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Tom Kleese, college planner of OnCampus College Planning, Madison explains 7 most common pitfalls when you are planning for college and how to avoid them. Read how these pitfalls can harm your college planning process.
7 pitfalls when planning for college and how to avoid them
A Publication of OnCampus College Planning
7 Pitfallswhen planning for college
And how to avoid them
A Guide for College-Bound Students and Families
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. Pitfall 1: Remain unclear about why you’re going to college.
Critical Question: Why go?
3. Pitfall 2: Don’t talk about who’s paying for what and when.
Critical Question: Who pays for what and when?
4. Pitfall 3: Rush the decision.
Critical Question: What’s the REAL timeline for making decisions?
5. Pitfall 4: Base college choices on the three Fs.
Critical Question: Who are you now, & who will you be in 5-10 years?
6. Pitfall 5: Believe that it’s all about “getting in.”
Critical Question: As the paying customer, what do I want and need out of
the “right” college in order to get my money’s worth and time’s worth?
7. Pitfall 6: Assume “good school” = good for ME.
Critical Question: How do you define “good school”?
8. Pitfall 7: Hold off on campus visits.
Critical Question: What’s the best way to get the most out of campus
9. What’s Next?
“The questions are always more important
than the answers.”
-Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon University,
The Last Lecture
These pitfalls might sound a little ridiculous. But they’re really common. In fact,
it’s how I thought about college when I chose a school many years ago.
Smart, well-meaning families stumble over these pitfalls all the time. Quite
honestly, between media hype and the way colleges market to prospective
students, these statements are often perpetuated as “truth”.
The 7 Most Common Pitfalls When Planning for College
•Pitfall 1: Remain unclear about why you’re going to college.
•Pitfall 2: Don’t talk about who’s paying for what and when.
•Pitfall 3: Rush the decision.
•Pitfall 4: Base college choices on the three Fs.
•Pitfall 5: Believe that it’s all about “getting in.”
•Pitfall 6: Assume “good school” = good for ME.
•Pitfall 7: Hold off on campus visits.
Read on to find out how these pitfalls can harm your college planning process,
and discover the critical questions you must ask in order to avoid them.
My College Manifesto: Why I Got Ticked Off
and Decided to Become Part of the Solution
If you’re reading this, you’re looking for answers. I get it. I myself am the parent of
a high school student and we are just embarking on the often-daunting college
planning process. But answers aren’t what you really need, at least not yet. After
thousands of hours of research, visits to more than 80 campuses, interviews with
professors, admissions counselors, staff and college students, and thousands of
conversations with families I’ve worked with in my 25-year career in high school
and college education, I know the only way to get where you need to be is to ask
questions. Ask more questions of more people. Process what they say and what
you feel and think. Then go back to the questions to see if you’ve reached a
conclusion or need to ask more questions, possibly of more people.
Colleges do their best to convolute the college planning process. Academics are
often averse to simple, definitive answers, and they sometimes abhor resolute
promises. They deal best in theories, “experiences”, pedagogy and hypotheses.
This contributes to a compelling classroom experience, but it can drive you mad
while you’re shopping for colleges.
Meanwhile, your high school guidance counselor is more burdened than ever
before with everything BUT single-minded focus and individual attention on you
as a college-bound student. It’s not necessarily their fault.
In Wisconsin alone, where OnCampus College Planning is based, the average
public high school guidance counselor is responsible for 454 students. Studies
show they’re able to spend just 38 minutes per year per student on college prep
counseling. According to a study by the Independent Educational Consultants
Association (IECA) guidance counselors themselves report they spend less than ¼
of their time on college prep-related topics due to competing priorities. They have
more paperwork, more meetings and more at-risk student cases on their plate
than ever before. These are worthwhile pursuits, and they’re the nature of the
high school environment today. But if you believe that between the 38 minutes
per year a guidance counselor spends with you plus some online research and
brochures will be sufficient for guaranteeing a successful path to the college of
your dreams, you will be disappointed.
College is the only thing you’ll ever buy where you have to turn over a copy of
your tax returns, your transcripts, some standardized test scores and a thousand-
word essay before they’ll even tell you how much it costs! Meanwhile, most
colleges don’t care anymore than they did a decade or so ago whether or not you
get your money’s worth or where you land after college graduation. Although
they are now less able than ever before to tell you with certainty whether your
college degree will result in employment in your chosen field, or whether you’ll be
able to pay off your student loans by the time you have grandchildren.
These facts aren’t meant to discourage you. They’re meant to wake you up, like
they woke me up nearly a decade ago. I decided to become part of the solution. I
set out to de-mystify the college planning process and serve college-bound
students and their families in helping you be your own best advocate as you
prepare for college.
