THE BLOG
08/19/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

The Search for the Perfect College

It's summer. The college road trip experience has begun in earnest for many high school students. The approach to this search by students and their families varies widely. It often depends upon a number of factors including a family's connection to an institution, the recommendation of guidance counselors, peer pressure, and social and print media about the institution.

Occasionally, what's inside the glossy, 4-color brochures with what one admission's dean refers to perceptively as the "interchangeable but gender balanced," attractive, purposeful, and uniformly happy students on the covers can make a difference. It's less likely than in earlier generations since they blend together so easily in the constant barrage of peer, print and social media perceptions created.

There is no one single "correct" way to undertake college admission road trips. Some tips about how to think about this experience can be helpful.

To begin, it pays off handsomely when high school students do preliminary research. It is critical at the outset that students invest in the plan for their future. Before leaving the driveway, students should have both an understanding and expectation of what their visits will produce. Why are they going? What do they need to see? How can they form a comparative understanding that leads to an informed decision about their selection of schools to which they will apply?

Remember that multiple road trips can be costly and time-consuming, especially when prospective applicants are scared, unprepared or not enthusiastic about the adventure. Families are wise to portray the event to the full extent possible as a listening tour roughly approximate to a family vacation. Like college itself, these tours should be fun, at least most of the time.

Parents must remember that this is not their experience at college. The selection of a college represents one of the first life choices made by prospective applicants. It is critical that students alone make it, subject to the ability of families to review the nuts and bolts of financial packages that make the new reality possible. Turn off the hovering helicopter, be supportive, and keep your predispositions and prejudices to yourselves. Trust in your child's common sense. They usually surprise you.

Students must think through the qualities and experiences they will convey in their application. While many schools still rely on a "paint by numbers" approach that matches class rank and SAT scores to available seats, more thoughtful admission practices have long established principles of review to account for a comprehensive picture of the student's background, experiences, and interests. Why are you interesting? Everyone is, if you can figure it out.

Do you want to live on a large or small campus? It's a good first question for students to consider because it determines the nature and even the direction that the road trip will take. Do you seek the Saturday football experience with 100,000 fellow football fanatics? Is a 2000-person campus too much like high school? Can you live in a rural setting? Do you prefer city life?

Before you leave, understand the difference between sticker price and tuition. Completing an application is something like shooting for the stars. It's an expression of ambition, confidence, and intent. You don't have a problem until you're accepted and, if qualified, see what the financial aid package looks like. Strip away assumptions about what you can and cannot afford until you know the facts. Once accepted, you make the final choice. Your choice narrows only if the financial aid is insufficient. It's always better to try.

Once you arrive on campus, divide your time in three ways. First, remember it's about the academic program. You are visiting an educational institution that will shape your outlook on and prepare you for life. Ask questions. Know the strengths of the institution to be certain that it's a good fit generally, whether or not you have chosen a likely major. Determine if the academic standards meet your expectations. And be confident enough to ask: "Is this institution serious and interesting enough for me?"

Second, look carefully at the integration of student life into academic life. Will the range of student activity accommodate your interests? There are a thousand teachable moments outside the classroom. Can you sense them? Look beyond chatty and helpful admission tour guides to get a feel for the student body, how students interact with faculty and staff, and whether the student is valued on campus.

Third, remember that a college experience is the sum of its parts. Even at the Division I level, only a few students will be offered an NFL or NBA contract. Study abroad options, internship and externship experiences, and a variety of other "value added" opportunities collectively create a richer experience for you. Be certain to measure both inputs and outputs. Does the institution prepare you for life? Is the alumni/career network in place to translate this preparation into a job?

As the tours continue, perhaps the most surprising revelation will be that there is no one perfect school. In fact, it is likely that an applicant can be happy at any number of schools, especially if they take the time to think less about who they are and more thoughtfully about whom they wish to be. Settle on schools that you like where you think your standards match.

In the end, it comes down to this simple fact. Most students "know it when they feel it."