What kind of college planner am I? I think I am a pretty darned good one. I have a college planning practice where I help students find AND afford the right colleges. From time to time, I come across parents and students that ask me the dreaded question: Can you help me get into “X?” This "X" variable usually represents the dream college of their choice. “X” can be suitably interchanged with institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and the other usual suspects. Even here in Atlanta, many families ask how I can guarantee admission to our flagship college, University of Georgia. Parents that take this approach to college planning and the college planners that brag about IVY acceptance rates need to take pause.

 "We need to fit the student to the right colleges, not force the college we want to the student."

The problem with this approach is that these families have already bypassed one of the core principles of my practice: We need to fit the student to the right colleges instead of forcing the colleges we want to the student. I usually turn these families down or they quickly realize that I am not the planner for them. It’s a big leap to assume that a single college is the right fit based on the name and reputation of the college alone. I will even refer some of these families to ThinkTank Learning out of San Francisco. ThinkTank Learning is run by Steven Ma, a former hedge fund manager. He claims to have developed a multivariable formula where he can “guarantee” success into placement into certain agreed-upon colleges. It sounds like an attractive option until you find out that his "custom" fee can run over $700,000. Sound ouitrageous? You can read more about this orgaization here in a recent Bloomberg piece by Peter Waldman. As you can imagine, his service does not cater to mere mortals. I am the planner that mere mortals should turn to.

Here is the deal: There is no magic bullet that will guarantee acceptance into your dream college. Even if there was, you are probably going about this in the worst way possible.

So what are these families left with? An unrealistic and faulty expectation that admission into college “X” is the only route to success. Here is the deal: There is no magic bullet that will guarantee acceptance into your dream college. Even if there was, you are probably going about this in the worst way possible. Here is a strategy that is suitable for almost every student, mere mortals included.

1. We need to identify your top career choices BEFORE we identify your colleges. We need to assess your student properly to identify our top 2-3 careers and the corresponding majors. Once we identify these career paths and majors, then we can BEGIN to identify possible college choices. By going to a college that has all of your majors, we do not have to switch colleges if we switch majors. If we switch to a different college to chase a major, many credits may not transfer and we just paid for six years of college instead of four.

2. Some of the best colleges are the ones you never heard of. What do Hendrix, Oberlin, Mercer, St.Olaf  and Furman have in common? They all sent students to Harvard Law School’s class of 2015. If you saw the complete list, you wouldn’t recognize most of the colleges on there. You want to know the punchline? Guess which degree their potential employers will be looking at when they look for a job? What matters here is that these students received a strong education from a strong college and they still managed to end up at an Ivy League Law School. Though many students from these types of schools may still not get into Harvard, they still are positioned for success. I want to thank Lynn O’ Shaughnessy with pointing out these facts on her blog post, Where Harvard Law Students Come From.

3. Focus on fit. Many planners throw this one around a lot, but tend to be vague. I’ll be more specific on what “fit” means. We need to find schools where your student is academically elevated and positioned at the “teaching pace” and level of the college. This can be reliably predicted using a student’s test score and GPA and by comparing it to the incoming class of that college. I also like to look at schools that reliably graduate a large percentage of their students in 4 years. Why? Because 4 years costs less than 5 or 6 years. Other notable “fit” related questions include “How many freshman come back for their sophomore year?” “What is the student to faculty ratio?” “What percentage of your professors hold PhD’s?” “How many students are employed in their major after graduation and within what time frame?” Lastly, we need to find schools that will pay. We can find a school that has everything to offer academically, but if it still has a $40-70K/yr price tag, most of us are not going to go.

We can find a school that has everything to offer academically, but if it still has a $40-70K/yr price tag, most of us are not going to go.

4. Apply to multiple colleges that are the right fit. When you do, something amazing can happen to your award letter. Colleges may compete for students that demonstrate many viable college options. When some colleges see that your student is applying to multiple "good-fit" colleges, it can impact your aid in a very good way. There is a wonderful podcast from NPR Planet Money that highlights this fact. We can’t just create a random list of colleges and expect this type of result. We have to create a list of colleges that are suitable to your student.

This quote from the Bloomberg article referenced above really captures my thoughts, “A good counselor helps students and families get comfortable with the world as it is, not how they wish it were,” says Mark Sklarow, CEO of the ICEA, “It’s someone who says, ‘The world isn’t just the Ivies. Let’s find an even better match.’ ” 

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