US University/college process for an ignorant canuck

Hi guys,

Family was transferred to the US (work reasons) and so the kiddies are going through the US school process which is similar enough to what I know from Canada that I’ve been kind of not really paying much attention to what’s been going on.
Unfortunately this has now bit me in the ass as the eldest has started getting letters from colleges around the country inviting her to consider them - this is confusing to me since 1. she’s still got 2 years of high school to go and 2. I didn’t know colleges did this (in Canada when I did the university application process the students contacted the universities. Never heard of it happening the other way around. At most we had open house type events at the school).

So my questions are: 1) How much importance are these letters? (Are they the equivalent of spam - since I gather the schools are “for profit” institutions right?)
2) What’s the actual process for a student wanting to go to a US college or university? (The company that transferred us covered all relevant visas for studying and working while we’re here so documents are ok for several years still. I think).

Any advice here will be greatly appreciated.

No such thing as a U.S. policy on any of these. Admission policies, practices, weighting of recommendations all vary from university to university.

Indeed within many universities certain colleges will have different standards. Many state universities may thoroughly sift film school applicants, for example, while coming in as your run-of-the-mill undeclared undergrad would not get the same scrutiny.

They are usually of little importance, unless there’s some kind of guarantee attached (which would be unusual and a bit surprising). The schools aren’t necessarily for-profits. Most of the letters will likely be for non-profit schools. They advertise as much as the next school. It’s an advertisement. You can treat it as such.

There are a ton of universities, and it never hurts them much to have tons of applicants (even if they never intend to admit many of them).

The exception would be if your daughter was likely to receive attention as an athlete and the athletics department wished to recruit them.

Now, if the letter was a personal one and not a generic form letter or if your daughter receives a phone call from the admissions office (an actual admissions officer and not just a generic call from a student volunteer), that might warrant attention.

I’ll let somebody else handle this one for foreign nationals.

I’ll note that for a US high school student, the application process can be a bit involved, but you can use much of the same information for multiple applications (many universities accept the common application, for example).

The best thing to do is contact your child’s school. There should be a counselor’s office that can help guide you through the process. There’s also a wealth of information online and in books (as always, be careful - some of it written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about or by con artists).

Just to be clear, 12th grade is the last grade in high school. Isn’t there something like a 13th grade in Canada? We don’t have that here.

Also, right now is mid-year. So your daughter should have either 1.5 years to go, or 2.5 years. If it’s really 1.5, then she should be deciding now what colleges she might like to go visit, and then visiting them this spring or summer. Applications in summer or early fall. If it’s 2.5 you’re not behind yet.

Has your daughter taken standardized tests in the US, either the PSAT or SAT? Higher scores on those tests will generate letters from schools.

Like other posters have said, they’re not particularly important in themselves – it’s usually just the admissions department casting a wide net and hoping students will see something in the brochures that they like. These are not necessarily for-profit institutions, though; both public and private not-for-profit colleges advertise in this way. (If the college is advertising a residential, four-year experience and offers many degree programs in the arts, humanities, and nonapplied sciences, it is probably not for-profit, although it may be private. True for-profits tend to be vocationally oriented and often completely online, although there are exceptions.)

  1. Figure out, generally, which colleges and universities you’re interested in. As Great Antibob said, guidance counselors can help, as can books, peers, various online discussion sites, published rankings like the ones put out by US News and World Report, and advertising materials like the ones your daughter is receiving right now (though, for obvious reasons, they should be taken with a grain of salt). There are a ton of choices, so a useful first step is figuring out what sort of college experience she wants (large or small? urban or rural? Is she interested in a specific degree program that is only offered at some campuses?) and narrowing from there.

  2. Take the ACT or SAT, and figure out which ones she has a reasonable shot of getting into, given her high school grades and test scores. Again, the US News website can be useful for figuring this out. (Conventional wisdom is to apply to at least one “safety” school where she’s virtually guaranteed to get in, and, if desired, a “reach” school or two where the odds are much longer.)

  3. Visit the campus at your top picks, if possible. It’s useful to do this before applying because sometimes students discover that they really don’t like something about the facilities or campus culture; conversely, sometimes they fall in love with one they were on the fence about.

  4. Apply. Most schools will post requirements and instructions for applications in the “admissions” section of their website. Typically, you’ll have to fill in a form and submit high school transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, and often an essay or other supplementary materials. There is frequently an application fee.

  5. Wait for a decision.

Students don’t apply until their last year of high school, but they tend to start the dreaming-researching-visiting campus process a year or two before that, which is why admissions officers tend to target sophomores or juniors in high school.

Ontario used to have a grade 13, but we nuked it about 10 years ago.

I don’t know enough about Canadian higher education to know how different it is in the US, but the Wikipedia article on Higher education in the United States might (or might not) be helpful to you.

