Preparing for College

Next Steps for Family Behind the College-Admissions Process Curve

Question: We seem to be very behind in our college journey (it's been a rough year for the family--financial and health issues). My very bright, soon to be senior son is interested in biological sciences.

We visited my brother this summer in Gainesville and unofficially toured U of F--he loved the feel of the campus (kind of suburban setting). But we live in Cincinnati and will probably need to stay in state as we've lost a large amount of our income this year (spouse had to take early retirement).

We've done no official tours, only a drive around of Ohio State (he liked it okay but hopes for a less urban setting) and Kenyon (one of his science teachers had told him it had a good science rep but it doesn't seem like the right fit--seemed too rural and very literature focused).

He looked at OU Athens online but thought it sounded from the student chats like it may not be challenging enough in science.

He's got a 4.3 gpa, 3rd in his class of 400+, has lots of AP classes, but only a 29 ACT (he get the answers right but runs out of time on standardized tests--he just doesn't read or test that fast).

It looks like we're behind in finding scholarships, in identifying colleges, in making 'official' visits, and in writing his essay(s). At this point, we don't know what to do next. Can you help? I've gotten several books, but we're running short on time--looks like they need to write one for parents behind the curve! Thanks!!!

You must be spending too much time on College Confidential. ;-) It doesn't sound like you're behind the college-admissions curve at all. Granted, there are some families that are way ahead of you. I'm sure that the most type-A kids (or those with the type-A parents) have already written all of their essays, and their fingers are poised on the application "Send" buttons. But the new Common Application just went live today (August 1), which should tell you something about where most folks are expected to be at this point in the summer ... i.e., far from finished.

In order to find more schools that meet his personal and financial needs, your son should try College Confidential's new SuperMatch college-search tool. Go to:

He can select his assorted preferences for size, location, major, etc. Then, under the "My Scores" heading, he should check the option that says, "I'm interested in schools where I would be well above average, to increase my financial aid opportunities."

Thus, his "Results" list should include colleges that meet most of his priorities but also will make him a front-runner for merit aid.

He can also look for scholarship opportunities at www.meritaid.comand

While it's irresponsible of me to recommend specific schools for your son without knowing a lot more about him, I think he should check out American U. in Washington D.C., Brandeis University (just outside of Boston), and, closer to home, Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. All sound like they might be good fits for academics, size, and setting, and your son may be a merit-aid contender at each.

Although his ACT score isn't quite in sync with his GPA and rank, it shouldn't be a deal-breaker, and I strongly urge him to retake the test as a senior ... or to try to SAT, if he hasn't already. (The SAT is a bit less reading-intensive than the ACT, in my opinion.)

Also keep in mind that sometimes private colleges can be more affordable than public ones, if your family qualifies for need-based aid or the merit aid is good. Play around with the College Board's online Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) calculator at to get a sense of how much you will be expected to contribute to your son's education each year. You may find that the resulting figure is affordable, and the more well-heeled colleges may kick in the difference between their total cost and what your family is expected to pay. ( Be sure to use BOTH the "Federal Methodology" and the "Institutional Methodology" when you use the calculator. The snazzier schools typically go with "Institutional.")

Good luck to you as you continue to navigate this maze. I hope that the rest of the year gets better for you and your family.