Avoid 4 Common Pitfalls While Searching for Colleges

Don't narrow your search prematurely or compare yourself to peers.

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Wellesley College is among the top 10 National Liberal Arts Colleges in the 2013 Best Colleges rankings.
Wellesley College is among the top 10 National Liberal Arts Colleges in the 2013 Best Colleges rankings.

After spending months searching for colleges, our family became very well-versed on what works, and what doesn't, when trying to find that perfect school. Here are some of the pitfalls we fell into, but you can avoid.

JULIE:

College searches are exciting times for the families of college-bound students. Unfortunately, they can also be stressful times.

Here are a couple of suggestions for keeping the stress to a minimum and boosting your odds of having a successful experience.

1. Don't make your search too narrow: Many high school students want to automatically rule out schools that are too close to home or too far away. Maybe community college seems like a disappointment, or Mom and Dad's alma mater feels too predictable.

While it's tempting for kids to want to eliminate schools right away, it may be a mistake. That school right up the road might turn out to be strong in the major your child wants to pursue. Or her brother's school across the country might be an especially good fit for her as well.

[Explore colleges that discount tuition for siblings.]

That school that seemed way too pricey might come through with an attractive aid package. Encourage your child to look far and wide for colleges.

2. Don't get your heart set on one school: Setting all your hopes on one school could prove to be a huge disappointment to your child. Maybe admissions are highly competitive and he won't end up getting in. Or the financial aid that is offered is too small to make the school affordable.

It's important to remember that there is never only one right choice when it comes to college. Odds are your child could be happy at any number of schools, so placing too much emphasis on one could invite unnecessary stress and disappointment.

LINDSEY:

I read plenty of advice and talked to lots of people during my college search process. I learned a lot from them, but there were still things that took me (and many of my friends) by surprise. Here are some of the tendencies to avoid in order to make that process a little more smooth.

1. Don't compare yourself to others: When it comes to colleges, what's right for you will likely be different than what's right for many of your peers. Just because a friend is jetting halfway across the country doesn't mean your perfect school isn't right in your backyard.

Conversely, just because those around you are considering community colleges, it doesn't mean you can't apply to four-year schools. It can be difficult, but it's important to focus on what's best for you and your career path.

[Avoid these scenarios when choosing a college.]

2. Don't overcomplicate the process: The easiest way to avoid complication is to narrow the list of schools you're considering as soon as possible. My mom said above not to eliminate schools on a whim, and she is exactly right. However, if you've done your research and found something that is a definite deal breaker, don't spend any more time on that school.

I wasted a lot of time on applications, scholarships, and honors programs for schools that—if I'd been honest with myself—I knew I wouldn't be attending.