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How to Choose the Right College

Step 1 of the 4-Step Method to Getting Into Your First Choice Colleges

This is the first article in a four part series by Dr. Donna Risolo, owner of College Prep Tutors.

By junior year most students have what they think is a good list of colleges to which they plan to apply. However, many times these are very ill informed perspectives based on sports teams that they like or the college that their best friend’s older sister is currently attending. And so the task still remains: how to choose the right college.

College bound teenagers often have not taken into consideration important features, such as public versus private, small versus large, liberal arts versus research university, and how each of these characteristics is going to impact their college experience.

It is not uncommon for a Junior to have created their master list of schools only to conduct college visits come fall of senior year and realize that they are no longer interested in half of the schools on that list. This does not happen to the clients in my practice, because they follow my 4-Step Method to Getting Into Your First Choice Colleges, but I have had those midnight hour clients who come running to me in the fall of senior year, because their entire college admissions process is falling apart. And many times that is because they have not correctly executed the first step in the college admissions process: crafting a well vetted list of colleges that aligns with their interests, capabilities, preferences, and personalities.

For this reason, it is imperative that students start visiting a variety of colleges and visit them as early as possible.

How early you might ask? If time is on your side, start freshman or sophomore year. If your child is already a junior, then please start now.

Of course, this begs the question: how will we know which colleges to visit when my freshman or sophomore doesn't even know which colleges they’re interested in?

Finding the right college is not really the goal of this strategy. The goal is to get exposed to as many different types of colleges as early as possible, so that when it does come time to create the final list of colleges, they will be well informed and able to create a list that is truly actionable.

Here is the strategy that I advise my clients to take:

Visit at minimum three large state schools, three small liberal arts colleges, and three medium size public or private colleges by the end of sophomore year. And this is just a starting point, but using size and public vs private vs religiously affiliated schools will provide enormous insight into the type of college that best resonates with your child.

To alleviate the expense and time that travel entails, you can choose schools that are within a 100 mile radius of your home, so you can make it a day trip. And while you are at it, encourage the younger children in the family to attend. This way you will not have to repeat the process when it’s time for their college admissions journey.

Then, come early junior year, start to create a well-informed list of colleges that will make up your child’s 3/3/3 or 4/4/4 – that is three to four safeties, three to four targets, and three to four reach schools.

The Junior year list might not include any of the schools that your child previously visited. And that’s perfectly fine. But what I can guarantee you is that this list will be better informed than the list they would have created had they not conducted those early college visits freshman and sophomore year.

Next, visit as many colleges on the Junior year list before senior year starts. This way if a few colleges on the list drop off, that’s not a big deal. You have already well vetted the remaining colleges on your list.

A final benefit of taking your freshmen and sophomores on college visits is that it creates motivation to apply themselves in school. It is not uncommon for students to come home from these visits with their eye on a particular college that they absolutely love, but currently do not have the GPA or test scores expected for admissions. Now your child has something very concrete, a dream college, to add meaning and purpose to all the hard work that high school requires.

There are several more variables to consider and actions to take that make up Step 1 of my 4-Step Method. However, early college visits are the foundational principle that I absolutely encourage you to apply to your child’s college admissions process.

To learn more, contact Dr. Donna Risolo at to schedule your complimentary Parent Discovery Call.

Dr. Donna Risolo is the owner and principal tutor of College Prep Tutors, a boutique College Admissions. Dr. Donna has helped hundreds of teenagers get into their first choice college and many with substantial scholarship awards regardless of parent income. She earned her doctorate degree from Teachers College, Columbia University in NYC. When not engaged in her passion project of helping teens realize their full potential, Dr. Donna also works as an educational consultant, guiding public and independent schools in best educational practices, admissions and fundraising, strategic and school improvement planning , mission, purpose, and vision, parent and stakeholder engagement, and organizational culture building.

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