An Awesome College Admission Success Story

May 1 is college decision day.

That’s the day each year when many colleges and universities across the country require high school seniors to make a final decision about where they will attend school in the fall. Seniors must notify their No. 1 pick by putting down a deposit to secure their spot in the next freshman class.

I’d love to hear from parents or high school seniors about their college choices. Are you happy with the results? Unhappy? Nervous about covering the costs? And just as importantly, do you have any advice to share for those who won’t be facing this milestone for at least another year?

To start things off, I am delighted to share a note that I received over the weekend from a dad with a success story.

Advice from a Happy Parent

Hi Lynn,

I wanted to thank you for the guidance we’ve received from you over the past year.  Our high school senior just accepted an invitation to attend the University of Richmond on a full merit scholarship.

About a year ago, we started researching schools a step or two below the “reach” and “target” schools that the high school counselor recommended, because a large merit scholarship was important to our family.  We didn’t qualify for need-based financial aid, yet paying anywhere close to full price would have emptied our retirement savings.  (A gripe about terminology:  can we find terms other than “rich” or “affluent” for the millions of middle-class families whose moderate retirement savings disqualify them from need-based aid?)

University of Richmond

You’re Applying Where???

We asked our son to apply first to the handful of schools we had identified in which he had a shot at large merit awards (some of which he had never heard of, or which had no “wow-factor” among his friends and counselor) and then focus on his own list. He grudgingly applied to schools on both lists, a larger number (in work and expense) than either of us liked, but a reasonable trade-off to address his and our priorities.

While we waited for results over the next several months, we discussed the realities of the family economics, the consequences of loan debt, and he focused on what type of school he really wanted to attend, re-visiting several. He realized that he wanted a college which promised small classes, and learned that many friends knew someone who attended and loved these formerly unknown schools. In March, things happily came together in a decision with which everyone is delighted.

This Parent’s Advice

My advice is that parents not leave the research and college list development solely to their 17-18 year old kids and their counselors. Discussions between parents and kids should start early, but a lot of maturing comes to kids during the spring of their senior year, too late to file more applications. Parents should do their own research into potential options, and insist that logical (if non-glamorous) choices be included.  While many kids may resist this “intrusion,” ours now thanks us for our help.


What Do You Think?

I am happy that these parents can send their child to college without jeopardizing their own retirement. Families that educate themselves about their college choices are more likely to have their children head off to colleges that are not only appropriate academically, but are also more doable financially.

I agree with John that parents shouldn’t let their teenagers compile a college list on their own. The results are more likely to be a disaster.

What do you think? If you have any thoughts to share, please use the comment box below.

The College Solution Workshops

If you’re going to be in sunny San Diego on May 12 and/or May 19, I’d urge you to consider attending one or both of the college workshops that I will be holding through the University of California San Diego Extension. At the workshop on May 12 I will share ways to make college more affordable while at the workshop on May 19 I will focus on academic and admission issues. You can learn more about the college workshops here.

If you have questions, just email me at Lynn@TheCollegeSolution. I hope to see you there!

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

Read More on The College Solution:

Where Are the Scholarships Hiding?

Getting Stiffed by Harvard

An Email from a Disillusioned Mom



Let's Connect

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  1. I am a parent who forced my son to visit a no name school, and he liked it enough to apply. It was one of five colleges he was admitted to, but was not his first or second choice. I told my son that the final decision was his to make, but I insisted he do overnight visits at both the no name school and his top choice over spring break just to be sure before the May 1 deadline. Turns out after both overnight visits, my son iked the no name school best and that’s where he decided to go. He received a very generous merit scholarship, and we couldn’t be happier with the outcome. My advice after going through this process with two children is VISIT MORE THAN ONCE AND OVERNIGHT!!!

    1. Great story Leslie. I’m glad your son’s experience turned out to be a great one. There is two much emphasis on brand names. I should know since my kids both went to schools that most people have never heard of!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Hi Lynn,
    Love your blog, books, etc.! I am a counselor at a public high school in CA and feel a tad sad and hurt about the high school counselor bashing that I see on your site. I put my heart and soul into sending the same message to my students that you express in all of your writings. Yes, I get paid nothing, work extra hours, and have a client load of 800+ students but my value should not be diminished because I work with students who have major social and emotional needs or work for a system that is financially crumbling. I could quit right now and hang up a shingle but my commitment to ALL students will not allow me to sacrifice my integrity. If a student can afford it, I encourage them to seek out private guidance and I work very closely with a couple of private counselors. However, I am tired of hearing from my students that their private “counselor” has told them not to listen to any high school guidance. This is wrong. We can all work together towards the success of our students without putting each other down in the name of money or territory.

