The first of two posts on how to finalize where to apply.

Now is the time to sit down with your rising high school senior and review the list of colleges your family’s been working with—or at least has been talking about. Application time is right around the corner.

The final list should include 8-12 colleges, not 25. With my daughter, we needed to trim hers down to 12, but with my son we needed to add a couple of schools to get him to eight. If you think more than a dozen is better, keep in mind that colleges charge an application fee, some as high as $100. It can get pretty pricey and time consuming, too–fall of senior year gets busy for most kids.

You never really know what a college is looking for, so you can’t be too comfortable applying anywhere. That being said, your student’s list should include at least two safety schools, meaning they well exceed the college’s requirements in terms of GPA and SAT/ACT scores. And two reach schools—colleges they’d like to attend, but come up just short in maybe one area. For the other four to eight target colleges, your teen should fit most of the prerequisites, though it doesn’t have to be by a lot.

Here are some other criteria to consider as you help your senior shape the list.


College visits Apply what you’ve learned from those tours, mainly what your teen liked and disliked about particular campuses. Then use that information to find similar schools and dismiss others.

Cost Discuss as a family what, if any, financial support you can contribute toward tuition. Check the financial aid pages of college websites to find out what type of aid each school offers and to how many students.

Many parents limit their teen’s list to in-state public colleges because “that’s what we can afford.” But private colleges and some out-of-state public universities offer merit-based scholarships based on GPA, SAT/ACT scores, class rank, community service, athletic abilities, intended major and even a parent’s occupation, in addition to financial need. The Ivy Leagues provide full scholarships to low-income students who meet their admissions criteria, and financial aid based on a sliding scale for higher family incomes.

mapLocation As hard as it may be for parents to accept, how far away our kids want to go to college is really their decision. Of course some issues factor in, like whether your family can afford plane or train fare for a school beyond driving distance, or if you need your student close to home to support your family financially.

As parents, we know our kids better than almost anyone. If yours never made it past the second week of sleep away camp, then cross off that college clear across the country, but consider one within your max driving distance.

Commuting best suits kids who like being near their local friends, don’t want to live with a stranger or can’t afford the cost of housing. Some kids know they’ll find more success in college by commuting, and will get just as much out of the college experience as the students who live on campus. Again, the choice is theirs. Please don’t be the parent who offers to buy their kid a car if they don’t go away to school. Bribery isn’t fair.

If your student doesn’t know whether they want to go away, then put both types of schools on the list.

The next post will discuss other factors to consider, like school size, social life, weather, majors and minors, male to female ratio, Greek life and more.

Share your thoughts on how to decide where to apply in the comments section below.