You MUST be your own best advocate. But you don’t have to do it alone. Today,
one in four high-achieving students works with a professional college planner.
That makes sense, because the investment is higher and the process is more
complicated than ever before, with an outcome that’s far less certain than it used
Dialogue drives decisions
Your best tool is dialogue. Open, healthy, inclusive, engaging, and at times messy
and frustrating, dialogue. You the student and you the parent(s) are the key
players in this. You can and should enlist the help of so many others (people like
me, for instance) but you’re the only ones who will be there at the beginning,
middle and end of this -- and you are the ones who have to live with the outcomes
(and student debt).
One surefire way to lose out on the potential value college can provide is to fail to
understand why you want to go to college. If you were to ask the average
intelligent, capable person how willing they are to make six-figure purchases
without really having a good reason, that person would say, “NO way!”
(NFL players and Hollywood actors may answer differently, but many of them go
bankrupt, so this is not our benchmark.)
Many high school students and their parents default to college as the “next logical
step” for any number of the following reasons:
•It’s what’s expected of me.
•It’s just what people do after high school.
•I have to go to college to get a good job.
•I don’t know what else I’d do next year.
•I’ve just never thought of NOT going to college.
Critical Question: Why go?
Why go to college? Why spend so much money, time and effort on a degree that
provides less and less assurance of a good job when you graduate?
Why go off to live at a residential college when so many recent graduates are
returning to technical colleges to equip themselves with practical skills packaged
in a more condensed, less expensive format? Why go now? Why not later?
Perhaps this might be a useful essay to attach to any senior’s final exam: In 250
words or more, please justify spending $100,000 (or more) over the course of four
years (or more) to earn a college degree. Build a convincing argument using data
to support your position, taking into account the counterarguments of rising
student debt, a stagnant job market, and the existence of individuals such as Steve
Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who attended college but did not graduate.
Most essays would fall somewhere along a continuum between “job training” and
“expanding one’s horizons”.
Of course there are plenty of good reasons to go to college. But you need to stop
and ask, “Why go to college?” out loud and repeatedly, then answer honestly,
until everyone in the room is convinced.
Critical Question: Who pays for what and when?
On or before your child’s 12th birthday, please have this conversation:
“We think it’s important for you to go to college, or at least consider the options
you have. So here’s what we’re going to do to help...”
The answer to this question is incredibly personal. THERE ARE NO WRONG
ANSWERS. Don’t avoid having the conversation because of what you assume
“most families are doing” or because of your discomfort with what you’re able to
do (or unable to do) as a parent to contribute to college costs.
My dear wife and I had a series of conversations about our respective
philosophies about paying for our sons’ college education. We had two different
philosophies within the same household! My wife insisted we pay for the entire
cost of college, including room and board and incidental expenses, because this is
what her parents had lovingly and generously done for her.
Then we faced facts about how college costs have changed in the past two
decades. And we openly acknowledged that we started having children later in
life than her parents, putting us that much closer to retirement, another
expensive investment to prepare for.
Then I shared my personal feelings that our two sons should have some skin in
Through a lot of dialogue between us, some of it pretty tense, other
conversations merely intense, we arrived at a unified position that we could then
share with conviction and in detail with our two sons, in plenty of time for them
to make their own preparations to put up their share of the costs, or at least
make a dent in the first couple of years.
Truly successful decision-making relies
on a balance between deliberate
and instinctive thinking.
- Malcolm Gladwell
Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking
I die a little inside when I ask someone how the college search is going, and they
respond with a shrug of their shoulders, a deep sigh and the statement, “I’ll just
be glad when this is over with.” As someone who relishes the process of exploring
options, weighing possibilities and arriving just in the nick of time at the right,
well-researched decision, I feel badly that they’re missing out on what can be
(SHOULD BE) a really enjoyable process. After all, college is a young adult’s first
big adventure as an adult, and it can change the trajectory of their adult life. It’s
not a decision to be “gotten over with”.
One of the key aspects of my college manifesto that drove my decision to become
a college planner was the desire to make the college planning process not only
clear but fun, exciting and invigorating. I am thrilled when I hear the families I
work with say things like, “Wow, this is actually pretty fun and it’s not as daunting
as I thought it would be when we break it down, step by step.” Or, “I can’t believe
all the things we learned about ourselves along the way, and it was really a cool
experience.” Music to my ears!