  3. If I could pass on advice for parents is to not buy into the rankings, push your kids to explore all college options even though the kids may not be interested in them (at the time) and be honest about the finances. At my child’s high school, it is all about the rankings of the school. The children (and parents) are picking which ones to apply to and even to attend based upon rankings. I have read many articles (and posts thanks to Lynn) about the ranking flaws and educated my child. So when the kids talk about rankings, my child knows why her decision isn’t based upon that and she can defend her choice. We tried looking at liberal arts schools, and my child wasn’t interested so we looked at slightly larger schools with a liberal arts curriculum and/or honors colleges with a liberal arts curriculum. However, she did mention now after the fact, “I wished I looked at more LAC’s.” She is however going to honor’s college at a slightly larger school with a liberal arts core curriculum (and small classes) so all is good. And lastly, kids and parents need to discuss the finances before the children apply to the schools. When I added schools to her list, I explained it was they offer merit scholarships and I thought she would qualify. When it came down to decision time, my daughter had many great options within our budget, and only two of them at full fare (double the price of the others). She was the one who said, really the full fare schools are not worth getting me or my family into debt even though they were highly ranked and she would have received a lot of “wow’s” at school. She also knows many kids who are not going to their “dream school” due to being full fare, and some don’t have many college options for next fall within their budget. She recently told me, “thanks mom, I appreciate all you have done” – that says it all.

    1. What a great story Karen! Thanks for sharing your success story. I wish more families did what yours managed to do. I wish your daughter great luck in the fall!

      If you haven’t bought it, please pick up a copy of The Thinking Student’s Guide to College, which is a great book for rising college freshmen and also sophomores.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. I’m curious about a full merit scholarship at University of Richmond. Does this mean John’s son is attending at no cost to the family, or are they paying their EFC and Richmond is making up the rest?
    On a related note, our son is attending UVA on an NROTC scholarship which pays tuition and a stipend for books. We and our son will pay room, board, personal expenses, travel for a total of $13740 per year. This amount sounds small enough for us (parents) to pay, but with our monthly cash flow, we cannot. We have no college savings. Our son may take the full $5500 student loan (3500 subsidized, 2000 unsubsidized) and we will pay the rest ($686/month if spread over 12 months… we’re not sure how the school will bill us). Our total over five years (he’s going for an engineering degree) will be $41,160. He will graduate with $27,000 in debt. We’ll help him with that as we are able, and we’ll encourage him to apply for grants/scholarships to lessen that amount.
    We showed him this breakdown for all the schools he applied to, but we weren’t able to come up with these numbers until April when all financial award letters were in hand. UVA was our cheapest option. Our EFC was around $20,000 with an AGI of $114K. I’m still scratching my head and wondering if I really filled out the FAFSA correctly (I may have overestimated the value of our home!).
    I feel like it’s hard to predict what the costs of the schools will be until the financial aid letters are in hand. It will definitely be easier with our next three children, now that we’ve been reading Lynn’s blog faithfully, are expecting book #2 in the mail any day now and know the right search tools to use.

  5. Hi Lynn,

    First and foremost, are you up all night, or does your computer clock need resetting? I keep seeing these 4am posts! Talk about conditioning! I want to thank you so much for all the opportunities and knowledge you have given us readers.

    Bottom line, start early with your children. Drag them or bribe them (works the best) to go look at schools, even if it’s part of a trip somewhere. Do it when they are 9th graders. You will always get them resisting it. But somehow it sinks in. Looking at the costs helps, too. It grounds the children to know their expectations of their parents. They learn about how much you really make, what you can spend, and learn the lessons of budgeting. What I have appreciated most about your blogs is that you sincerely have educated all income levels of your readers. That advice was priceless. I thoroughly used your “Shrinking Costs” workbook to ready my family for each college financial option. Without it, I would have been blindsided. Thanks.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Hey, I’m not up at 4 a.m. but this blog seems as needy as a baby who needs frequent feedings and diaper changes! Thanks for the great advice and I am so glad you found my blog and workbook helpful!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. I love this post. I’m so happy to see other parents explaining financial matters to their teens as part of the college application process. I think it’s a terrific opportunity to impart one more life lesson before they get out there on their own.

    In our case our senior son found one school that really did seem to have the perfect extracurricular mix of student leadership opportunities, where he could continue his high school leadership. He doesn’t really know what he’s majoring in and University of Puget Sound’s award-winning, student-run orientation program caught his eye from the start. He read about it and said “Hey, I could be one of the students who runs this.” We dug a little deeper, found out they have a great track record with graduates in the Peace Corps and their humanities minor provided a “great books” curriculum, while the honors program would give him a senior thesis requirement. This was everything on his shopping list for college (plus some seasonal weather). Perhaps not surprisingly, they were also his largest merit offer and accepted him to both the programs he liked.

    We think the moral of the story was that what started as savvy shopping also served to help our son find the truly perfect school for him.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Susan. You and your son went about the process in the absolute right way. Too bad more families don’t approach this big choice as educated consumers!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  7. Lynn’s blog is so informative! I wish I had found this site a year ago when I was just beginning our college search. I have a senior and a junior in high school. Being the parent of a first-generation college student is very challenging. I had no idea where to begin! I stumbled across this blog a few months ago and have been reading it daily. With Lynn’s blog and the help of a local non-profit, college prep organization I have armed myself with so much knowledge of the college proccess.
    I made plenty of mistakes along the way (encouraging my daughter to apply to three “reach” schools, which she did not get in) but from Lynn’s blog I’ve learned how to identify an academic & financial fit. (I have already begun the college process with my junior and I feel much more informed this time around.)
    I am happy to say that my daughter just enrolled at Trinity University today. Our family is very pleased with this decision.

  8. Lynn,

    Not related to this topic, but maybe you know the answer. My daughter took the SAT for the first time in December. She wants to take it again in June. When she went to register for the June test The College Board required her to supply a lot of information about her high school classes. They did not require that the first time she registered. I don’t feel it is any of their business. Do you know anything about that? Should she have just said that she hadn’t taken any classes (I believe she said that was an option, but it would have been a lie).

    1. HI KD,

      I don’t know what was going on in regards to the SAT registration, but I do know that the College Board has racheted it up its security because of one or more people in New Jersey taking the SAT for others. It’s disgusting that this sort of thing happens.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. It sounded more like data gathering for the sake of analysis. I don’t know if it was because my daughter did quite well on the Reading and Writing portion of the SAT the first time she took it. I just know that she wondered where her high school course catalog was so that she could specify what type of English she’s taken. It was quite time consuming for her to provide the information they required.

        Thank you for your reply.

  9. Thank you to John and of course Lynn for presenting this perspective. Our oldest daughter is a sophomore, and we began taking her to college fairs this past fall, despite some resistance on her part (not ready to think about college; doesn’t like fielding questions about what she wants to do, since she doesn’t know). Our goal is to begin educating her about the many types of schools out there, so that we as a family can have an ongoing conversation over these next two years about college characteristics, costs, and what may be a good fit for her. After a spring college fair this month, she seemed to suddenly realize how overwhelming the costs can be. I am hoping all of this is setting the stage for just the sort of open-minded approach that John described above.

  10. Actually, savings in retirement accounts don’t count “against” you for aid. And even savings not sheltered are not assessed very heavily (I know Lynn has a blog entry – or two – about this). It’s a good income that disqualifies you for need-based aid.Seems to me the we’re talking about families who have finally achieved a good income ($100<$200 K) but without a good pension plan. We can pay for college, are willing to pay substantially, but are in our mid-fifties and need to be earmarking money for retirement too.
    We're faced with a choice: paying $50-60 K/ year for a college that provides only need-based aid (most "dream colleges") or looking for less famous schools, like Richmond, where the price (with merit aid) would be half the cost of a famous school. $20-$30 K is doable; $60 K seems nuts. Our daughter is a junior and we're wrestling with this issue now as we guide her college search. And I'm reading "" every day!

    *Of course, if she was to attend Harvard or Yale, need-based aid would make attendance cheaper than the second-tier state schools!* Those endowments probably help increase the number of applications as much as anything.

    1. HI Dorothy,

      You are right that retirement savings doesn’t count against you in financial aid formulas. Some very elite private schools can take retirement savings into account, but that is rare. I heard from a parent recently whose child got into Dartmouth and the school ratcheted down the aid because it contended that the family’s healthy retirement contributions was “voluntary.” I think that’s definitely the exception.

      Here is a post that I wrote on this topic:

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. We are in that same boat. In our mid-fifties and only recently has our income been good (plus we have no pensions, just retirement savings). We do not know how many more years we have of a good income and also do not like the idea of paying top dollar for college when so many do not (it just doesn’t seem fair that there are different net prices based on your income).

      Our junior daughter is relatively financially saavy so we’ll see where we end up.

  11. What is the website that provides details about college costs,enrollment, and their ability to meet financial need ?

  12. What is the website that provides details about college costs,enrollment, and their ability to meet financial need ?

    1. Hello Audrey, As a faithful reader of Lynn’s Blog, and a mom of junior-
      check out http://www.COLLEGEDATA and fill in the name of the school and add
      .com at the end. There you will find out a wealth of knowledge about the various
      schools. AND if you live in S. CA I highly recommend attending Lynn’s workshops
      thru the UCSD extension.

      I must’ve reviewed over 100 colleges, looking first of all at their merit scholarships,
      % of merit based gift money- to % of students. (Plus if applicable- look at average % need meet) AND ALSO AS IMPORTANT, I looked to see what majors they offered. (My son is thinking pre-med or public health focus)

  13. Great story with smart parents, but I agree with John’s comment: “A gripe about terminology: can we find terms other than “rich” or “affluent” for the millions of middle-class families whose moderate retirement savings disqualify them from need-based aid?”

  14. Great story with smart parents, but I agree with John’s comment: “A gripe about terminology: can we find terms other than “rich” or “affluent” for the millions of middle-class families whose moderate retirement savings disqualify them from need-based aid?”