The College Search: When To Start?

I see my friends with their 10th graders (soon to enter 11th grade come Fall) already visiting colleges! Yikes! Is this insane? Isn’t that just a little over the top? How much of the information they glean will be relevant in 2 years? I swore I started in 12th grade, but that’s old news.

What’s the philosophy today? Early, early admissions?

I think it’s pretty common to start looking and even applying as a junior. That was the norm when I was in high school 20 years ago. For you to know a few people that are doing it a year earlier wouldn’t surprise me.

It depends. Live in PA with a zillion colleges within an X-hour driving radius? You can probably wait a bit.

I was in west Texas. There isn’t much around there. Once you need to fly, there are a lot more options. Cost and time prohibit visiting too many, so it helps to start early.

Yeah, the summer before eleventh grade sounds pretty normal to me – I mean, I’d expect most people to have decided where they’re going to apply by the fall of their senior year, so that’s really only a year ahead of time. Besides, what information is going to change, exactly? Unless there’s major construction underway on the campus, the classrooms and dorms and facilities are going to be pretty much the same in two years, and the general atmosphere and culture of the school aren’t likely to change much, either.

Probably also depends on what you want to do. If you’re planning to be, say, an elementary school teacher, there are numerous colleges that can offer you a perfectly good education. If, however, you plan to become, say, a mortician (and I am not kidding, I have a nephew finishing his degree to become a mortician), the choices are a wee bit more limited and looking and applying early is probably a good move.

I started visiting colleges spring of my Junior year of High School. And in fact visited 6 on spring break, and one more that summer (and one or two more in an incidental fashion).

Little brother started spring of his ninth-grade year-- as in, given that he was just two years younger, when we went visiting colleges for me, he came along and formed his own opinions.

Yeah, if you apply for early admission, that would be in fall of your senior year. And summer is an easy time to travel and visit schools, so you’d either do it before your junior year or before your senior year. So it seems perfectly normal to visit summer before 11th grade.

My parents were academics and I grew up at a college. My parents thought it was important that I get a feel for what other schools were like, precisely because I was so familiar with my own home ground. Mother and I accompanied my older cousin and her mother on their college search. I was 14 at the time, and since I wound up attending college at age 16, it turned out to be a foresightful choice. My college choice had more to do with choosing the one that offered me a full scholarship than it did which one I like the best, though. Even at 16, the amount of school loans I’d have had to take out to attend 4 years at my first choice school scared me.

My son, my boys, and I took a roadtrip the summer the older setter pup was 15 and the younger was 13. We visited a dozen colleges. Neither child attended any of the schools we visited, but I’m still willing to say the trip was good in that it acted as an elimination process. Both of my pups had excellent college experiences and were happy with their eventual choices, even though neither had seen the school in person prior to arrival for freshman orientation.

Hopefully, by then, the students have some idea of what they want to major in. (Anyone who says “partying” should be sent to a private camp upon graduation - my mistake; “We’re sending you to Boot Camp, Private!”)

When would you expect them to start looking, considering that applications tend to close early in their senior year (which, among other things, means taking the SAT/ACT and whatever they call the Achievement Tests (SAT II?) nowadays near the end of junior year rather than the start of senior year)?

Looking “early” has the added advantage of the parents getting an idea of where their kids want to go, so they can worry about paying for it, or at least giving them plenty of time to work out a story for explaining why the kids have to attend community college and live at home (for example, “We spent your college savings on hiding and feeding ALF,” or, “We earn just barely enough above the limit for financial aid, but nowhere near enough to pay for any level of college” - oh wait, those were the excuses used on ALF and Roseanne).

My Sis/BiL made their kids look at size/location as a first qualifier - [del]large[/del] huge vs. small, city vs. rural, etc.
If after that, the kid decides they want, say a large city school, that makes it easier to look at the schools they’d really be interested in & ignore the ones they don’t like.

It’s probably a good idea these days. I’ve heard that with the mass of applications that colleges get, they want to see real interest from a candidate, and an early visit might help, all other things being equal. Plus, it will help to prune colleges a kid is not interested in early, which will reduce the amount of essay writing needed.

I think you should focus your energy on maximizing your objective stats. You want the highest possible grades, the highest possible SAT score, and you want several extra-curriculars to “check the box”. Regarding extra-curricular choice : you want something that doesn’t take a lot of time (grades and SAT count for a lot more), doesn’t carry the risk of permanent injury (no football, other sports like soccer and wrestling are probably also a bit on the dangerous side), and I suppose it would be better if you were good at it.

Those “letters of intent” or “showing interest in a particular school” I’ve always been convinced are a waste of time, a plaintive cry by a weak candidate that won’t get a spot. If you have high enough stats where it matters, they’ll offer you early admission.

Also, which college you get into isn’t nearly as important as your gpa in college. You can go to Podunk state university or an Ivy - it barely matters. The real money comes from :

Getting into an elite business school, elite law school, or any medical school. You can do any of these 3 from any credible university if your gpa and test scores are high. I suppose you might have a little bit better chance applying to Harvard Business school with a 4.0 from Harvard undergrad, but you would get into an elite business school with a 4.0 from Podunk State University.

