When Princeton Review editor-in-chief Robert Franek stopped by the TODAY Parents office to take our questions and yours about college admissions, we hit him with all our most pressing questions about what can be a daunting and confusing process. What did we learn?
1. It's not too soon to start thinking and talking about college.
"It's never too early to start thinking about college," Franek told TODAY Parents editor Rebecca Dube. Instead of creating more pressure, Franek said that introducing the conversation early helps defuse some of the "frenzy and the angst" surrounding the admissions process and creates a "community" feeling within a family about the college admissions process. Franek said to plan to get serious about college admissions around the end of sophomore year/beginning of junior year in high school.
2. Even if you think you can't afford a certain college, don't cross it off the list.
Franek pointed out that many of the most "heart-stoppingly expensive" universities also have some of the best financial aid. "Don't make the tragic mistake of crossing those schools off your list for consideration," Franek said, especially early on in the process. When all the discounts and aid come in, they might be affordable after all.
3. Students, you have a job: Be awesome.
There are two kids of financial aid for college: need-based and merit-based. Franek pointed out that both students and their parents have responsibilities when it comes to acquiring the $180 billion financial aid dollars available. For students, that means "being awesome in high school," Franek said — taking challenging classes and making good grades, then taking the SAT and/or ACT and scoring as well as they can on them.
4. Parents, you have a job, too: Be fearless.
For parents, Franek said our role is to be "confident and fearless" about financial aid and filling out all the required forms, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If both parents and students do their jobs, students "will get into more schools and get more dollars to pay for those schools," Franek said.
5. Take the SAT or ACT, but take them no more than 3 times.
Franek said students can decide which test to take or take both of them, but in any case, the Princeton Review recommends taking neither test more than three times each. Scores are not likely to improve after the third time, he explained, and student confidence tends to drop after that third time.
6. "Test optional" colleges and universities are really test optional, but scholarships might not be.
Franek said there are about 900 colleges that no longer require students to submit SAT or ACT scores for academic admission — and yes, they really mean it when they say it's OK not to submit scores — but merit-based scholarships might require test scores anyway. Research both the colleges on your list and the merit-based aid requirements to find out for sure.
7. The perfect college might be one you've never heard of before.
Open your mind to solid regional schools like the University of Dayton, which has great business and entrepreneurship programs, or the University of Houston, Franek said. The Princeton Review has college search help on their website that students can use to find schools they might never have thought of otherwise.
8. "Applying to 30 colleges is nothing but ridiculous."
On average, students in the U.S. apply to seven to nine colleges a year, and Franek said that is a good number to shoot for, dividing your list evenly between "reach" schools that might be stretches for acceptances, "matches" that seem likely for acceptances, and "safeties," where students feel they can almost definitely count on getting in.
9. Know the difference between Early Action and Early Decision.
Early Decision colleges require a student to commit to matriculation if they are admitted; Early Action is a non-binding process that allows students to submit their applications by November and receive answers by mid-December with no obligation to accept an offer until the regular date of May 1, Franek explained. Good news for financial aid applicants: the FAFSA is now available in October so that Early Decision candidates can also receive their aid packages early and plan how to pay for that college instead of waiting until the spring to know what their aid packages will be.
10. Colleges do see students' public social media profiles.
Students should be careful about what they put on social media, and they should also know that colleges will notice good things there too, and students can use social media to follow the colleges on their lists and keep up with what is going on at their campuses.
11. "Deferred" early applicants can help their chances.
If a student applies early and receives a "deferred" decision, they can use the extra time to make sure their additional grades will be as high as possible, Franek said. He also encouraged any applicants who had not yet visited the campus of their chosen college to make sure they made a trip. "All those interactions are tracked and show interest," he said, and showing interest could help sway an admissions decision.
Franek urged those seniors and their parents currently enduring the long wait for college decisions to take heart. "You should feel confident," he said. "If you crafted a good list of schools, you are likely going to get into some of those schools."
Franek said during these months, applicants should get themselves onto campuses, follow their colleges on social media, and find out as much as possible about student opinions of the academic experiences, campus cultures, and career services at the colleges. Then, the students can be "confident college shoppers," Franek said, able to decide which college will fit them best in terms of their academic, social, and financial needs.