5 Overlooked Opportunities for The Savvy College Applicant


Many of my clients become frustrated and disconcerted when they realize that they are not candidates for “top tier” universities. I advise them that the best strategy is to put their ego aside and pick a University which is “the best fit” to achieve their professional goals. I suggest you don’t waste valuable time and energy being envious of another’s abilities, test scores and grades. Instead, assess your strengths, talents and goals and look for an environment where you will excel! Your search should combine realistic goals with optimistic choices to broaden your college experience and educational opportunities.

Don’t allow anybody to label you. Irrespective of the university you ultimately attend, it is your effort, perseverance and resourcefulness, which will ultimately determine your success. Don’t get caught in the viscous trap of comparing yourself to others and thereby overlook the critical steps of introspection, brainstorming, research and selection.  The savviest students will consider their options, evaluate the pros and cons of each potential choice and narrow their choice of schools that it’s a good fit and one that fits your budget.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, who researches financial aid, estimates that total student debt (compounded by rising enrolment) is growing by nearly $3,000 a second.  “The question isn’t the debt per se.  It’s what the students are getting in return,” says Richard Arum, A New York University sociologist who specializes in education. “Many students are incurring heavy debts for an education in subjects such as ethnomusicology and theatre arts that just aren’t worth it from a strictly financial viewpoint. (Money isn’t everything, but try telling that to the collection agency)”.

Anyone who believes there is a prescription for guaranteed success for admissions to a certain school or a group of elite schools is heading down a path that will most likely end in disappointment, frustration and unnecessarily reduced self-esteem.  No one should build up their hopes for admissions to a school that has not been clearly identified by college counselors as a “safety school” for you.  When a candidates’ credentials fall well within the school’s criteria for acceptance, that school is considered a ”safety school.” If a coach, counselor, parent or friend pushes a certain school, be careful not to narrow your search to the point where you eliminate other options in the event you aren’t admitted to your “dream school.” Also, make certain they understand your financial constraints at the outset of your college search.

While it’s good to shoot your arrows high, make sure you have a target that is within reach;  it’s a good idea to have one or two “reach” schools (schools that have requirements you mostly meet but your scores are at the lower end of their average candidate’s ACT’s/SAT score range) and the rest of your applications should be to your safety schools (those which have requirements that your scores and grades fall within the range of their average student). Remember, your greatness isn’t defined or limited to where you go to school but rather what you do in school once you’re admitted!  Today more than ever, students are doing great things coming out of schools that are not necessarily the most well-known but are considered “good values.”  See Lynn O’Shaughnessy, the author of the newly released second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

The relationships and network you develop in school with your professors and the real-world experience you glean from internships will weigh heavily on your success post college irrespective of the school you attend.

5 Overlooked Opportunities for the Savvy College Applicant

1. While you’re still in high school, focus your energy on seeking out experiences that will give you the opportunity to develop and strengthen your character. Find ways to volunteer, participate in team sports and if possible assume leadership roles in these activities in order to maximize your ability to add value to a group and demonstrate your skill in making a contribution to every group you join. Prospective admissions counselors and employers screen candidates for activities, which demonstrate commitment and character.  All things being equal in terms of grades and SAT scores, schools (and employers) will choose a candidate who has a track record of “adding value.” For instance, if you volunteer in student council find a creative way to raise more money than they have in the past and have the Council give back a percentage of the profits to a charity.  Help increase enrollment and participation significantly to your cause and increase members’ involvement there.  Make sure you develop a great rapport with other team members and the professional staff so you develop a network and can later request references.

2. When applying to college, I recommend that my clients engage in brainstorming and in research to discern what matters most to them in a schools academic and cultural environment?

