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How to survive the college-search process with your student

William Creekbaum
Special to the Appeal

These days, the college-search process has taken on a life of its own. In addition to stellar grades, kids now need extracurricular activities, sports, multiple advance placement classes and sometimes a little SAT tutoring thrown in for a good measure. If you’re thinking that family vacations will provide some respite, think again: That’s when you need to hit the road to find a few campuses that “feel right” for your child.

With 3.2 million Americans turning 18, the high school class of 2009 is expected to be the largest in U.S. history, according to The New York Times (July 30, 2006). Based on an enrollment rate that has been rising steadily for decades, the competition for places in the freshman class at the best colleges will remain intense next year, even with a sharp contraction in the availability of student loans following the collapse of the subprime market.

To partially offset this pressure, some of the wealthiest schools are finding ways to make college more affordable, at least for students with the greatest financial needs. Even some elite schools are offering to cover more of the tuition costs for low-income families. Some schools are replacing loans with grants, which do not have to be repaid. Behind the generosity are ballooning endowments, with Harvard’s $34.9 billion fund the largest of all.

Is the college-search process really as daunting as it sounds in all the press reports? Yes and no. Your child is going to feel the pressure whether you voice it or not, but it will help to keep an open mind and a sense of humor as you go along. If your child is mature enough, you might introduce the possibility of taking a gap year. In Europe, most students take a year off before college, dividing their time between work, travel and community service. The idea is beginning to gain acceptance in the U.S. – and college-admissions officers look favorably on gap years. For information about planning a gap year, Taking Time Off by Colin Hall and Ron Lieber is a good resource: there are several helpful Web sites as well, including http://www.takingoff.net and http://www.whereyouheaded.com.

Sophomore year of high school is a good time to begin looking around. You don’t need to make any special trips – if you happen to be in Las Vegas with your 10th grader, take an hour to walk around the University of Nevada’s campus. Encourage your child to think about personal likes and dislikes: Does it seem too big? Is it nice to be near a city? If you find yourself in the neighborhood of a smaller school in a more rural setting, stop off there, too. Getting guidance on these big-picture issues can help direct decisions about where to apply later on.

If you are not planning any road trips, there are plenty of other ways to get information about colleges. Almost any basic information you need is available from the National Center for Education Statistics, and you can narrow down a search at http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/. Other Web sites, including http://www.campustours.com and http://www.petersons.com, also give key information about schools as well as links to school sites. Helpful print guides include: The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges (put out by Yale Daily News Staff), Fiske Guide to Colleges, and Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different by Donald Asher. If your child wants to research specific teachers, he can read student reviews on http://www.ratemyprofessors.com.

Whether your campus tour is virtual or live, remember this cardinal rule: Don’t fall in love with anything. This applies both to students and parents – especially to parents. The current avalanche of applicant’s means there is no sure thing these days. Even the most qualified student may not be accepted by his or her first choice.

Standardized and Advanced Placement testing is a reality of life for college-bound high school students. Most colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, though the two tests are actually quite different (kids who don’t do well on one often score higher on the other). Many of the best colleges also require anywhere from one to three SAT IIs, which focus on particular subject areas.

When it comes to preparing for standardized tests, there are plenty of resources. The company that publishes the test, the College Board, has review material (www.collegeboard.com). There are also many college preparatory services, such as Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions (www.kaptest.com) and The Princeton Review (www.princetonreview.com). If your child doesn’t seem to be getting the hang of the test after a few practice runs, you may be able to track down a tutor through the school.

The road to the right school is marked with many unanticipated twists and turns, which your family must navigate as gracefully as possible. As you make your way through the college process, try to stay calm and have confidence that your child will find a school that really does feel right. Chances are it will be the one where he or she will flourish.

Getting your child into the right school also requires the right college funding. Your financial consultant can help you develop a comprehensive education-planning strategy to help meet your goals.

• William Creekbaum is the first vice president of Wealth Management

Senior Investment Management Consultant in Reno. Contact him at at 689-8704 or william.a.creekbaum@smithbarney.com.

The summer before senior year is a good time to get a preliminary idea of what schools your child is going to apply to, gather the necessary materials and begin thinking about the essay question. More than 300 schools now accept the Common Application (www.comonapp.org) but many request additional essays as well. One of the best things for your child to do before they return to schools as a senior is to write the personal essay for the Common Application. This is an important exercise that requires reflection and plenty of time – both of which will be in short supply once senior year begins.

Come September, its time to finalize the list and draw up a calendar of application deadlines, including when teacher recommendation and other material are due. Most applications are now submitted online. Some schools have a rolling admissions policy, so you hear back within a certain number of weeks from when you apply. If there is a school favorite, a student may consider applying either early decision or early action. An application for early decision can only be submitted at one school and it is binding: The student is notified in December and, if accepted, must withdraw all other applications. Early action is nonbinding and students may apply to more than one school on this basis.

The student who applies early and gets accepted is finished with the college process in December. The parents of that child may face a new challenge: keeping their teenager focused and out of mischief once the pressure has eased. For students who apply regular decision, it is a long wait until April 1, when most decisions are announced – and even then, it may not be over. This year, colleges accepted many more students than usual from wait lists. Notification of wait-list decisions begins in May and continues into the summer.

The road to the right school is marked with many unanticipated twists and turns, which your family must navigate as gracefully as possible. As you make your way through the college process, try to stay calm and have confidence that your child will find a school that really does feel right. Chances are it will be the one where he or she will flourish.

Getting your child into the right school also requires the right college funding. Your financial consultant can help you develop a comprehensive education-planning strategy to help meet your goals.

• William Creekbaum is the first vice president of Wealth Management

Senior Investment Management Consultant in Reno. Contact him at at 689-8704 or william.a.creekbaum@smithbarney.com.