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Choosing a College: Questions to Ask Before Applying {Guest Post}

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You did it. You blinked. Your child is talking campus visits and dorm life. You’re wondering where the last decade of your life went.  

If college snuck up on you, resist the urge to plunk down the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars on college applications to every school your child has eyes for. Instead, help your student find the right mix of schools to apply to.

Douglas Bryan of College Planning DFW has helped hundreds of families navigate the college admissions and college financial aid process. We came up with three questions you should ask your child before you dish out a single penny for college applications.

3 Questions You Should Ask Your Child Before Spending Your Money on College Applications

#1 What do you want to be when you grow up?

If it’s true that few adults end up in the career they dreamed of as children, it seems absurd to expect a 17-year-old to settle on a career path.  

Narrowing down a career or field–and its corresponding college major–is not so far fetched. This type of front-end research can help your student decide on a college, as well as improve their chances of graduating in four years.

Career exploration during high school is key. To illustrate, let’s consider the scenario of two high school sophomores we’ll call Gladys GoGetter and William WarmingUp.

Both Gladys and William want to be attorneys. Their clever parents get them in a summer program where they work at a law firm.

After the summer Gladys is even more pumped to become an attorney. With law school in mind, Gladys decides on an undergraduate major. She starts the search for a school with the best program for her career goals.  

Unlike Gladys, William finds that law firm life just isn’t for him. This may seem like a bad thing, but it’s actually a positive turn of events for William. William won’t waste time or money chasing a major for a career that he really doesn’t want.

If you’re sold on career exploration, but you’re not sure how to pull it off, encourage your student to:

Join an explorer group. Explorer groups allow high school students to meet with professionals in a particular field (e.g., Medical Explorers, Law Enforcement Exploring). Some groups do field trips and projects to further expose students to the profession.

Get an internship. Do an online search for local companies with internship programs for high school students. Such organizations will often outline the application process on their website.

Shadow someone in the field. A formal internship is not the only way to get real-world experience. Think about family and friends with interesting and not-so-interesting careers.

An added bonus of career exploration is that your student will make valuable connections with people who could employ or recommend them.

#2 Why do you like this school?

There are more than 4,000 colleges in the U.S.  Many high school students would have trouble naming 20 schools.  

“Most kids pick what we call ‘name-brand schools,’” says Bryan. “It’s the big school that has the football program they see on Saturday.”

Remember, many high schoolers pick a college before they consider their career goals and a course of study. Once your student realizes they’re in the wrong major, or worst, the wrong school, it can take years and lots of extra cash to climb out of the hole.

The questions below will help your student decide if a school is the right fit.

  • Do I prefer 200-student lecture style classes or 30-student class sizes?
  • Where do I want to live (e.g., the dorm, near home, across country)?
  • Does this school offer my major?
  • What extracurricular activities, social, and other non-academic factors matter to me?
  • What is the job placement rate for graduates with my degree?

Once your student has a handful of possible schools it’s time for a campus visit. Eat in the cafeteria, tour the dorms, and sit in on classes. Schedule an appointment with the financial aid office. This brings us to the next question you want to ask your student before they apply to college.

#3 Will this school give you free money to pay for college?

Let’s talk money. Your student will need a good amount of it to get through college. Fortunately, all the cash doesn’t have to come out of your pocket.

“Generally speaking, your small private schools give more money per student than large public schools,” says Bryan. “But even some small private schools don’t offer much money, so it’s a matter of research.”

Colleges offer two types of gift aid–money that doesn’t have to be paid back–in the form of merit aid and need-based aid. We’ll focus on merit aid.

Merit aid includes grants, scholarships, and tuition discounts that a college offers a student with outstanding qualities. Merit scholarships are based on factors like athletic ability, artistic talent, and leadership. However, your student’s SAT and ACT scores will have the greatest impact on your out-of-pocket expenses.

A student is more likely to get merit aid at a school where their SAT or ACT scores are higher than other applicants, often called a student’s “safety school.” Certified college planners use software to estimate how much merit aid a student is likely to receive. If your student is going at it alone, they can:

  • Find out the average test scores of students at various colleges using or U.S. News and World Report college rankings
  • Make a list of schools where their SAT and ACT scores are higher than average
  • Contact each school directly to find out what merit aid is offered and the criteria for getting an award

The school where your student receives the most free money for college may or may not be at the top of their list. But if they want to avoid student loans, they’ll need to improve their test scores or apply to schools that already consider them the bee’s knees.

Does your child have college on the brain? Leave a comment below.

Nicole RobinsonNicole Robinson is a Dallas-based freelance writer and blogger on a mission to keep college from sneaking up on unsuspecting parents. In addition to writing for the BookWormMama blog, Nicole provides content creation and copywriting services. While her writing specialties include college planning for young kids, parenting, education, and self-improvement, Nicole is always ready to dive into new topics and new projects.


Douglas Bryan is founder and owner of College Planning DFW, a Dallas-area college planning and career services company.  



Saturday 19th of February 2022

Thanks for the helpful discussion

Catherine Gacad

Monday 27th of January 2014

the most vital question was missed in this post: what percentage of the graduates at this school (that you're applying to) have a full time job [x] months post-graduation? if the intent in going to college is employment, and i assume it is, this question is critical. otherwise, it's money down the drain.

Nicole Robinson

Tuesday 28th of January 2014

Thanks for weighing in Catherine. Under Question No. 2 of the post, we suggested that students ask, "What is the job placement rate for graduates with my degree?" These questions are just the start of a thoughtful, intentional conversation that parents should have with their college-bound kids.

Michelle Nahom

Monday 27th of January 2014

We have definitely talked about this with our son. I want him to look at those numbers for each college he is considering. I feel like this is crucial in this tough economy.


Monday 27th of January 2014

These are some great tips!! I wish I had done a little bit more research before I chose my school :) Good thing I have a little while, as I am worried about kindergarten applications :)

Michelle Nahom

Monday 27th of January 2014

I really didn't do any research either. Things are very different nowadays!!

ophelia Weiner

Monday 27th of January 2014

I loved all of your questions! I'm already a little stressed! We tell the boys that there is a college for anyone and everyone it just depends on what you want to do. Will share this with them and the my husband. Good luck on your journey!

Michelle Nahom

Monday 27th of January 2014

My son already knows he wants to go to a small school and he knows what he wants to major in. That narrows things down a fair amount, thank goodness! He has a definite passion for his major, so I feel confident it's a good choice for him!

Antionette Blake

Friday 24th of January 2014

Yes, we already spend too much on school applications just because my husband wanted him to apply....

Michelle Nahom

Monday 27th of January 2014

When I start thinking about the costs, it seems overwhelming to me. I think having my son answer these questions will help us narrow down his search, and hopefully save us some money!