Decisions are opportunities, and quite enjoyable ones at that. The search for the
right college requires imagination. You have to envision yourself not only at
Obvious Choice U., but at Second-Choice-but-Half-the-Price State, or I-Had-No-
Idea-This-Place-Existed-But-It’s-Perfect-For-Me College. Many kids and even
parents struggle with that. Remember, the goal is not to lock in on one school
early on, but to widen the search and find a good handful of choices, earning
admission to as many of your prospective colleges as possible. Get comfortable
with discomfort during the college planning process. If you do this well, you’ll
create discomfort in your life as a final decision looms. It may sound like this:
“I really loved Luther and could see myself cross-country skiing up in those hills
after a new snowfall. But Northfield is such a great college town, and I feel like I
could fit in with the people I met at both St. Olaf and Carleton. There’s also that
pull of the East Coast...Bowdoin or Colby...jumping into a car and driving down to
Boston to see a concert...and even if I don’t go to NYU, I’ll always remember the
way it felt to walk into the Village after the tour and think, ‘Wow, I could actually
live in Manhattan’.”
Work backwards from May 1st. Determine when each decision needs to be
made. Then map out what needs to be done to make a confident decision. This is
project management at its core. You have a project that needs to be completed
and that decision in turn is driven by a series of smaller tasks followed by
decisions. So who is the project manager in your family? Enlist their help and get
Spend some time creating your own personal timeline, working
backward from May 1 of your senior year. Think of key milestones
that need to happen between now and then in order to arrive at a wise
decision, like act/sat test prep, application deadlines, writing essays,
visiting campuses, etc. outline a rough timeline to break down the big
decision into bite-sized, manageable tasks with doable deadlines.
Over the course of more than 25 years working with high school and college-aged
students and talking with them about their college choices, I find three common
F’s that are primary contributors to most college decisions: Familiar. Friends.
None of these are bad things in and of themselves. But they can lead to F for
Failure if they’re the only factors a student considers when choosing a college.
Why? Because your student is an individual.
I encourage the students I work with to journal about big, self-exploration
questions long before we start assembling their list of prospective schools. Who
are you now? Who do you want to become? These are tough questions, no
matter what your age. The purpose is reflective - as in the reflection one sees in a
mirror. Students and parents spend all their time looking outward at colleges
(what does this one have to offer? how highly is that one ranked?) and spend far
too little time looking inward.
It’s all about the fit.
What you’re after is a “great fit” between what they have to offer and what you
want and need. Fit, by definition, is a delicate balance between the external and
the internal. Harvard is Harvard, and you are you. Even if you get in, it might
make for a lousy fit because you are exactly one-half of the fit equation.
Think about this as if you’re in a store doing some comparison shopping of two
items. In one hand you hold your own identity, and in the other are the colleges
on your list. Your job is to try to see each as clearly as possible, and then to test
the potential match between them. Which parts fit like a glove? Which parts
don’t? What might happen if you try to force it? What other information do you
need to make these decisions?
The two parts of this question require different answers, obviously, but also
different ways of thinking. The first asks you to define who you are at this very
moment, to take a snapshot of your life, interests, values and ideas. Even though
we’re asking for a snapshot it’s tricky because you are changing at such a rapid
pace and will continue to do so throughout your college years. So the snapshot
should be more of a collage or time-lapse photograph.
As you begin the college planning process the end of your sophomore year or the
beginning of your junior year, sit down in your “happy place”-- your room, a
coffee shop, your favorite park or Barnes & Noble, take out a pad of paper and
your favorite pen and DREAM. Jot down your answers to the following questions:
•Who are you now? What defines you?
•What makes you unique?
•When you are your most joyful self, what’s going on around you? Where are
you? Who are you with? What are you doing?
•How would others close to you describe you?
•Think about your first year out of college. Describe your ideal day in terms of
what you’re doing, the ideal job you have (you can list multiple options!) Where
are you living? What do you do on your days off?
•Think about 5-10 years from now. It’s a LONG ways off and having the RIGHT
answer doesn’t matter here. But what do you imagine for yourself? What do you
want to have accomplished by that point?
•Best day/Worst day. It can be a day in the present or any imaginary day in the
future. What makes a day your “best day”? What makes a day your “worst day”?
I find that this can tell me a lot about student’s passions, goals, desires and fears.
Note that none of the questions above are directly related to college. Let’s start
first by getting to know YOU, since YOU are the most important element in
creating a great college fit for you.
