College Planning 101: A Guide to Help Your Child Find the Right School With Minimal Stress

The college planning process can be riddled with anxiety, from test prep to costs to worries over high school classes and grades. Counselors and colleges offer tips for what to focus on—and when.

Kathy Lynn Gray
Columbus Parent
Adeline Thorn and her mother, Melissa Thorn, of Smithville, Ohio, explore Capital University with student tour guide Corinne Gorgas.

“So, where are you going to college?”

That’s the question driving high school seniors to distraction this time of year, as they finish sorting through possible school choices, labor over online applications and try to keep up with myriad class obligations.

It’s an issue that weighs heavily on parents, too, as they attempt to offer the right amount of support and advice to keep their teen on track without being overbearing.

But, if you’ve done your college search homework, there’s no reason to panic. Experts say plenty can be done to keep the stress at manageable levels, especially if you start early.

“Parents shouldn’t be leading, but they should be very involved,” says Tom Woodford, the college counselor for Hilliard City School District. That means understanding nearly as much as students about what colleges look for in an applicant, how to plan for college and how to pay for it.

Woodford, who’s been an educator for 33 years and a high school counselor for 26 of those, holds meetings each year for eighth grade students and their parents to familiarize them with the terminology and basics of a college search, as well as opportunities for students to take Advanced Placement and College Credit Plus classes in high school. He emphasizes how college admissions offices look at much more than a student’s grades when considering who to admit. Extracurricular activities, both at school and in the community, are important, as are volunteering and holding leadership positions. Beginning in ninth grade, parents should help students map out a challenging class schedule each year, with input from school counselors.

Grade-level planning tips to help get your child ready for college.

Be a Coach for Your Child

Beth Wiser, Ohio State University’s executive director of undergraduate admissions, likens a parent’s job in the college search to a coach’s duties. “They’re helping keep things organized for students, but they’re not on the playing field,” says Wiser, who is in her 40th year of college admissions work. “Even parents who haven’t attended college themselves can provide that support, help with deadlines and all the information that comes along with a college search.”

Wiser says one important step is helping students discover and understand their passions. “Ohio State has an appreciation for students who have one or many interests and a diversity of thought,” she says. “We want a group of engaged students, and each year we want to build a diverse class.”

Times Have Changed

Admissions are competitive at Ohio State, Wiser says, and that’s a change from a few decades ago, when standards were much looser. Of the 71,000 students who applied to main campus for the 2022–23 school year, 7,966 were selected and are currently attending.

That’s one reason Wiser cautions parents not to rely on their own college search as a guide for their children. “We have a lot of conversations with parents and other family members who have an understanding of what a school was 20 or 30 years ago,” she says. “Their perception and what a school is like today might be very different, so they shouldn’t rely on the old stereotypes they had.”

Woodford echoes that thought. “If we begin our sentences as we talk to our children with, ‘When I applied for college,’ it just won’t be applicable,” he says.

A good example of how things have changed in higher education is the two standardized admission tests, the SAT and the ACT. Nearly every college nationwide used to require scores from one or the other, but amid the pandemic, many became test optional. Ohio State, for example, doesn’t require the tests anymore, but Wiser recommends that students submit their results if it strengthens their application.

Keep these timeframes in mind when thinking about college applications.

Woodford warns that students should check each school’s website to determine if it remains test optional, because some schools have switched back. “You also should ask what percentage of students got in without submitting their test scores,” he says. “A school could be test optional but still value the tests.”

Parents also should know if colleges on their child’s list use “superscoring,” which can benefit students who have taken the ACT or SAT more than once. A superscore is the total of the highest score on each SAT test section over multiple attempts, or in the case of the ACT, an average of the student’s best score per section. Students must submit all individual test scores to a school to take advantage of superscoring.

Narrowing the Choices

Beginning in a student’s junior year, parents should talk with their child about what kind of college or university they’d like to attend and start visiting schools.

Need more help? Try these websites for information on everything from test prep to scholarships.

That’s what Aimee and Josh Sanders did with their daughter, Abby, who is now a senior at Granville High School. “We always knew she would go to college, but we didn’t actively start helping her sort through her options until the summer of her junior year,” says Aimee Sanders. To make the search more manageable, they asked Abby to only consider schools within an eight-hour drive of home. And because they’re Jewish, Abby sought colleges that had faith-based representation on campus, such as a Hillel program.

