Another Dreadful College List

During the holidays, I wrote a post about a teenager, who has been applying to inappropriate universities. (At least in my opinion.) If you didn’t get a chance to read the post, here it is:

Applying to the Wrong Universities

I wanted to revisit this issue because I believe this is arguably the No. 1 college admission mistake that teenagers make. Teenagers routinely put together college lists that are dreadful. I recently tackled this problem in the second edition of my book, The College Solution. (I hope the second edition, which will contain about 85% new content, will be out in April!) Here is an example that I mention in the revised edition about another teenager who applied to the wrong schools:

A teenager named Matt  had spent his high school years at the top of his class. The Seattle teenager had experienced one academic success after another, which made him assume that getting into an Ivy League university should be doable if he applied to enough of them.

The teenager completed applications for several Ivy League schools, including Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown. He was surprised and hurt when he received rejections from all of them. (I remain mystified why top teenagers are surprised when Ivy League schools reject them!) Matt did get into his three non-Ivy picks:  the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA and Chapman University in Orange County, CA.

Matt discovered, however, that the UC schools were prohibitively expensive for a nonresident. The UC’s are aggressively pursuing smart out-of-state students because the price of admission for these outsiders is about $53,000 a year and rising. This financial reality left Matt with only one school left standing – Chapman.  I’m not in a position to say whether Chapman was a suitable pick for the brilliant teenager, but what was unfortunate was that he had boxed himself into a corner and was left with just one realistic choice.

A Lesson Learned

There is a lesson to be learned from Matt’s travails and here it is:  teenagers should develop list of schools that represent good academic and financial fits. Teenagers who do this will increase their chances of ending up with a fistful of acceptance letters from schools that are willing to cut the price for them.

Other Examples?

Can anybody else provide examples of teenagers who stuffed their college lists with poor choices? I think everybody can learn from other students’ mistakes. I’d love to hear from you. Just add your comment in the box below.

Tomorrow I will be writing one more post about another teenager’s dubious college list.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller,  and a financial aid workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: Great Ways to Cut the Price of a Bachelor’s Degree, which is only available on her website.


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  1. I agree that the college list “Matt” put together was unbalanced, with three impossible-to-get-into Ivies and two nearly-impossible to get into UC schools. I must disagree with what seemed to be your implication that Chapman University was a poor fit for Matt. In fact, it was probably the best fit school on his list, as it is very selective (45%) yet not impossibly so, with an average admitted student GPA of 3.71 and SAT of 1925. Chapman is medium sized, has nationally accredited programs in Business, Law and Music, a 14:1 student to faculty ratio, and offers generous merit scholarships and institutional grants. It has a 90% retention rate and a 65% 4-year graduation rate, well above the national average. I think the point to be made is that “Matt”, and other high achieving students, need to have MORE target colleges such as Chapman on their college lists.

  2. I’m a current HS senior and I applied to 17 schools. 7 were reaches (Ivies or very good LACs/ITs) that I was fairly sure I wouldn’t get into but wanted to try applying for anyway. 2 were what i thought to be financial safeties (my state university, Rutgers, and U Minnesota TC). the rest were targets, some a little bit less likely perhaps, but for the most part ones i thought i could get into. i did not take the advice of my school’s college counselor, who believed that Ivies and the like would be “guarantees” for me merely because I had high SATs and a good GPA. I chose to be wary and cautious about my prospects.

    i was accepted at my financial safeties but only given about a half-ride by my state university, and i was accepted at all of my targets except for 2, which waitlisted me. one waitlist i am 99% sure was “Tufts” syndrome considering my scores/grades/ECs/leadership and essay writing skills are much better than those of the kids accepted there from my school.

    i applied to such a high number of schools because i wanted to ensure that come April 1st, i had options. and now i do. however it’s worth noting that even if a school is traditionally expensive, students may still be granted gift aid (scholarships/grants). Of the private schools i applied to, i thought that Boston U would give me the best aid, and URochester, JHU, and NYU would give me the worst. Funnily enough, the opposite is true. I received an exorbitant amount of loans from BU, in contrast to 25K in gift aid from UR, 45K in gift aid from JHU and a promise from their FinAid office that i would not have to graduate with more than 5K in loans, and 38K in gift aid from NYU. This is without considering the work study “awards” they gave me. I also applied to UCLA and UC Berkeley on a whim and though I won’t be going, they did both award me 11K scholarships (which is around the max they usually award OOS kids).