Schedule time on your calendar in the next two weeks when you can
spend two solid hours with no rush at your favorite “Happy place”, be
it a coffee shop, library, park, lake, beach or ice cream shop and revel
in answering the questions above and any others like them that you
This is where the panic can start to set in. It’s a pitfall that can cause significant
amounts of stress during the college planning process for both students and
College-bound students scramble to figure out what the “good schools” are
looking for, and then try to turn themselves inside out to be what those colleges
are looking for. Worse yet, friends start telling you what they’ve decided and
what they’re doing and where they’ve been accepted. If it doesn’t match up with
what’s happening for you, you may feel you don’t “measure up”.
At this point in the process, I remind families I work with that when you look at
acceptance rates for colleges on average, most schools accept most students. Let
me repeat that. Most schools accept most students.
Don’t become fear-stricken by reading stories of how elite universities are
rejecting all but a handful of students. Yes, it’s true that some universities have
incredibly low acceptance rates. You only need one great fit. If we’ve done our
jobs right, we will have built a solid list of reach, target and safety schools for
you. When it comes time to make a decision, if you are like nearly all students I
work with, and chances are that you are, you’ll have a wonderful set of options
from which to choose.
It’s not all about “getting in”. It’s about finding the perfect fit. I empower families
to remember that you are the paying customer here. It is as much about
requiring the colleges you consider to prove to you that they can deliver the
value you’re looking for in a college degree, as it is about them accepting you.
This means that you’ll need to clearly define what VALUE in a college degree
looks like to you.
The questions on the next page can help remind you that you are the customer
here, and the college is the one (at least one of two) which must prove to YOU
that it’s the school that’s worth your time, money and energy.
Critical Question: As the paying customer, what do I
want and need out of the “right” college in order to get
my money’s worth and time’s worth?
What do you expect for your roughly six-figure investment if it comes to that, and
it likely will? Talk as a family about your perspectives on the following questions.
Parents, this is where your insights and experience become priceless. Student,
make sure you pay close attention to what you can learn from those who’ve gone
before you when answering these questions.
•What are my top 3 MUSTS for the “right” college?
•What are 5-10 NICE TO HAVEs?
•What is the benchmark 2-3 years after college for me feeling like I made the
right choice? (Some possibilities might be job in my field, great network of alumni
contacts, minimum amount of college debt, acceptance to my choice of graduate
•Now here’s a list of questions to pose to key contacts at colleges you’re
considering to see if they measure up:
• What alumni in my field can I talk to about their experience here
and how it prepared them to reach their goals?
• What are your freshman-to-sophomore year transfer rates, both
transferring in and transferring out?
• What are your 4-year graduation rates?
• How many of the students graduating this year with a degree
similar to the one I’m interested in will be hired for desirable jobs
in their field?
• Tell me about your alumni network.
• Tell me about student programs here such as internships, travel
abroad programs, work study programs, etc.
This is just a list to start with. The point is that you’re interviewing the school as
much as they’re interviewing you. Make sure you feel comfortable with the
answers you receive about how that college is prepared to deliver the value you
Also make note of how responsive they are in answering your questions and who
responds. I’ve seen quite a range from completely unresponsive or delayed and
brief responses given by administrative assistants to prompt and thorough
responses given by department heads or admissions counselors. The WAY they
respond should tell you a lot about how it will be to be a student there.
As in any negotiations process, you will never have more power than before you
close the deal. This is the time to set your terms and be your own best advocate.
Write your answers to the questions from Pitfall 5, and discuss them
as a family. Parents, write your answers individually. Student, do the
same. Then sit down and compare answers. Be prepared for
dialogue, meaning you may disagree. That’s okay. You’ll learn
something by comparing and contrasting your different viewpoints.
“Good is the enemy of great.”
-Jim Collins, Good to Great
Harvard’s great, for some students. The University of Wisconsin is a fantastic
school, for some students. Drake University is a wonderful place to be, for some
students. Each of these is unique from the other. None of them is great for
For any school, it’s only a great school if it’s great for YOU. I find that many
students (and parents) look first to US News & World Report lists and other
rankings as the definitive source of what schools are “good schools”. This can be a
common pitfall when choosing a college.
What most people are looking for is a good school. The good news is that good
schools are easy to find. Chances are there’s at least one nearby, and that’s good,
right? It depends.
It’s not a matter of good vs. bad, because there really aren’t a lot of bad schools
out there. Colleges tend to be filled with hard-working, bright people who love
what they do and are committed to their particular field.
The search for a good school is by definition externally focused, i.e. it’s all about
what the school has to offer, when the real question is, “How well does this good
school fit me?” I’d go for a great fit at a pretty good school over a bad fit at the
best school in a heartbeat. Our goal isn’t “good” – it’s GREAT. A great fit.