“We wanted to give some structure to the search, because we knew it could feel super overwhelming,” Aimee Sanders says. “I’d recommend that to other parents—setting some structure to the process.”

In all, they visited seven schools—all medium-to-large, because Abby didn’t want a small school—and Abby immediately ruled out several based on the visits. “When we looked at the schools online, they all looked totally like they would fit, but then you go and see them and hear from students there, and it really helped narrow it down,” Aimee Sanders says. “I can’t put enough weight on the importance of visiting campuses.”

Kelli Stammen, whose daughter, Rue, is a senior at Grove City High School, wishes they’d started college visits earlier than junior year. Rue made official visits to three colleges and an unofficial trip to a fourth, but found her extensive participation in choir and other activities left little time for such tours. She had 10 schools on her preferred list and applied to six, a mix of state and private schools, all in Ohio.

Because she hopes to major in musical performance, Rue will have the additional step of auditioning at each school. She’s also interested in public policy and international affairs, her mom says, so a school with all three options would be a plus.

Making official college visits to a variety of schools—rural, urban, large and small—is the No. 1 suggestion Ashley Logan, director of college advising for I Know I Can, gives students and parents. The local nonprofit has full-time college advising managers in each of Columbus City Schools’ high schools four days a week, helping students plan for life after high school and working to get more seniors to go to college.

Since many of the district’s students aren’t able to make college visits on their own, I Know I Can offers juniors and seniors bus trips to five to eight college campuses a year. “Regardless of a student’s background, just stepping on that campus helps them picture themselves there, and that’s huge for our students,” says Logan, who’s been with I Know I Can for a decade.

Like other Central Ohio districts, Columbus offers students an online college planning platform they can use to make a list of potential colleges, access applications and organize their search.

Logan also encourages students to attend college fairs and meet with college representatives who visit the high schools. “Making those connections is crucial,” she says, because some colleges give preference to applicants who show more interest. For schools that track such “demonstrated interest,” students should interact in as many ways as possible.

What About the Cost?

According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost to attend a college on its annual rankings list is $10,423 per year for an in-state, public school and $39,723 for a private institution. Those figures don’t include room and board.

But Nathan Bell, director of admissions, operations and technology at Capital University in Bexley, says parents shouldn’t rule out private colleges and universities as too expensive. Private schools offer plenty of scholarships that can make the cost comparable to a state school.

New this year at Capital, for example, is the Main Street Plus program, which provides full-tuition scholarships to U.S. students with a 3.5 grade point average and a family income of less than $60,000 a year.

Hilliard’s Woodford says he’s seen many students attend private colleges and spend less than at a state school. “Private schools have their own institutional aid they can offer students, and that’s how they make it similar in price,” he says.

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (better known as the FAFSA) is the first step, Bell says. The form, available Oct. 1 each year, uses information from a family’s tax return to determine how much a student can receive in federal grants and loans. “Some schools offer additional institutional awards just for filling it out,” Bell says. “I recommend everyone fill it out, as soon as possible.” The application can be updated if circumstances change, such as a job loss, and aid also will reflect how many members of a family are in college, he says.

Keep Things in Perspective

Visiting colleges with your child can be a bonding experience, and so can college planning. OSU’s Wiser suggests setting up a designated time each week during senior year to discuss the search, so a student doesn’t feel constantly nagged.

Bell and Wiser encourage students and parents to try to enjoy the search. “It’s OK not to know what you want to do with your life when you enter college,” Bell says. At Capital, for example, only four of its more than 90 majors require students to declare their major as a freshman. “That gives a lot of flexibility for you to figure out once you’re here what you want to do,” he says.

For some students, that might mean starting at a community college and then transferring to a four-year institution. “I tell students to make the choices that are best for you, not for someone else,” Woodford says. “This is your pathway, and it doesn’t have to be a shared pathway.”

Stammen and Aimee Sanders have emphasized that with their own children. “I know it’s tempting to go where your friends want to go, but don’t,” Stammen says.

Aimee Sanders says she’s tried to help her daughter focus on her own needs. “It takes a lot of talking through the choices, but that can help them prioritize what they want in their college experience,” she says. “It’s not so much about finding your perfect school as it is what you make of it once you get there.”

This story is from the Columbus Parent section in the December 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.