Part 3 — Applying to College? Ask These Questions to Increase Your Chances of a Successful Experience

My final set of important questions you should be asking about where to apply to college deals with literally optimizing the chance that the enormous amount of time and money you are going to put into your education pays off in the way you and your family hope it will.

College Search Consultants, your high school college counselor and others can help you answer some of these questions. You’ll have to do your own research and thinking in order to answer them either with help or without. Seeking outside help will probably give you clearer answers than you’ll get if you and your family “go it alone.”

These questions focus on matters such as time from matriculation to graduation, financial aid, and determining the likelihood you’ll be employed or in advanced training once you graduate.

1. What percentage of admitted students never complete degrees/complete them in more than six years? Finding this information out about the schools you’re looking at is important because the more people who don’t finish or take a very long time to graduate, the greater the odds you might be one of them. Many student dropouts or slow degree earners can indicate the campus has relatively poor advising, financial aid, wellness, etc., resources to support you in getting your education and going on to bigger and better things.

2. What percentage of students graduate in less than six years? You need this answered because in many cases colleges don’t give financial aid for terms longer than six years. People eligible for government aid must be aware of this because the Federal Government rarely gives loans or grants for more than six undergraduate years. As the average student now needs more than five years to graduate, paying attention to how long it takes people to earn their degrees can help you decide if one campus or another is the right one for you.

For example, if the average student is graduating in more than five years, there is a good chance you could lose your aid eligibility if you don’t progress toward your degree at a satisfactory pace.

3. How much do people with socioeconomic circumstances like mine pay to attend here? Be clear in asking this question and in using some of the tools out there that people use to calculate their potential aid packages. After all, nearly everyone may qualify for some kind of aid. The key thing is what kind and whether it has to be paid back. You want to know what you can reasonably expect the final cost to you of getting your degree will be, assuming your time to degree is about average. Estimated costs for tuition, fees, housing, transportation and course supplies can be very deceptive before figuring in financial aid. Financial aid can make a big difference. Don’t avoid applying to a school because its pre-financial aid costs seem high. At least one private liberal arts college claims up to 90% of families will pay less for someone to go there than they would pay if their child studied on a public campus. Others make similar claims. Keep time enrolled in mind when you’re asking about total cost since added time actually enrolled on campus to complete your degree, or taking too many classes to get there, may significantly raise the total cost to you of earning your degree. You may even risk running out of some kinds of financial aid if earning your degree takes too long.

4. What percentage of this campus’ graduates are in full time jobs or advanced training six months after they complete their degrees? This is a key question given the amount of time and money you are investing in your education. There is some variation as schools have different mixes of majors and concentrations. In many ways it will be your final major, not the campus you attend, that shapes your likelihood of having full time employment (i.e., a job with “benefits” like health insurance and retirement accounts) after you graduate. This does not mean you can’t or shouldn’t compare the colleges you’re interested in even though your final major may well not be decided. Ask how successful their young alumni are at getting jobs or slots in graduate or professional school. Depending on where you go, you may invest more than $250,000 in an education that needs to lead to a job… or more training. Make sure you have the best chance to get return on your investment. You have to do well in your classes, but if you’re not advised well, or if you’re not at a school that tends to send students onto jobs or advanced training in your area of interest, your time and money may not pay off for reasons you can only partially control. It is particularly important to be aware of external factors like advising at a time when schools are cutting back on investment in career services.

Paying attention to historical tendencies in getting graduates into jobs is important, because although people are being hired in great numbers now, history shows there’s no guarantee this will always be true. If economic history is any guide, the chance of getting a good job out of college will likely rise or fall sharply at least once while you’re getting your degree.

5. What percentage of students applying to advanced training actually get in? Learning this is important because many schools will say: We have “x” students who apply to graduate/medical/law/business/etc., school each year. They may make it hard to learn what percentage of these students actually get in. However, if you ask, they should tell you because they usually can provide the information. For example, raw data from the American Association of Medical Colleges has information on applicants by state, college, ethnicity and more for applicants in 2017–2018. If every applicant from the top thirty colleges by number of applications was admitted to medical school, only about a fourth of the places in US MD training programs would have been available for students from the thousands of other colleges and universities in the United States. In reality 60% of medical school applicants each year don’t get in. Logically, therefore, many people from these “large applicant pool” schools aren’t admitted. So, ask what percentage of students who apply for specific kinds of advanced training have actually gotten in over the last five years. The percentage of applicants who get into the kinds of advanced training they applied to indicates whether students get honest, useful advice throughout their time on campus.

Honest advice can help students get into schools. It can keep them from spending years and money studying for degrees that aren’t a good fit for them. It can also help students avoid applying to programs they have little chance of being admitted to due to relatively low grades or test scores. Keep any data you collect in mind as you apply and decide where you want to go.

6. Am I applying here because I think I can be happy or because I want the school’s name? This question has a lot of levels, but it’s an important one to answer. If you apply to big-name schools only because they have big names, you may find that you’re not as happy or successful there as you will be at a lesser-known school (or at some subset of the big-name schools) that fits your personality, interests, views, goals, and needs best. Applying on reputation alone may be extremely tempting… and equally risky. Applying because you know the school has the people, resources, opportunities, activities and environment that will fit you best is always the smart move.

IN SUMMARY, some colleges are better at helping their students complete their degrees than others. It’s important to find out how many students don’t complete their degrees on campuses you’re considering. Ask how long it takes the average student to complete their training as this, too, can affect the cost of your education. The cost of going to college can be, and usually is, ameliorated by financial aid. Use the FAFSA Forecaster and the “net price calculator” on campuses you’re interested in to figure out how much people in socioeconomic circumstances similar to yours are paying for college. You will often find that, once financial aid is figured in, colleges that appear to be too expensive will cost you less than you (and the people around you) think.

Find out what percentage of alums are employed or in advanced training six months after they graduate. Colleges have a sense for this. It’s worth asking as relatively low success rates may be an indicator that you should apply elsewhere.

Dr. Matthew Weed is an educational search consultant, motivational speaker, and more. Learn more about him on his website at or follow him @drmatthewweed on Instagram and Twitter.



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