Is Canada at all like the UK where you basically have to pay very little for tuition and college costs? If so you may want to direct your daughter to colleges in her country of citizenship, because American colleges are subsidized by a horribly inefficient, government-backed student loan program that incentives massive tuition increases every year by the colleges and means even some State schools now run $10-15,000/yr and will require upward of $60k to pay for over four years.

Advertising from colleges is nothing new - I got tons 45 years ago when I was in high school.

Schools care about their rankings, which depend on their accept rate and average SAT/ACT scores of their incoming class. Therefore they have incentive to market to those getting higher scores. In some places representatives from top schools visit for talks to students, but it depends on where you live. Your high school guidance office will have information.

It is my understanding that for top schools a campus visit before or at the beginning of the application process is very important. They do not want accepted students to turn them down, and a visit shows a certain level of commitment to attending.

The real distinction is a state school versus a private school. Any school you should be interested in is non-profit.

State schools might cost $10-15,000 if you’re getting in-state tuition rates and even then perhaps if you’re not including room and board costs. Otherwise even state schools can be in the $30-50,000 range per year. And to the OP: Ignore sticker prices when evaluating schools. Most schools (especially the more selective private ones) offer massive discounts in the form of scholarships. Meanwhile, state schools can’t offer as much aid. So even if the private school has a higher sticker price, the cost of attendance might be cheaper than the state school.

And today there is this wonderful thing called the Common Application that was not present in the 1980s when I went to college. You can use the Common Application for multiple schools and the form is filled out online. (I had to use an actual typewriter to apply to colleges and they each had their own application form.)

I was just reading an article in today’s paper that, as per the latest tuition increase, it’ll now cost over $100,000 to attend the University of Illinois for four years (including room, board, & fees). ETA: That’s for in-state residents; it’s worse if you’re from out of state.

Another thing: if I understand the system correctly, non-citizens are generally ineligible for federal student aid unless they have permanent-resident status.

Mostly said already, but to add my take…

Targeted advertising. Expect to see more literature as the months roll on.

No, the schools are non-profit educational institutions. There are some for-profit entities out there that wear a school-like veneer, but those are obvious and few in comparison to the thousands of proper colleges and universities.

One hint from someone who knows admissions well: if your daughter has her eye on a particular school, do visit them, sign up for mailing lists, attend admissions chats, like them on Facebook and otherwise show interest. Colleges are often more willing to admit students who have shown a strong interest in their school

The vast majority of those mailings are just meaningless advertisements, but keep an eye on them: I remember there was one college whose first communication to me was informing me that I’d already been approved for a scholarship if I accepted (I guess this was based on standardized test results). Now, granted, even with that it wasn’t a school I was interested in… but still, it was nice to know it was there. And who knows? Maybe your daughter will get a similar offer, to a school she is interested in.

Well, and a lot of the “aid” is really just subsidized loans that saddles the student with a large amount of debt just when they’re starting out in life, and for subsidized interest rates they aren’t that great.

A lot of people fall into the college financial “donut”, meaning their parents are not at all poor enough to get max Pell Grant awards as well as various need based awards specific to the school/state, but not wealthy enough that they can easily write a check for $100k or whatever and pay all four years without breaking a sweat. That generally means anyone who isn’t very poor or very wealthy is going to have to decide between putting themselves far in debt or their children far in debt to get them through school. Sure, the popular wisdom is you need to start setting aside a college savings fund when the kid is born, but a Canadian may not have done that if there are existing tuition expectations. Further, if you have limited savings dollars while it may seem “mean” your retirement and emergency savings actually need to take precedence over your kid’s college fund. Meaning it only gets money after you’re comfortably filling up your retirement and emergency savings. The reason this makes sense is your kid at the beginning of their life has 30-40 years to build up their own savings and slowly pay off student loans. If you neglect your retirement savings for 18 years to fund a college savings account you very well may not have any time to make it up before you reach retirement age.

None of this may apply to OP who may be comfortably high income and not concerned with these matters.


But it’s still subsidized to an attractive degree (pun intended).

Another reply that those are just advertisements. It doesn’t hurt to flip through them, though, and you may find out about an interesting school you’ve never heard of before. And I agree, if the letter mentions a scholarship that your kid qualifies for, or will automatically be granted, then it’s most likely true. For example one of the engineering schools I applied to gave a grant to all accepted female students (at the time, not sure if they still do). I applied, I got the grant plus additional scholarships.

Also if you are totally new to US college admissions then I would strongly suggest getting a book or three on the topic. There are probably some at your library, or your kid’s school’s library. I would read up the admissions process as well as financial aid. The thing with US college admissions is that it’s a drawn out and stressful process, so you’re going to get a lot of personal opinions and experience when you ask friends for advice. Some people will say send your kid to the best school she can get into, no matter the cost, some will say it’s all the same so go to your state school – that sort of thing. Both views have merit but you get a lot of personal opinions mixed in.