How to Help Families Research Colleges: Tips for Counselors

Last updated: Dec 26, 2018

Getting students in the right colleges is a complex job with high stakes. Counselors can inform the process and inspire, but only the students and parents can make the decisions that shape the lists of target schools and final decisions. The research that students and their families must do will define those lists and decisions. That’s the thinking behind our 10 tips for counselors on how to help families research colleges.

A college counselor and a student talk together about researching colleges.

Researching Colleges Should Start with Introspection

Doing the research that leads to the right school begins with a family reaching some basic understandings:

  • The student must define academic goals and related hopes, dreams, and fears.
  • Parents and students must identify school-related preferences, academic and nonacademic, and discuss them.
  • Parents must realize they have a key, supporting role in this process.

Those bullet points cover a lot of ground. Advise your students and their parents that covering that ground honestly and openly can help clear the way for productive research, as can several of these 10 tips that can help you help students and their families:

10. Have Them Do Smart, Timely Targeting

The recommended number of schools for the send-applications list typically is five to eight. Schools on that list should be the ones most thoroughly examined, but it’s going to take a lot of research to screen all the candidates for the final list.

Steer your students toward the sweet spot for final lists, somewhere between too few to have a good chance of getting an acceptance letter and too many to handle well in a reasonable amount of time. They can, however, screen a lot of schools for the final list, especially if they don’t wait until the senior year to get started.

A student’s strictest preferences, things ranging from academic offerings and location to cost, should drive the initial screenings and free time for a deep dive on more promising and desirable targets.

9. Have Them Explore Financial Aid, Scholarships Before Nixing Costly Picks

Grants and scholarships have made college possible for a lot of people who didn’t think it would be. A lot of people are surprised to learn that a college of choice can remove financial hurdles. There are a variety of available, but students must  . Prioritizing research on finances can help students avoid being surprised when it’s too late.

In short, tell students to explore financial assistance before crossing a dream school off the list.

8. Make Sure They Make It a Family Affair

The student should do the lion’s share of the research, but having Mom and Dad pitch in can help get the family fully vested in the process. It’s about making sure your student has a good college team.

You’re looking for another sweet spot here, one between overbearing parents who hijack the process and those who can’t find time to participate. Hitting it can pay off. A couple years’ worth of dinner table conversations can go a long way toward picking the right school.

7. Make Sure the Student’s Wants, Needs, Abilities Drive the Process

Time spent getting to know the student and parents can help you determine whether the student is making decisions based on his or her preferences or those of family or friends.

Researching schools based on someone else’s expectations, needs, or desires won’t serve the student but can waste money, talent, and time – some of it yours.

6. Give Them a List of Must-Answer Questions – for the Student

Pepper your students with questions designed to help focus their research based on what they want and need. Examples include:

  • Why do you want a college education?
  • How can college help you achieve your career goals or dreams?
  • What kind of school would best serve your personality, talents, and abilities?
  • Is diversity a priority?
  • Would you be comfortable living a long way from your family?
  • What kind of setting would make you comfortable? Urban? Rural?
  • Is social life a big issue?
  • Do you prefer lecture- or discussion-style classes?
  • Are there climates you can’t tolerate?
  • What are your housing preferences?
  • Large school or small?
  • Co-ed or single gender?

A parent and a student talk about researching colleges based on the counselor's advice.

5. Give Them a List of Must-Ask Questions – for the Schools

There are basic questions students should ask before applying to a college. These come under headings that include:

  • Under finances. Does the school offer scholarships or grants? What is the average debt load of graduates?
  • Under academics. What are the rules for declaring or changing a major? What is the instructor-to-student ratio, including professor-to-student?
  • Under social life. What extracurriculars and campus activities are available? What is the school’s interaction/relationship with the host community?
  • Under health and well-being. What health services are available on campus and in the host community?
  • Under postgraduate services. Are there job placement programs or other services for graduates?

Again, this is a list that should be tailored to the needs of the students, and it should be designed to focus their research.

4. Show Them Where to Find the Tools to Research Colleges

Computer keyboards put unlimited resources at fingertips, things such as USF’s Counselor Toolkit. College websites also can be mined for information on a school’s history, current events, activities, and resources. In fact, schools work hard to provide connections for counselors and advisors and digital outreach to potential students.

Beyond the online ocean of information, there are college and career readiness tools such as Naviance. Don’t forget to tell them that:

  • There are online tools that can calculate the odds of being accepted by a given school.
  • There are practical uses for The Common Application beyond pushing paperwork, including research.
  • There are digital tools such as College Search and College Navigator that can pair them with schools that might be a good fit.

Also teach them how to use social media to research colleges. Hold a college fair or bring in college representatives for productive facetime.

3. Stress the Value of Admissions Offices and How to Connect

Counselors often connect with as many admissions offices as possible and mine them for information that can benefit students. That information ranges from contact names to application process guidelines and inside information on campus amenities and resources.

Those offices are the best sources for information on schools. Make sure students and parents know that, and:

  • Advise students to connect with as many admissions officers as possible as early as possible and to collect names and contact information.
  • Tell students they should be engaging with admissions personnel at college fairs and school meet-and-greets as early as possible.
  • Make sure they know about tools such as USF’s interactive map called Find Your Recruiter.
  • Above all, make sure your students know that the best way to engage productively with admissions offices and officers is to be civil, honest, and aware that what they say and do shapes opinions and decisions.

2. Explain the Importance of Visiting Target Schools

Time and finances can limit the number of in-person visits to target schools, but virtual tours are free and invaluable. The final list of target schools is where students should invest time and money on visits. Those visits should begin as early as possible, and junior year is a good starting point. Students should:

  • Know how to prepare for a visit, including what questions to ask.
  • Thoroughly research schools before visits. No sense wasting campus time on what’s easily found in pamphlets and online.
  • Consider scheduling facetime with the admissions office.

1. Make Sure They Know You Will Be There to Help Throughout the Process

By the time your students are ready to complete their final lists, they will know your level of commitment and skill. Be sure they know early on that you can be their greatest asset in the process of researching schools and finding the one that will serve them best. After all, finding colleges that fit your students is a job you do well.

The USF Office of Admissions always is ready with advice and answers. Contact us online, or reach us by phone at 813-974-3350.

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