Handy Tips for Those Kids Trying to Get Into College

Lynn O'Shaughnessy
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Posted: Jan 10, 2006 11:32 AM

Sometimes my interviews can turn tedious. During one such interview I had recently with a university law professor - the subject was endowment fiduciaries - we both mercifully veered the discussion to our kids.

The professor told me that she had a heavy workload, but it now seemed like a breeze because her son is a freshman in college. Last year, when her son and his friends were applying to schools, cramming for SAT and advanced placement tests and generally positioning themselves to appear like stellar freshman candidates, she was a wreck.

Boy, could I relate to what she was saying. All, that is, except the relief part. My daughter is a junior in high school, so our family has a long way to go before we emerge from the college admittance wind tunnel. Like a lot of our friends, my husband and I alternate between worrying if Caitlin is doing enough to get into a wonderful school and how we're going to pay for it.

Many months ago, I shared some tips on how to make college more affordable. I've learned a few more tricks since then that I thought I'd pass along. Just promise me, however, that your kid won't compete for the same schools as my kid.

LOOK FOR EMPTY SEATS.

Luckily, not every school is as popular as Yale or Stanford. Many colleges and universities experience their own rejections each year after mailing acceptance letters to high school seniors.

The rejection is only natural because seniors, who will often apply to several schools, can obviously commit to only one. As a result, schools accept more high school seniors than they could accommodate in hopes of getting just the right number of freshmen. In pursuit of college cash, you should consider searching for good schools that have lower enrollment yields. A school that accepts 1,000 students, for example, but only ends up with 210 freshmen, will have a 21 percent yield. That's on the low side.

Yield ratios of 50 percent and 60 percent are on the higher end. For a frame of reference, 79 percent of the students recently accepted to Harvard ended up in Cambridge.

"Schools with more seats to fill are more motivated to entice a kid to attend and will quite often be willing to negotiate based on other offers the student has received," says Deborah Fox, founder of Fox College Funding, a San Diego firm that provides college-planning advice for affluent families.

You can find enrollment yields by thumbing through any number of college guides or by visiting the Web site of Peterson's, a resource for education information, at www.petersons.com.

CHECK OUT COLLEGES IN THE SAME ATHLETIC CONFERENCE.

You don't have to be a jock to follow this advice. Schools in the same sports conference hate to see their natural rivals snag a great prospect, whether that kid is a soccer goalie, an oboe player, a soprano or just an excellent student.

So if your child is dying to go to Grinnell College in Iowa, for instance, she may also want to apply to Lawrence University or Lake Forest College, which are also in the Midwest Conference.

THINK PUBLIC.

Even if your child wants to attend one of those picturesque liberal arts schools that will cost more than a fleet of Mini Coopers, you should still apply to a cheaper in-state public institution. Doing so may increase your leverage with the schools your child truly covets.

An expensive private school, for example, may cough up money for your child when it discovers that she's also applied to University of California Los Angeles, which, in comparison, is dirt cheap. If your son or daughter only applies to private schools, there's less motivation for any of those schools to ply him or her with any cash.

Colleges will know where your child has applied because it's listed on the family's financial aid form - the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. If your family won't qualify for needs-based financial aid, you should still fill out this form or your child will be ineligible for merit aid.

TRY A DIFFERENT TIME ZONE.

If you want colleges to fight over your kid, you may need your frequent flier miles. In pursuit of cultural diversity, institutions love to snatch up qualified students from faraway places. Luring a blond surfer to a school surrounded by prairie or sorghum fields can be a real coup for the institution.

"California kids are in hot demand everywhere in the United States except in their own region," observes Rick Darvis, a certified public accountant and college specialist at College Funding in Plentywood, Mont. For California kids, that region extends to Oregon, Washington and Arizona.

DON'T OVERDO IT.

Some parents have to nag and threaten their teenagers to complete even one college application. But other parents manage to raise overachievers, who don't flinch at writing compelling essays for 15 or 20 application packets. Beware, however, of application overkill. Your child can jeopardize his acceptance chances if he applies to too many places. If his application pool is too large, colleges may assume he doesn't know what he wants and toss his application.

What's the right number? Fox suggests that you aim for six to eight applications.

LOOK FOR SCHOLARSHIPS.

An excellent place to start your research is the Web site of Scholarship Experts (www.scholarshipexperts.com), which used to be a paid site. To locate local scholarships, students should check with their high school guidance counselor.

By all means, don't wait until your child is a senior to start the hunt. Students in lower grades can qualify for free money, too. Don't freak if your kid's not brilliant. There are plenty of good colleges out there that will offer money to students who have earned a 3.0 GPA or better. That's especially true if a child is talented outside the classroom or can show strong involvement in extracurricular activities. The elite schools won't be throwing money at "B" students, but only 8 percent of the students attend these institutions anyway.