We did college tours my son’s summer between 10th and 11th grade (east coast) and during Fall Break of his junior year (west coast). If your child hopes to attend a highly selective school, my advice is: this early approach is WELL WORTH IT.

In the case of my son, hearing all those sobering admission statistics straight from the horse’s mouth helped him buckle down, because he realized that being smart and having great SAT scores was not enough to get him into a place like MIT. In 9th and 10th grade he got a mix of A’s and B’s while he got straight A’s as a junior.

I’m sure he buckled down because the college tours helped him understand just how cutthroat the admissions process really is at top schools. Had we waited until the summer between 11th and 12th grade, well…too late. That would be an entire year’s worth of grades he could not go back and work harder for.

It also helps to figure out your schools of interest early, because some of the options have Early Admission, Early Action, or just plain early application deadlines. As it turns out, CairoSon will be able to get a large chunk of his college apps out of the way by mid-fall of his senior year because he knows he wants to apply to Cal-Tech and MIT (both of which have non-binding early action) and a couple of schools in the UC system. His high school limits everyone to 10 college applications, so in order to arrive at this strategy it was imperative to know which 10 schools he would ultimately choose.

Granted, he could have visited schools in the summer before his senior year and technically still figured out his choices fast enough to get applications done by October, but he wouldn’t have had as much time to think through his choices.

Plus, it really helped us make sense of all the stuff that CairoSon’s school’s counseling department started dumping on us in his Junior year. I might have been skeptical of a few things, or accepted others unquestioningly, but the fact that we already had independent experience of the early stages of the college application process really helped.

**TLDR version: **better to visit colleges early because it helps motivate you for your junior year, and gives you more time to strategize if you want to go early action/early decision when you start your senior year.

For highly selective colleges, there are no grades and test scores high enough to make it automatic anymore. I teach at a very elite public magnet–we show up in magazines and such–and I’ve helped put together lots of application packets for these sorts of schools. Kids with amazing stats get turned down all the time, and there’s a frustratingly random element to it–we sent a kid to MIT this year that was turned down by the University of Texas. But UT took probably 10 other kids that were not automatic admits.

As far as extracurricular activities go, the best path is highly variable. As a rule, you want to be an interesting person, and an interesting person is interested in things. But beyond that, it’s really about the person. “Checking the boxes” matters at some schools, but, again, highly variable.

Some of the top schools really care about “demonstrated interest”, some don’t.

To the OP, I don’t think summer before junior year is too early. Often families will shape college visits around trips they were making anyway, or shape family vacations around where they can do college visits. Junior year summer is actually one you are more likely to spend working, so I can see wanting to do college visits earlier just for that.

ETA: As far as applying goes, you can’t generally start applying before September of your senior year. But if you know you really like a school you might want to apply for their summer programs during your junior year.

Here’s some advice for college:

Don’t go and save yourself the heartache, stress and disaster that it is

I’ve actually personally seen the application forms used internally by an elite graduate school. It’s not that complicated. There’s a point system. Good grades get you points - you get a multiplier if the college you went to was rigorous. Good standardized exam score, there’s a number of points you get, depending on what it was. Extracurriculars - how many, and how competitive they were on a nationwide scale, gets you points. So, like, if you had 1 extracurricular, and sucked at it, you might get 3 points. 2, you might get 5. 3 or more, you get 7. If you were nationally ranked in something, you might get 10. Etc. It of course depends on the school.

“Diversity” gets you points. And of course interview counts for 20% or so - the interviewer has a number of points he or she can award, and there are 2 interviewers. Their scores sum together.

So it’s clear that in terms of outcomes, your chances are maximized by getting as many points as possible. The interview is a crapshoot, and some schools will give you more points for the same extracurriculars, or value diversity more, etc etc. Point is, you can’t control anything but your grades, your test score, and your extras. The better those are, the more turns at the craps table you will get - your odds are enormously better. Furthermore, if your grades and test scores are high enough, you will start off with so many points when you go to the interview that you have to really screw it up to not get in. (and you can still fail, I’ve done it, but if 10 schools let you interview because you had enough points, the odds are of success are enormously better than if 3 schools do it)

This is how the colleges do it from the high school-> college level. They don’t have the budget to fly students in for interviews for most colleges. One obvious thing is that they get thousands of applications a year - an industrial system, where you just assign points based on clear criteria and then sort all the applicants by total score is the only practical way to decide who to admit out of the thousands who apply. If “letters of interest” count at all, it’s because that particular school gave you an extra point or 2 or put a note in your file when you sent it.

So you end up with the heartache and disaster of being poor? I agree with you in that the most commonly awarded bachelor’s degrees aren’t worth it. Most STEM degrees are. If you don’t wanna do STEM, you should go to a community college tradeschool.

But expecting to get a decent job when you have no skills is…not a wise expectation.

College is not “heartache, stress and disaster” for everyone. I’m sorry if you had a bad experience, but you can hardly generalize your experience to everyone else.

Part of visiting college campuses is getting psyched up about going to college and getting a realistic idea of what it will take to get into your chosen college. There is no “too early.”

Maybe you should have gone to a different college or chosen a different major. And maybe if you’d visited more campuses, you’d have made different choices or chosen not to go and maybe that would have been right for you. That’s the whole point of gathering this information early and considering your options.

College is not a “disaster” for most people and getting an education is not something most people regret.