The College Search: Advice for You and Your College Roommate

03/09/2015 01:25 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

I've worked in college admissions for the past 23 years, but this is the first year I've really started to get inquiries about the process from friends. So this year I find myself more self-conscious than ever before about dishing out advice on this complicated, highly idiosyncratic process.

Why? I don't want to lead them astray. While I have a lot of experience advising families from the college side, I confess that -- at least for the next few years, until my oldest puts me in the same position as these friends -- I don't know everything about the college search.

A common element among each of these inquires is that these friends -- who are parents -- don't want to make a mistake. They are not asking for the "inside scoop" or "the real story." Instead, they want to know what their role should be in preparing their kid to be successful and realistic. And, I must say that I appreciate the realism they bring to the conversation.

Recently an old college roommate of mine sent me this note:

"Now that Howard [I changed his name] is in the second half of his freshman year, we are more aware of what he needs to do for upcoming college admissions. What do you look for when reading applications and what suggestions do you have for us?"

So, here are some thoughts, certainly not original to me and in no particular order, paraphrasing those I shared with my college roommate:

1. Course selection matters. The quality of curriculum is one of the most important considerations within an admissions office. Most colleges will expect four years of English, two to three years of foreign language, three years of social studies, at least a year of math beyond Algebra 2 and three years of science with at least two lab sciences (bio and chemistry). Lots of folks believe that the highest level of math a student takes is a great predictor of success in college.

2. Rigor is even more important than GPA. Taking difficult classes in high school says more about a student's capability for college-level work than getting As in easy classes.

3. Leadership is more important than general involvement in lots of things. Most colleges prefer students who have deep and meaningful engagement in an activity or two, rather than attendance in countless clubs and organizations. I also think it's really important for students to learn how to talk about a leadership role -- how they earned it and what it means to lead.

4. Foreign language study is important. Too many students drop a second language too early. This hurts them at selective colleges that may have a competency requirement geared toward building students' intercultural understanding and international experience.

5. It's never too early to begin visiting colleges. Begin checking places out just to get a feel for them. But don't push too hard. Howard may be slower to get excited about this, though his eventual and building excitement about a college will be a strong factor in your final decision. Help him find the right questions to ask and find some reasons to drop by colleges because "you are in the area," but give him a little space.

6. Set up a college search email address. Establish a single email address to get correspondence from colleges. I've seen way too many email addresses that leave a bad impression (e.g.,,, etc.).

7. Don't wait to get noticed. If Howard is interested in a college, send an email or complete whichever online form in necessary to get information. If a college doesn't know of his interest, they won't recruit him. The sooner they know about Howard, the sooner he'll receive information tailored especially for him.

8. Consider size, distance and needs. I think there are three main questions to ask Howard at the start of the college search, before he begins to get bombarded with mail and email (which will start soon):

• What size? There is a huge difference in the learning that occurs in a classroom of 20 v. 200. Establish a size range and then throw out (right away) all the stuff you get from colleges beyond the size limit you established. Some believe families should visit a variety of college sizes and settings, to make the most informed decision, which is fine if you are at a loss with this question. But if Howard already has a preference based on his high school experience, then focus on the size that works best for him and cut out the rest.

• What distance from home? You and your wife are likely to have some input here, but ask Howard and ask him to be realistic. The further from home the less likely he'll be home on breaks, etc. Once you (and Howard) establish the geography, pay no mind to communication you get from places beyond your perimeter -- better, ask them to remove you from their list.

• Can Howard do what he needs to do? This is an academic and co-curricular opportunity question that has to be asked. If he wants to continue playing lax because he can't imagine life without it, he should focus on colleges where he can do that with some assurance. If he wants to be a paleontologist, then he needs to find a place that offers him that academic opportunity. Incidentally, if Howard wants to be dinosaur-hunting lacrosse player, we can hook him up here with a great geology program and Division III lacrosse.

9. If you don't have a 529 plan started, start one. No amount is too small and it's never too late to begin saving.

10. Like I said, I don't know everything and can't think of #10. Ask me again in a few years.

Cheers, my friend.