Ask yourself: Am I able to afford to apply to schools outside of my hometown? Is the economy thriving there (if its a city school) and does the school have influence in connecting its students to a variety of industries in that area and other locations? Assuming I make connections with professors who are connected to industry in that region, would it be a desirable place for me to remain after college?  What is the caliber of students that are attracted to this university? Are they known to be partiers, super competitive types or a combination of all different types? You can find this out by looking at Princeton Reviews ratings of schools and asking guidance counselors and friends about the school’s reputation. The rankings are part of the Princeton Review’s 2013 edition of “The Best 377 Colleges,” a book that contains 62 lists on all aspects of college life, including academics, administration and the social climate on campus.

Also ask yourself: Do I want a small school in a rural area that’s relatively quiet and separate from the hustle and bustle of the big city?  Or, will I feel more comfortable exploring a large campus with lots of school spirit and some cultural activities?  Or, will I be more inspired at a University located in a big city and all of its resources?  Is it more realistic for me to choose a school in my home state to save money and maintain the connections I have made in high school? Or, can I afford to pay for a school out of state so I can expand my social network outside of my current one.

Once you choose the location for perspective school the next step is to consider what interests you most or which department will afford you the best chance for getting hired after college?  You are now beginning to behave like an educated, savvy consumer.  The question of financial aid and how much debt you are willing to assume should also be a factor in this decision as 2/3rds of seniors who graduated in 2010 graduated with debt and 27% of young college borrowers moved in with parents according to a recent study put out by Bloomberg Business Week.

3.  Contact the career service departments of the schools you’ve selected and request that they share a description of all the majors and the associated fields graduates have entered Post College with those various majors.

Many schools have mentoring programs where alumni are willing to meet with students to offer advice and insight into their field. A career coach can assist students as well with choosing a major that will match your needs, abilities and interests with a specific major and offer ideas about how to leverage your major to achieve practical goals post college.  One way I assist my clients is helping them identify college majors and internships that compliment their interests and will allow them both the academic and real world experience necessary to develop their skill sets in a particular field and increase their overall marketability after graduation.

A little bit if strategizing goes a long way when it comes to selecting a college, your major and your internships and in the long run this sort of strategizing will pay off: Students are happier in the environment they choose based on criteria they have thought about and considered their actual vs. hypothetical options. There are so many great schools including ones that offer two-year associate degrees and great potential for getting hired after one graduates.

4. Take advantage of as many opportunities to access free money for college. Learn from financial gurus Mark Kantrowitz, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, and Gen Tenabe’s brilliant tips on how to reduce your expected financial debt load, the secrets to increasing your odds of landing a scholarship. Mark Kantrowitz is a nationally recognized expert on student financial aid and scholarships. Mark is the Publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org, the leading web sites for planning and paying for college. Quoted daily in national newspapers, Mark has been called to testify before Congress about financial aid, scholarships and student loans on several occasions.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best selling author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price. The second edition of The College Solution was released in May 2012. See the following links for more information about Lynn and her books:

Financial Aid Guru Answers Questions | The College Solution

The Gen and Kelly Tanabe Scholarship Program is named after Gen and Kelly Tanabe who are the award-winning authors of eleven books on admission and scholarships. Together the Tanabes were accepted to all of the Ivy League colleges and won more than $100,000 in merit-based scholarships to graduate from Harvard debt-free. They tour nationally speaking about college planning and have served as expert sources for USA TodayThe New York TimesCNN, and U.S. News & World Report.

5.  Take advantage of free online support for coursework, especially in your most challenging classes. One of the most exciting advancements in education today is the innovation of Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organization, created in 2006 by American educator, Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT.  With the stated mission of “providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere”, the website supplies a free online collection of more than 3,000 micro lectures via video tutorials stored on YouTube teaching mathematics, history, healthcare and medicine, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics, cosmology, organic chemistry, American civics, art history, microeconomics and computer science. The instruction is outstanding and it allows students to learn material entirely at their own pace.

Code Academy is another widely used and terrific site that can teach a beginner to learn how to build great websites, games and apps.

The most resourceful students will gather all the information they can to find a University which matches their needs and positions them for success after graduation.