How to pick the right college

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Former college admission director Sandra M. Moore will present “How to Find Great and Affordable Colleges” at the Saugerties Public Library on Thursday, Sept. 25 from 6:30-8 p.m. The presentation aims to teach parents and college-bound students how to discover and compare institutions that are generous with need-based or merit aid. Moore is the founder of Next Step College Counseling, whose mission is to help families navigate the college search and admission and financial aid application processes with an emphasis on minimizing family stress. For more information, call the library at (845) 246-4317.

What is the single most important piece of advice you have for high school students and their parents who plan to apply for college?

To discover best-fit colleges — those places where students won’t just survive but will thrive — they need to start the search process with a thoughtful self-assessment of who they are at the moment, including their particular learning style, personality, strengths (and weaknesses), interests and talents and not with the colleges themselves. Too often families rely primarily on college rankings, name recognition, prestige and sticker price to determine which schools make the cut. Then they wonder why their kids a.) don’t get in; b.) don’t receive need-based aid and/or merit scholarships/tuition discounts; and c.) end up transferring or dropping out.


When should the college preparation process begin?

I recommend that the college search and admission and financial aid application processes be broken into small, manageable pieces and tackled over the course of all four high school years. While there’s no absolute right or wrong calendar to follow, the earlier families begin, the better, so that they avoid being rushed and making unfortunate mistakes. The most important thing kids can do during this time that will maximize their options down the road is to choose as academically challenging a program as possible (but keeping in mind it’s unnecessary to take ten AP courses in order to demonstrate rigor). It’s also critical for them to develop a few, select areas of authentic interest, in which, over time, they’ll be able to demonstrate excellence or leadership. Many websites, such as the College Board’s, lay out typical timetables for completing required tasks.

Should a student of modest means consider cost of admission when choosing schools to apply to?

In order to fully understand what attending a particular college will actually cost, it’s essential for students and their families — whatever their financial situation — to understand early in the process what they will be expected to contribute (known as EFC), and to look at sticker price in conjunction with financial aid policies and practices, which differ from school to school. For example, a high-cost institution may be known for offering generous need-based aid packages (i.e., those providing a high level of free money — grants — with limited or no loans), but doesn’t give the kind of merit scholarships or discounted tuition deals to wealthier students that other schools do. Other colleges may be modestly priced but offer very little in the way of any aid other than loans. And how much assistance a student will receive is also dependent, in part, upon how attractive a candidate is to a particular college in a given year. Figuring all of this out takes a lot of time and effort!

Tales of high levels of student debt incurred by graduates with degrees in subjects not associated with high-paying or plentiful jobs have become common. Has this affected the views of students and parents regarding choosing a college and major and/or how you advise them? If yes, how so?

Given the ups and downs of the economy and all of the bad press about student loan indebtedness over the past few years, yes, many families are genuinely concerned about their children’s job prospects and spend a lot of time trying to figure out “best bets”— which majors or areas of study are most likely to result in steady and lucrative work. As a result, I’ve certainly seen a lot of kids expressing interest in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), particularly engineering. Of course, just because those fields are “hot” doesn’t mean that every student is well-suited for them or that they will, in fact, be gainfully employed as a result of majoring in them. The world is changing so fast, and I remind my families that we don’t even know what careers will exist five or ten years from now! So, again, my emphasis is first on making sure that self-assessment results jibe, in general, with the majors and career paths that kids and their parents may have in mind. Moreover, I have found that if a college’s overall environment is in keeping with most of what a student is looking for, students are likely to persevere, even when majors change (and they do…a lot).

Further reading: What books, websites or resources do you recommend for evaluating colleges and navigating the financial aid process?

My talk will include a handout with lots of good resources, but here are three:

College Especially Big Future sections on “applying” and “paying.”

College Great tool for finding and comparing colleges. Don’t be fooled by the .com version!