If you look for merely the good, you’re apt to find it quite easily and have time left
over for other things. Good news for those of you who want to make this decision
and then be done with it. But what you aren’t likely to find according to that
approach is something truly great, because great is elusive and stubborn and
sometimes more expensive.
Do rankings actually matter?
College guide books and publishers such as U.S. News & World Report use various
criteria to rank schools. I’m not entirely against rankings because there is value in
knowing that, for instance, people have consistently viewed the Hospitality and
Tourism Management program at Purdue quite highly. If that’s what interests
you, then you should probably check out Purdue if only for the reason that
people who know about these things think that they’re doing something right in
West Lafayette, Indiana. (Don’t forget to consider what employers think of a
particular school or program.) Rankings can provide direction and a general
stamp of approval. But they should never get in the way of your assessment and
Why good won’t cut it
But does it even matter where you go to college? Of course it does, and anyone
who tells you that “it’s only a piece of paper” or that “no one pays any attention
to where you graduated” misses a critical point: you will be shaped by your time
at college not simply because these are your college years, but because these are
formative years spent in activities that are or should be exclusively devoted to
your growth and maturity.
This is the time when the “you” you want to be from question #2 takes shape. It’s
okay to weigh options and make concessions, especially as the financial aid
award letters hit your mailbox. It’s never acceptable to settle for the first school
that comes along. You can do better than that, and for what you are paying you
most certainly deserve more.
Asking yourself “How do I define a great school”? is paramount to knowing which
schools would be not only good, but good, make that great, for YOU.
If you have worked through these questions in a spirit of honesty, cooperation,
and with a willingness to suffer temporary discomfort, then you are well on your
way to creating a map or template of the University of You. It may not be set in
stone, but it’s much more valuable than a rough idea or no idea at all.
Critical Question: How do YOU define “good school”?
In the end there’s only one definition of good school that truly matters most.
I find that in order to arrive at your definition of what a “good school” is, it’s
helpful to get some practice comparing and contrasting schools that are out
there. To do this well, you need experience. Refer to the homework exercise
below for an idea about how to get real-life practice asking the following:
•How do they compare?
•Where do they mesh perfectly with my idea of what a “good school” is and why?
Which one meshes better? Why?
•What about the areas where the match isn’t perfect? What is one lacking over
the other? Where are they both lacking?
•Are the differences deal-breakers, or just nice-to-have features?
Pick any two colleges. They can be schools you’re interested in, or
schools you don’t think you’re remotely interested in. Using this
chapter and the questions above, practice comparing and contrasting
the two. You’re going to need to become very good at this during the
college planning process. This is a practice exercise.
I am shocked when I hear families say that they don’t plan to visit the campus
until they’ve been accepted. Or that they’ve only visited one campus, or two or
three. To me, this is like buying a house without walking around inside it, or
buying a car based on the information you get off a website without taking it for
a test drive.
My business is called OnCampus College Planning for a reason. I believe the
campus visit is the single-most important way to find out if a college is right for
To avoid the pitfall of holding off on campus visits, make a commitment to visit
college campuses early on in the process. In fact, if you are the parent of a middle
school student or young child, please know that it’s really never too early to visit
I still remember my first college campus visit, when my older brother was looking
at colleges. Even though my college years were nearly 10 years away, being on a
college campus started to give me a sense of what it was all about. Long before I
started my own college search, I had spent time on college campuses going to
sporting events, and visiting my older brothers. Having that general sense of
what the college campus environment was like was an important part of making
the process less daunting for me when it was my turn.
There are three key times to visit college campuses in order of priority:
1)Peak season: Roughly two weeks after the start of the semester until two
weeks before the end of it (Roughly mid-September through last week of
November for fall). For spring, same basic idea, but avoid spring break and finals
2)Anytime: In other words, any visit is better than none, even when a campus is
3)On your way to something else, like a college football game, a family vacation,
or a visit to Grandma’s house.
The most important thing is, visit campuses. Often. NOW. Make it part of your
lifestyle so that by the time you need to do it with a purpose, it will already feel
familiar and comfortable.
Let’s keep in touch. Here are the FOUR most common next step
1.Go to my website & sign up for my free college planning e-
2.LIKE OnCampus College Planning on Facebook for college
planning tips & updates.
3.Follow me on Twitter @OCCollegePlan
4.Schedule your free one-hour college
planning consultation (in person, phone or skype)
Just email me and let me know you’d like to!
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting
of a fire.”
- William Butler Yeats Irish poet & playwright
Here’s to the kindling and eventual brightness of your fire.
All my best,
Tom Kleese, College Planner
SIGN UP FOR A FREE CONSULT TODAY
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