I’m beginning to feel like I say this every year, but this has been one strange admissions season.

If you’re the parent of a 12th grader, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Students in at the top-tier Ivy, but out at the popular,state school… High-need students doing well at some need-meeting schools, less so at others… and quite a few other head-scratchers.  Yesterday I sat with an admissions counselor from a competitive, local high school, and we marveled with perplexity at how some of the top students have been treated by their first choice schools.

Yet despite the difficult news for some students, everyone we know has a great college to attend this Fall.

And then I spoke to my cousin who lives in a toney NY suburb.   She lamented to me that in her town it’s harder than it’s ever been for any student to gain admission into ANY college because the competition there is so fierce.

Is she right?  Is it truly more difficult to get into college today?  And more importantly, what can you do about it if you are the parent of an 11th, 10th, or 9th grader?

My opinion:  she’s half-right.  Sure, every few years there’s a new breed of hot and up-and-coming schools; and for the more competitive and hot “brand name schools of today (Michigan, Duke, Tufts, Wash U, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, the Ivies etc.),  I expect that when admission results are announced in another month or so,  that we’ll once again see record-breaking application rates and historically-low admit rates (creating higher yields).   And these same institutions will beat their chests and jockey for position at the top of the US News Rankings.

But there are fantastic colleges out there — perhaps less ‘hot’ right now, or less ranking-obsessed and with smaller marketing machines — that literally change lives (for the better).  And with all due respect, the quest for higher education is not about finding the highest ranked college — it’s about identifying the best fit college for your child and your family! One that can satisfy their aspirations and your budget.

So if you want to maximize your chances of admission into college and receiving money, your list should include colleges that your neighbor might not know about.*  If everyone is applying to the same popular schools, then the laws of economics dictate that it will be harder to get into those schools, and the aid dollars, both merit and need-based, will become even harder to secure.  Many of these so-called lesser known schools (among your neighbors) are VERY well-known to future employers and graduate programs, offer top quality educations, AND often can do so at a steep discount.

*UPDATE! If you are a regular reader, you may remember the story about Lisa (not her real name), the mom who freaked out when her neighbor told her that she was wasting her time with the FAFSA because all she would get was loans.  Last week Lisa’s son was admitted to Brown University with a grant in excess of $50,000.  Her total out of pocket cost will be under $4,000 for a top Ivy League school.

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