college and career resources for high school students...

General Tips:

by Amy Rogers, SEA Director

Top Ten College Planning Tips:


I'm a planner by trade, so when it came time to research colleges for my oldest, I was actually excited. The internet and excel became my two favorite tools. Below are ten tips that I hope will help you on this next journey.

#1: No School is Perfect for everyone

We'll start with probably the most important tip. The campus your friend absolutely loves, you might not like at all. Everyone is unique so it is natural that different schools and programs are going to appeal differently.

#2: There is no "Perfect" School

You also need to remember that no school is "perfect." There will be certain areas that may be more appealing at another school so keep in mind you are looking for the best overall fit.


#3: Brainstorm about your Future

To start the process, think about what you might want to do in the future as well as what type of activities you may want to be involved in while at college. Nothing needs to be set in stone, but it will give you a place to start. Do you want to be in the marching band? Do you want to continue to play a sport? Do you want to try something new? It is OK if you aren't sure. At one of the early college presentations we attended we were told something along the lines of, "1/2 of incoming Freshmen don't know what they want to major in and of the 1/2 that do, 1/3 will change their major before they graduate." 

#3: How far from home?

Evaluate how far you are comfortable being from home. Do you want to be far away and not come home often? Do you want to be able to come home easily on the weekends? Is there public transportation easily accessible to get you back and forth? If you aren't sure - don't worry. As you start to visit colleges, make sure you think about how far the drive is as part of the visit process. While 8 hours may not seem that far away, you might feel differently after actually driving out for a visit and back. (Or maybe it won't seem far enough!)

#4: Organize your research

Once you have an idea of how far you are willing to go, what you might want to study, and what types of activities you want to be involved in - start researching colleges on-line. This is where I created an excel spreadsheet. Click here to view. You can adjust the columns so that they fit what is important to you. For example, early in the process my older son wanted to be able to play baseball but also participate in the Disney College Program. He also wanted a school that had a football team. So, those were columns that we had in his spreadsheet. As we eliminated schools, I highlighted them in red rather than remove them so we didn't forget if we had researched a school or not. The spreadsheet displays the information we collected on the school that ended up being his first choice as a sample. 

#5: Evaluate your research within reason

The spreadsheet provides the opportunity to add in information from some of the different college rating sites. While this information can help provide more details before your actual visit, don't put too much weight on it. As tip #1 states, no school is right for everyone so feedback will vary accordingly. We also found a lot of the complaints to be older and when we visited, the issues had been resolved. For example, one school had complaints about class size. On our visit they addressed this and how with a new building and additional sections added, classes were now capped at a much smaller size. 

#6: Visit. Visit. Visit.

I can't stress enough how important it is to visit colleges. For those who aren't sure what type of school they want, visit all different types: small, large, in the city, in the country, etc. We drug our oldest to a smaller school that he wasn't really interested in. It wasn't far from home and figured it would be a good starting point. We were all pleasantly surprised. While it didn't end up making his top 3 list, it was still a positive experience and provided context for visits to others schools. For most college visits, we signed up on-line for one of their official visit days. Most included a general information session, a tour, and then the opportunity to visit a specific department. *If you visit in the summer or another time when school is not in session, make sure to schedule another visit when classes are in session if it is near the top of your list. The campus can have a very different feel. After you have narrowed down your choices, go back and visit your favorites. Ask to meet with a professor in the area you may want to study. See if you can sit in on a class. Attend a sporting event, performance, and/or exhibition. Eat in the dining hall. My son's first choice ended up being 5 hours away and before he finalized his decision, we had visited the campus 4 times. We'd seen several dorms, eaten in a couple different dining halls, explored the town, walked the campus in the cold snow, met with faculty from two different departments, had lunch with a student, attended two football games, found an awesome pizza joint, and so much more. 

#7: Cost should be a factor

College can cost a lot! It needs to be part of your consideration when selecting where you want to go. But the good news is there are a lot of ways to make it more affordable. We live in Illinois and found quite a few schools in Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin that would offer in-state tuition for out-of-state students. Often there was some type of criteria such as a certain GPA, but most were very reasonable. In some cases these out-of-state schools were less expensive than attending an equivalent in-state school. Dig deep into scholarships looking at what different departments might have in addition to general college scholarships. Look early! A lot of the competitive scholarships have late fall deadlines. Fill out the FAFSA. Have an open discussion about finances as a family. If you have your heart set on a school but you don't think you can afford it, is there a local community college you can go to for a year or two first? Also, if finances are tight, don't rule out Ivy League schools if they are on the top of your list. Most have a policy of paying no more than you can afford based on your FAFSA. When it comes down to it, I really believe that #6 and #7 go together. The more schools you visit and are open to, the better chance you have of finding a college you like at a more reasonable price (whether that be base price or your actual cost from a nice scholarship offer). 

#8: Comparing your Top Choices:

Hopefully you will come up with several colleges that you like. As you evaluate and compare, make sure you think about the "what if" scenarios. What if you change your major - are there other majors you are interested in at the college? If you know what you want to major in, where do most people work after graduation - is this where you see yourself after graduation? (Of course you may change your major and you may have other plans such as grad school or moving to another geographical location) If grad school is in your plans, make sure to research that as well. Don't hesitate to email any questions you have to the admissions' counselors or faculty you have met with. Go back and visit, but this time with a more specific idea of what you want to look at in more detail.

#9: Apply to more than 1:

In the end, my son applied to 5 different schools. He received offers from a couple to apply for free without any essay. They weren't at the top of his list but schools he thought might be worth considering if he received a decent scholarship offer. The small school I mentioned earlier offered him an amazing scholarship but in the end his first choice was still going to be less expensive. However, when he declined their offer, they sent a letter back stating that the offer would still be good if he changed his mind after first semester. So, take the time to apply to multiple schools. The Common Application makes this a little easier if the schools participate. Also, keep your eye out for offers to waive the application fee. Some schools will do this in connection with a visit day.

#10: Attitude

You can follow steps 1-9 perfectly. Do all your homework. Apply and acquire a great scholarship to your top choice. And still everything isn't going to go the way you envisioned it. There are so many variables and things life will throw at you. From roommates to Professors to classmates, you will likely have an experience at your "dream" college that doesn't live up to your expectations. Remember #2 above? Try to keep a positive attitude. If problems arise, address them early before they escalate. Your college experience will be what you make it - what you make of both the good and challenging times. At my son's orientation the counselor said, "Are you the same person you were when you entered high school? Of course not. The same is going to be true of your time in college. We hope you do not leave here the same person you are today." 

Name: Katie Sowa
Company: Future Founders
Title: Senior Director, Startups
College: Bradley University &
               DePaul University
Major: Entrepreneurship, Finance,
Katie Sowa is Senior Director, Startups for Future Founders. She leads Future Founders Startup, a dynamic program that engages, equips and empowers collegiate entrepreneurs. Prior to Future Founders, Katie was the Director of Operations for the Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organzation (CEO, a collegiate entreprneeurship network with chapters on hundreds of university campuses across North America. Katie is also a professional dance instructor and choreographer with 20+ years of experience training and teaching in a variety of styles ranging from jazz and hip hop, to ballroom and Latin dance.
Katie's Top 5 Tips:

What are some questions I should ask myself when choosing a creative major?  What alumni does the school have with that major? What kind of extracurricular activities does the school have for that interest? What kind of connections do the professors or departments have? What correlated majors/minors might the school offer? What creative outlets does the school offer beyond coursework? What kind of showcase or portfolio development opportunities does the school have or require?

What are some questions I should ask myself when choosing a college? Where is the college located? Could this be a city/town I'd like to live in after school? How do I feel when I walk onto the campus for a visit? Am I excited to be at the school? Do I fit in? Does it make financial sense for me to attend this school? Do they have options in case I switch my major or interests? Do I fit into a lecture hall environment or is a smaller teacher-student ratio better for me? DON'T PICK A SCHOOL JUST BECAUSE OF YOUR FRIENDS.

What questions should I ask when visiting a college? What is the employment rate? What does job placement look like and how does the school help? What work opportunities exist on or around campus? What does work/life balance look like for a student with a similar major? How easy are professors to access outside of class? What does the social scene look like? What is there to do on the weekends? What is dorm life like? Is there a big Greek presence?

What is your message to parents of high school seniors who are wanting to major in the arts?  Let it go. Provide moral support with a dose of reality. Encourage them to get a well-rounded education by taking a few classes in an alternative field (ie business, communications, etc)...even if that means a few more semesters at school. Support their showcases It's okay if their passions or interests change

What is your message to high school seniors who want to major in the arts?  Get a well-rounded education. Find a school that allows you to be yourself. Don't go to a school just because of your friends. Find a school that has options. Go with your gut and trust yourself. Plan to take classes in another area, like business. Even if you don't think you'll use it, it can help you long-term.

What are your tips, strategies, and actions for students to take while in college?  Network. Have friends outside of your major or department. Get involved, take leadership roles. Volunteer. Get out of your comfort zone. Work hard, play hard (but school comes first). Ask for help. Find a Mentor (ie a teacher you trust who can guide you). Get an internship or work experience in your field. Develop skills outside of your major. Study abroad if possible. It's not what you know, but who you know

Is there a resource you recommend? Fastweb (website for scholarships)