    I suppose the gist of what I’m getting at is that while in most instances you are correct, it never hurts to apply anyway and see what aid a school gives you. According to most people, i would fall just short of Ivy-league material, but would be considered the “cream of the crop” at other schools like JHU. This means that schools are much more likely to give me gift aid than loans because statistically my numbers pull their numbers up, and because they hope to pull me from going to another school.

    It is also worth noting that students should take the initiative in applying for college and for financial aid and scholarships. I myself did everything for my apps (essays, editing, submissions, sending scores) and for my financial aid (CSS and FAFSA and IDOC and individual colleges’ random requirements) and I also compiled a list of 30+ scholarships to apply to which I have steadily been working my way through. It is the student’s responsibility to research schools and figure out which would be a good fit. If a student is admitted to a so-called dream school without the aid to go, it is that student’s job to take the initiative in seeking out other forms of funding, i.e. getting a job, hunting for scholarships. My family falls into the middle class category thus I cannot rely on my parents to fund my education nor can i rely on need based aid. The quality of the higher education I receive will be good because I chose to spend my senior year working to make it so.

  3. Lynn,

    Try as I might I still can’t get my hands around the whole financial aid picture. We completed the FAFSA and CSS/Profile and were amazed to see that the FAFSA family contribution amount was way more than we could actually afford! Does this mean that this is the lowest cost possible for schools with a larger price tag, merit scholarships included? My son did apply to 2 private schools that use the institutional methodology, which I believe if admitted would give him the best financial packages. My husband makes a good salary, but we are not homeowners and do not have much outside of our retirement plan. Am I right about this? Lastly, my son did apply to 1 state school that we could afford without financial aid. At this point, we’re waiting to hear back from all the schools.

  4. Hi Lynn,

    I have shared our story before, but my daughter experienced exactly what your book, “The College Solution” said might be a problem, and that is filling her list with schools that had pretty nice scholarships, but still cost way too much even after scholarships. Rereading your book, I made her apply to a couple of schools in the same area that seemed like better fits, meaning they want her more than the other schools, and it payed off in a big way. She loves her school, and I love the cost. Now, I have to buy the new edition and show these comments to my 15 year old daughter, as she is currently fixated on only one, very expensive university…..

    1. Thanks so much Bruce for the update! I’m so glad that your daughter loves Susquehanna — if I remember correctly. Good luck with your 15-year-old. Academic fits and financial fits almost always go hand in hand.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Great memory! I think it’s funny how Susquehanna and your daughter Caitlin’s college, Juniata University, are sport rivals. Small world!

  5. I heard a similar story recently from a student, about his friend-the-valedictorian-with-very-high-test-scores. The student was aghast that he was rejected ED by his Ivy League choice, and sadly his RD choices are not much more accessible.

    There are many teenagers who don’t believe the advice of their parents, teachers, and counselors, and to those students I try to paint a portrait of their competition at top colleges. I explain to students that they will be competing against other applicants who are just like themselves — top of their class, 2380 SATs, life-changing extracurriculars, and sports team captains. They are not competing against a field of students similar to their graduating class, which is sometimes the only group they have ever compared themselves to.

    So, I ask them,”In a room containing 100 students just like you, with identical GPA and test scores, which ten students would you choose to admit? The prodigy musician and composer? The national science competition winner who learned English only four years ago? The gifted writer who has been published in a national magazine? How about that really nice kid with high scores? Only ten! Now: at what colleges might those other 90 kids feel challenged and welcome? Let’s think of those together, because you might be one of the 90.”

    It’s a huge challenge to help talented students situate themselves realistically on the steep arc of other talented teenagers in the applicant pool.

  6. Right on again, Lynn. Let’s see, hmm – Lives in Seattle, and didn’t consider the universities in his state. Everybody needs to understand that it’s okay to stay home, too. I want to tell you a story about a friend in college. She was top of her class in 1976, ASB president, and was turned down by Stanford. She spent a year at community college, and later attended UC Davis. Her sister, a cheerleader with lower grades was accepted at Stanford. That’s 35 years ago. Not much has changed. My son doesn’t have stellar grades, but great test scores. I insisted he apply to the UC’s and Cal State schools. Sometimes we forget that college is an experience, not just a means to an end. Our country is strewn with Ivy League graduates (and dropouts) who never made it as far as a hard working person, who happens to be a college student. Most of our leaders never were the top of their class. Parents expectations need to be re-aligned. The sooner parents give their offspring a grounding, the better their chances to grow.

