4 tips for navigating the college search process

If you have helped your child through the college search process — or have been through the college search process yourself — you know that navigating the school search and application process can be both stressful and overwhelming.

I remember the late nights sitting at the kitchen counter as my parents and I talked through the various items to consider and being so frustrated with all the unknowns.

The sticker price of college and the future of your kids makes this decision one of the most significant, yet the entire process can be so vague and unclear.

I recently sat down with Cozy Wittman, a professional with College Inside Track*, who specializes in helping families navigate the complicated college process, find the right fit and save money for college.

She gave me four tips to clear up the murky waters and potentially reduce your total out-of-pocket college expenses.

1. Don’t cast too narrow of a net before starting your college search

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is narrowing down the list of possible schools too early.

Every school has its wish list of unique students they are looking to add to their campus, and it’s difficult to know exactly what each school is looking for, so it’s important to keep your options open when applying to schools.

You should compile a list of six to 10 potential colleges. On that list should be about four to seven probable schools, two “stretch” schools and two back up schools.

2. Start your college search as early as spring of sophomore year of high school

Time is the enemy of a great college search and schedules seem to get increasingly hectic with each year.

Give yourselves plenty of time by starting the college search right before students enter their sophomore year. You’ll need all that time to plan trips to tour colleges to explore right fit and shore up your financial plan.

Plus, you should also plan for the time it will take for students to prepare and take – and retake — the ACT and/or SAT. And fill out college applications, draft admission essays and handle all other pre-college paperwork.

Don’t underestimate the time all that will take. Giving yourself a head start will help you avoid mistakes made when you’re in a rush.

3. Discuss a detailed financial plan

Even if you have taken advantage of pre-tax savings programs so your child doesn’t have to take out mountains of student loans, it’s important to sit down with students and discuss a detailed plan of how much college costs and what your expectations are.

Discussing a plan is a good opportunity to teach your child about the importance of financial planning and following a budget.

Do you expect your son or daughter to work while in school to help cover costs? What is their budget for entertainment and expenses outside of basic room and board?

One way for students to contribute to the increasing costs of college and prepare for their future is by getting scholarships. The biggest influencers of scholarships, sometimes referred to as merit-based financial aid, are the child’s unique abilities, academics, athletics and involvement in extracurriculars.

Researching what colleges value early means your child can increase their chances of a scholarship by volunteering or stepping into leadership roles in school.

4. Find the right college to maximize scholarships

Not every college offers merit aid, and not every college offers scholarship for the same student qualities. Dig deep into your preferred college’s admissions or financial aid office to get specific details on their scholarship programs.

Focus on schools where your student would bring something interesting to the school.

For example, identify schools where your student’s GPA and grades would put them in the top 25% of the incoming freshman class. Or find a school that invests in students with an artistic background. Or ones that line up with your child’s extracurricular talents, leadership examples and demographics can also help increase merit grants and scholarships.

Involving your children early in the scholarship process can also teach them how to acquire skills that future employers may also value.

Whether you’re just starting to save for college or ready to send your child off this year, Wipfli Financial Advisors can help get your financial picture in order.

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*College Inside Track is not affiliated with Wipfli Financial or any of its affiliates.

4 tips for navigating the college search process

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McKenna Girtz

Financial Advisor

McKenna Girtz is a Financial Advisor with Wipfli Financial Advisors, LLC, based in the Twin Cities.

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4 tips for navigating the college search process

time to read: 3 min