simply search–the challenge here is the time it takes)

Tip #6: It Never Hurts To Ask

Days after booking a trip east to tour colleges, my son received an email from a school where he’d already been accepted. The email informed him that the school was offering a full, four year scholarship to four students who win in an essay, speech, & team building exercise on campus. There was only one problem: we already bought tickets for another time (after the competition dates were over) and this school was 3,000 miles away. Another trip east is just not financially feasible for us.

So we asked questions! What are our options? Can Davis submit the essay & do his speech over Skype?

The answer was “no” to our idea, but by initiating the conversation Davis was offered a $250 voucher & free housing on campus. I immediately got online & found a round trip flight for $253.75! What we thought was monetarily impossible turns out will cost us $3.75… all because we asked.


Tip #7: Properly Balance Your Reach Schools & Your Safe Schools

I don’t want to gloss over this one. Be ready, because it’s tough out there, especially for a middle-class white male. My son will graduate in one month as an AP Scholar with a cumulative GPA of 3.9. He has performed community service, worked part-time, scored an 1850 on his SAT score, went to State for varsity tennis, and placed 9th in a national title for his civics class. He simply could not have done more and, honestly, shouldn’t. That’s more than enough!

Davis applied to nine universities. With those credentials he was accepted to three, placed on a waiting list for one, and denied acceptance to five. Discouraging? Sure! But we are grateful that he didn’t put all his eggs in a few Ivy baskets. Weigh and consider carefully! The competition is tough. Reach for the top, but don’t forget to consider your back-ups!

Tip #8: Visit the School With AND Without Your Parent(s)

As I mentioned, what made our search so complex was my son’s real desire to attend school on the east coast. As it turns out, his final decision came down to a fantastic option in Seattle (30 miles from home), and a school in the heart of Manhattan (3,000 miles away). There were many factors that played into his final decision to attend the University of Washington, but I believe his trip to NYC played an important role. Our oldest son had the same experience when considering a school in Chicago.

Until you head out on your own, even if it’s for a weekend, don’t think you can get a real feel for just how far a school may be from your home. Regardless of whether you desire that or not, a student should experience the trip solo before making that decision.

Tip #9: Use Rejection Letters to Understand An Important Truth About Prayer

There is one aspect of prayer that I don’t like to think about, but must. It is this: An answer of “yes” to my prayer could mean a “no” to someone else’s prayer, and vice versa. This is most certainly true when it comes to college acceptance or rejection letters. There’s only room for so many students.

One of Davis’ top picks–Boston College–came in as a “no” for him, but was a “yes” for one of his classmates. Bummer for Davis, yet how wonderful for her! This is a tough truth, but an important one to wrap our minds around, because ultimately we should be concerned about God’s will, not just our own agenda. So, next time you receive a “no” in prayer, remember that it could mean a “yes” for someone else. Sure, that’s hard to swallow sometimes, but I think we’d all agree that God’s will is much better than our own.

Added tip for parents: The time between sending applications and waiting for the verdict feels like an eternity. Take this time of waiting to assure your child that God already knows where they are to be. Reassure them that our good Father will guide and direct each step. Celebrate the first rejection letter and the first acceptance. Ease their anxiety and cheer your student on. I can’t emphasize this enough. They need your years of experience and wisdom to help them see that all things do work out for their good!


Tip #10: Be Flexible-The Process Will Twist & Turn Unexpectedly

I’ve spent the past eight months emotionally preparing myself to lose my son to the east coast. I was sure this is where he’d end up, or at least I had to be ready for it.

Here’s the real trick; the biggest tip, and it includes both parties: First, as a parent, you have to be flexible enough for your student to dream, stretch, and grow. Do not deny your child this part of the process! We knew there was no way we could afford a $65,000 per year Ivy school, but we knew our son was capable of it, and our God was big enough to handle the financial impossibility if that was His will. Second, as a student, you have to be flexible enough to allow the process to take shape and walk though it to the final hour. You will set out with many ideas, you will become excited over endless possibilities, but the end result will most likely look much different than where you started.

Davis’ final decision was made a week ago. I don’t believe we can pinpoint exactly what made his choice clear, otherDavis UW than all of the above and none of the above. Some of it is crystal clear like money, logistics, great school, financial aid, while a lot of it is pure “gut.” This feels right. I can’t write a post for the “gut” part, but I can advise that you always remain flexible through the entire process.

Davis and I had the chance to hop on campus for a brief walk days after his decision. It was fast, we parked illegally, but captured this shot before he went off for a fraternity interview.

Something vague feels so clearly right.

Now I take a deep breath. We did it. The process worked, even though it whipped our butt. I can come back to the emotional place that finds me having lunch with him on a (very occasional) weekday, if we so choose. He can be home in less than an hour, even though this won’t and shouldn’t happen too often. But, it can. He’ll sit with us for Thanksgiving dinner. These morsels of reality taste like a delectable treat for a weary mom who just finished a very long process.

Don’t worry if you are just beginning. You will get through it. You will make the right choice.