    1. Great story David. Thanks for sharing. I think too many students and parents fixate on the name schools rather than focusing on what they can do — wherever they end up – to squeeze the most out of their college experience.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  7. Lynn,
    Thank you for all the wonderful advice and I love and recommend your book, The College Solution. My daughter is a Senior and I spent her junior year reading your book and blog religiously! Thank you for teaching me how to research schools that are good academic and financial fits and I am now experienced in reading Common Data Sets for schools to see exactly how many students they accept and how much money they give. My daughter has applied to nine schools and has so far received acceptances from three – College of Wooster, Salem College, and Beloit College ( you’ll be happy to know she is seriously considering Beloit!). College of Wooster has offered her a $40,000 scholarship ($10,000 annually). I write this so other parents know will know that there are great lesser known schools out there that are worth applying to. My daughter has a 3.4 GPA, lots of extra-curriculars, and classically trained vocalist. We are not an affluent family so we are waiting to see what other schools will offer her.
    Again, I thank you so much for your knowledge and wisdom. I could not have made it thru this year without your advice!
    Blessings to you,

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words Nilda. Your note made me tear up! It is so great to hear from people who have become empowered consumers as they tackle this all important college decision. I am glad that I played a small part in your journey! Good luck and I hope you get some large financial aid packages!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  8. I am new to all of this with a sophomore praying that I will know how to guide her. I am clueless about what you mean as a good academic and financial fit…and why top kids don’t get into ivy league schools. Should I get your first book now or wait for edition 2? Any other great resources out there? She is thinking of Bio and a dance minor. Thanks.

    1. I’m sure Lynn will respond to your questions but wanted to throw my 2 cents in about the Ivy’s. So many students and parents think it’s enough to be at or near the top of your class and have strong test scores. They think if you have that, you’re a shoo in. Not so, not by a long shot. ALL applicants – or at least the serious ones – have that. You must stand out among the thousands of other applicants by excelling in something, doing something extraordinary, being a first gen to go to college, being a minority in demand, etc. . No small feat these days, given the competition.

    2. HI Lauralee — Paula did a great job of explaining the Ivy League issue (the students who enjoy the greatest admission advantage are legacies and the teenagers of VIPs) and frankly it drives me nuts when people assume that this is where their brilliant children should attend school. There are so many wonderful schools in this country and some of them provide a better education to undergrads than the Ivies.

      As for my book, I think you could wait until the second edition of The College Solution comes out. I would, however, recommend buying a copy of my workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College, which is only available on my website. It helps explains a lot about how to evaluae schools financially. And thanks for visiting my blog.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  9. Lynn, I think the problem with college list building is that students and parents gravitate to schools they’ve heard of. Unfortunately, the reason they’ve heard of these schools is

    1. You can’t get into them (ridiculously low admission rates)


    2. They have great sports teams (which has nothing to do with the academic fit)

    An Academic AND Financial Match … seems like so obvious a goal yet is so elusive for so many.

    1. Absolutely great observations Paula. I couldn’t agree with you more. If you simply stick with schools that you’ve heard of, you are sadly hurting your chances to find wonderful schools.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. I has an SAT student a few years back who literally only applied to one school: The University of Florida. With the advent of the Flroida Birght Futures Scholarship Program, UF is free for top students., so almost all of them in the state apply. Although he was a solid student with good scores, he was not accepted. He spent the last two years at Miami-Dade Community College. I had heated arguments with the students’ parents, but they relied on anecdotal evidence from friends and neighbors to guide their decision.

    1. Thanks for sharing Sean. It’s nuts when students only apply to one school. A niece of mine did the same thing — despite my heated objections — and she was stuck with a mediocre financial aid package at the private university she now attends.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. My daughter did apply to 1 school. For her it was not a bad decision. She applied Early Action and if she didn’t get in there was still sufficient time to apply to other schools. The school was her overwhelming favorite of the schools that we’d visited. But it all worked out as she got in and got decent Merit money.

        1. John — Congratulations to your daughter! I’m glad it worked out for your family.

          I should note that applying EA or Early Decision isn’t the same as applying to one school because, as you mentioned, there would still be time to send out more applications.

          Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  11. Hi Lynn, After reading your book over the summer I’ve dramatically shifted my approach to counseling high school students in their admissions pursuits. Many of them are taking your advice and applying to schools that we’ve researched together to find the best academic and financial match. I’m anxiously awaiting the decisions from the various schools! Thank you for all the great information. I’m looking forward to your next book!

    1. Hi Elaine,

      Thanks so much for your note! I am glad that you are helping teenagers apply to schools that represent financial and academic matches. It sounds like a no brainer, but so few students actually pull this off.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy