Getting the Most Out of Free College-Planning Resources


Having heard so much about the difficulty and stress of choosing, applying to, and getting accepted into college, I was concerned that I needed to spend lots of time coaching my son during his senior year of high school, looking over his shoulder, asking the right questions, pursuing varied choices, and more. Now that this process is over, I realize that neither my son nor I did everything exactly right. But effective use of these free resources gave us enough direction to help him land a slot in the freshman class of the college of his choice. (See also: Wise Bread's College Guide)

Here are the resources that were useful to my family.

Online Resources

There are many online resources that help students with college planning. College Board, College Navigator, and CollegeView help you find colleges and universities that meet your requirements. Others, like Unigo, provide insights into college life.

Because my son was already using College Board to register for the SAT, practice solving sample problems, and send test scores to colleges, this site was a natural go-to source of information. Admittedly, I have a love-hate relationship with College Board. This organization is the sole provider of the SAT and other standardized tests (such as AP course tests and SAT Subject tests), which play an expensive role in providing information on prospective students to colleges and universities with seemingly uncertain returns on investment.

I love the site, though, for its free resources. There you can find colleges that fit your criteria and determine if you fall within their requirements. It lets you specify your wants in a college or university and drill down to a short list of possibilities. This process can be useful in developing a preferred list of colleges and universities or locating a safety school if you aren’t selected for your top choice. Anyone can use this feature, but you’ll need to sign up for a free account if you want to save your searches and their results.

To get started, go to College MatchMaker:

  • Make your initial selections, then “submit and continue."
  • Keep going or refining your results until you have a manageable number of colleges to consider or there are no more selections to be made.
  • Click "see results" when you have finished specifying relevant information.

Specifying the college major is not intuitive. Here's what to do so that you can find colleges and universities with the academic programs you want: 

  • Select a college major by entering keywords or selecting categories, press “go,” and then select majors among the results, adding individual or all selections to your list.
  • Find schools that have at least one of these majors or all of these majors by selecting the "any" or "all" radio button.

After you make your list, learn more about each college or university. Key items to note are admission requirements and academic stats on class rank and GPA under "At a Glance." You can also check out other characteristics like what type of student housing is available, campus and city amenities, and special non-academic programs.

What Worked for Me

My son's top choice was UNC-Chapel Hill (my alma mater), but I felt he needed a Plan B, aka "safety school." Using the College MatchMaker, I found a school that met his criteria for location, setting, academics, and size. He and I both wanted a larger school with all the majors of his choice so that if he changed his mind, he could easily switch his course of study without having to transfer to another college or university. Finally, we looked at admissions criteria to make sure that he really was applying to a safety school based on its admissions requirements and his qualifications. 

Guidance Counseling Office

Guidance counselors can help you navigate the college selection and application process. Many school-based counselors carry a heavy student load, so it is helpful to prepare a list of questions or specific agenda for a meeting.

Over time, I learned about guidance counseling services, which include:

  • Providing you with information on class rank, beginning as early as the end of freshman year
  • Writing letters of recommendation for college applications and scholarships
  • Sending transcripts to schools on your behalf or providing you with official transcripts in a sealed envelope
  • Providing a list of scholarships offered by universities and area organizations
  • Offering guidance in exploring careers and colleges that match your talents and strengths.

Access to an educational consultant was free to my family, who offered his services at no charge to members of his church (which included our family). Some of these services might also be available through a guidance counselor:  

  • Assistance in selecting target colleges or universities based on academic achievements plus desired courses of study
  • Clarification of college goals, preferences, and needs
  • Guidance on summer activities that will be meaningful to the student and colleges
  • Advice on classes to take and extra-curricular activities to highlight
  • Responses to specific questions about the planning, selection, and application process

What Worked for Me

The guidance counselor assigned to my son changed at least once during his high-school career. His reticence and the changes were a couple of reasons we didn't use this resource as much as we may have. However, his designated counselor did write a letter of recommendation based mainly on his high-school resumé, review of his academic record, and a meeting with him. Also, the team of counselors pulled together to help him get testing accommodations when he broke his right arm a few days before the SAT. 

The counselors at my son's school developed a process for student requests of transcripts, which was useful to know given the strict deadlines for admission and scholarship applications (plus the tendency of some students to wait until the last minute to make a request). This process covered mail and electronic submissions, timelines from receipt of request to fulfillment, and methods of documenting completion of requests.

The educational consultant offered intelligent, sound, and objective advice to my son. He outlined the college planning process, created a short list of colleges and universities for consideration, and answered specific questions my son had throughout his high-school career, like whether to re-take the SAT.

School and College-Sponsored Forums

Forums with panel presentations and Q&A sessions are often held by high schools as well as colleges and universities. Guidance counselors may speak at school events. At systemwide and college- or university-sponsored events, representatives from many schools are available and they take turns sharing insights. The topics covered in these sessions might include:

  • How to choose, pursue, and showcase high school courses and extra-curricular activities
  • Overview of admissions philosophies and insights into the selection processes
  • What not to do
  • Profile of ideal students (or discussion of the fallacy of an ideal student)
  • Methods of navigating the college-applications process so that you will meet all deadlines

What Worked for Me

An admission forum helped my husband and I to feel comfortable with our son's choices of activities. We learned that honest, dogged pursuit of what was interesting to him was way more meaningful than dabbling in activities esteemed by grown-ups. 

A presentation by the guidance counselors on the last day of my son's junior year was helpful to get started during the summer before his senior year, when he was not overloaded with class assignments. This session also helped me understand how the counselors perceived their roles and the family responsibilities in planning and applying for college.

In regard to the essay, I learned that admissions staff are most interested in getting a glimpse of the student's personality, not reading perfectly written documents. Just as I was debating whether to ask my son to continue improving his essay, a friend told me that the university reps warned against parental meddling, often evidenced by abrupt changes in tone and style. As a result, I encouraged him to make edits that he thought were needed and stayed calm when one of his former English teachers told him that the essays weren't all that good. 

Colleges and Universities

The college and university representatives who I encountered in face-to-face, online, and phone conversations were surprisingly honest and accurate about what makes a good match between the school and student plus what steps to take in getting your application to them. You can easily access their advice via websites, blogs, phone calls, and campus tours to get this type information:

  • Academic programs
  • Admission standards and selection processes
  • Application procedures and deadlines
  • Opportunities for study abroad
  • Eligibility for merit and need-based scholarships and financial aid

What Worked for Me

Because my son's interest in exploring universities beyond Chapel Hill was almost non-existent, we used these resources on a limited basis. However, I did enjoy learning about how UNC had changed since my graduation during a campus tour. And admissions officials there and at one of my son's safety schools were patient and kind when answering my questions about application processes. 

What free resources did you use to plan for college? Tell us how you make the most of them in the comments.

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Guest's picture

Awesome! UNC Chapel Hill was also recently voted the No. 1 best value in public schools. Sounds like you made a good choice!

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks. UNC has been voted #1 in public universities by Kiplinger's for many years now. It's a great fit b/c of its broad offerings and we live in North Carolina.