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Making the College Selection (recommended for Parents)

I’ve worked with many college students, both through teaching at the college level, and in my role as VP Marketing and Enrollment at a Liberal Arts college overseeing the Admissions Department. Based on my observations, I have developed a model that shows how students go about selecting their college.


  • Even when your child is young, college influences abound.

  • Parents touting their alma maters (sound familiar?)

  • Older siblings embracing a college team for its success in sports (I have a 6 year old nephew whose “favorite” colleges are based on their mascot!)

  • Local college or university that gets extensive media coverage

  • Role models (aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, school counselor, pastor) who introduce their biases

These earliest influences result in a “list of possibilities” because your student has an awareness of them.


This “list of possibilities” might be fluid or stable through the earlier years, but once your student gets to middle school or high school, the process starts to refine. Even more influences come into their lives and they start to have other interests and you may notice they start to think about college in a more personalized way.

  • As your student’s circle of influencers broadens extensively, they will be introduced to more and more colleges

  • They may start attending events at the local college and see themselves as a student on that campus someday

  • They will start to have classes that they excel at and maybe even develop a passion for

  • They may become involved in some extracurricular activity that has the possibility of a scholarship

  • The school counselor may be giving them assessments to identify broad interests

  • Soon your student will be inundated with social media from colleges they (and possibly you) have never heard of

At this point your student is building their Consideration set – all things being equal, the list of colleges they would consider attending.


At some point in your student’s high school years, they start to develop a specific set of criteria that each college will be measured again. (Not that they are measuring yet – but they are establishing some criteria.)

  • Location/distance

  • Affordability

  • Academic Program Offerings

  • College size and Amenities

  • Quality/reputation

  • Opportunity to participate in sports, music, debate, etc.

This is not an exhaustive list but it is indicative of the thought process. Some colleges quickly fall off the list while others may move to a higher priority position.


Now we work to get to “the Short List”. These are the handful of colleges your student is serious about attending and has plans to visit. All of the following play a significant role in evaluating the short list and of course there may be more depending on your student’s unique situation.

  • Scholarship/Financial Aid Package

  • Match with academic interest

  • Participation opportunities

  • Campus visit

  • Gut feel

  • Influencers (parents, friends, coaches, teachers, counselor, youth pastor, etc)

Let’s briefly look at each one of these.

- Scholarship/Financial Aid Package

  • Each college will put together a customized financial aid package that will show how much they are giving in scholarships, grants and loans. The question that must be answered is “What is the price tag you are most comfortable with?” (I encourage you to download “Financial Aid: What you need to know”) Link

- Match with Academic Interest

  • With career assessment programs like The Strong Interest Inventory with College Profile, (Link to Services) your student can zero in on the area of focus they want to pursue and evaluate each college on their list to determine the strength of the program. What is the college’s (or university’s) reputation for your student’s area of interest? If your student wants to pursue civil engineering, they will most likely be looking at universities that have strong engineering programs. Or if your student is considering teaching, what colleges have a strong reputation and placement rate for their Education grads? If your student wants to pursue a business degree, what kinds of summer internships do colleges provide? If an advanced degree is needed – e.g. Veterinary Medicine – what universities offer that program? Do they have a pre Vet Med undergraduate programs that will ensure all the necessary pre-requisites?

  • If your student is uncertain about what area of study to pursue in college, I can help with this. I am a Certified Strong Interest Inventory professional and would look forward to collaborating with you and your student to help them find their college major.

- Participation Opportunities

  • If your student has been involved in athletics, music, debate, drama, etc. in high school, they may want to continue to pursue that in college so the type of programs a college has in these areas may put some colleges in the short list and eliminate others. This can also have a significant influence on what size of campus and distance from home – especially if as a parent, you want to be able to take in their events.

- Campus Visit

  • I can’t stress enough how important this is. The Campus Visit gives your student an opportunity for an in-person meeting with the “recruiter” who’s been communicating with them. Hopefully they are also meeting with the financial aid person, a faculty member in their area of interest, and maybe getting to sit in on a class. Most colleges and universities will encourage you to have a campus visit. Make sure to get the most out of your campus visit by reading my blog “Maximize your campus visit.

- Gut Feel

  • So many inputs to the college decision, but don’t overlook this one. I encourage your student to pay attention to their “gut feel.” A number of years ago I did some research with college freshman at a liberal arts college. I asked them what their biggest fear was about college. By far the prevailing answer was “Will I fit in?” It’s one of the reasons I place such a high priority on the Campus Visit. It allows a student to place themselves on campus with the other students and answer “How do I feel being here?”

- Influencers

  • Usually by the time senior year rolls around, your student will be inundated with questions of “Where are you going to college?” “What are you going to study?” Even though parents may foot some or even the entire bill, you are in an unenviable position. A heavy handed approach is rarely the best approach but to be detached from the process isn’t helpful either. Providing your student with the resources to walk them through the decision process is invaluable.

If this blog has been helpful for you, I hope you will download the College Selection checklist. This handy checklist is a beneficial tool as your student (and you) navigate the college selection process.

Other helpful resources: “7 Tips to choosing a college major.

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