Tips For Finding Quality Backup Schools

Last week we passed the January 15 application deadline.  Most high school seniors should have submitted their college applications and now is the time most families wait to hear back from all the colleges on the list.  It is also the perfect time to make sure your child has at least one quality backup school on his or her list.

I stress the word “quality” because many families assume that the ultimate backup will be the area community college.  While community and junior colleges serve a great purpose, most of the students I know who applied to four year universities see these schools as unacceptable alternatives.

A quality backup school is one that is seen as acceptable to everyone in the family, meets the basic criteria (location, major, etc.), and would be viewed as a good alternative if all other plans fell through.  I encourage every student to plan for a financial and admissions backup when they develop their college list.

The financial backup is there in case none of the scholarship possibilities work out or family finances take a downward turn due to the economy or job loss.  The admissions backup is the school that will admit that student.  The state schools in Texas publish automatic admissions numbers, so many of my clients are encouraged to find a school from that list, but I’ve also had clients who have added at least one four-year school with open admissions policies, meaning they accept all applicants.

Part of college planning involves preparing for the worst-case admissions scenario.  I think it’s human nature to think “it will never happen to me.”  I think back to a former student who came into the high school counseling office one spring day.  She had just received her final college admissions notice and the news was not good.  Denied!  She applied to five schools and received five rejection letters.  She was stunned.  This was a good student in the top of her class with plenty of activities and personal strengths.  But she also had a list of five very competitive universities with no backup schools.

We sat down and started brainstorming options.  I suggested a number of universities where the application deadlines had not passed.  Each time she said, “I’d rather go to Columbia” or “Brown or Swarthmore are better.”  I kept reminding her that those ideal dream schools had sent her rejection letters; they were no longer options.  She insisted that she didn’t want to apply to any state universities and she didn’t want to “settle for less.”  It took a couple weeks and a few more meetings before she was ready to develop a better backup plan.

Ideally, students will plan ahead and incorporate quality backup schools in their college list in the fall.  Here’s what seniors can do this spring if they need to add some additional options:

  1.  Reevaluate criteria and priorities.  Get into the mindset of finding the school that would be the next choice if all the others sent rejection letters.  This doesn’t mean settling for less; it means finding a school that offers strong opportunities, but maybe be less well known or have easier admissions standards.  (Think “If I can’t drive the new Mercedes, would I still be happy with a new Honda Accord?”  Personally, I’d rather have the Honda than ride the bus.)
  2. Look for schools with late spring application deadlines.  I’m familiar with the schools in my state that have late spring admissions deadlines.  I also use the Common Application Deadline & Requirement chart.  Keep in mind that schools with rolling decision may not list a final application deadline, but once they fill their incoming class, they stop accepting students.
  3. Take applications seriously.  Just because a school may be a backup doesn’t mean students should assume they will get in without trying.  I encourage my clients to take the same approach they did with all other schools – send quality essays, take time to review and proofread, and send in optional supporting materials.
  4. Check the “space available” colleges.  In May colleges evaluate how many students have enrolled and how much space, if any, they have.  If you are in need of a backup school in May, June, or July, contact your counselor to find out which colleges and universities still have openings for students.

It is best to plan ahead and start thinking about alternatives junior year, but even in spring semester of senior year, students can take steps to add quality backup schools to their list.


How Do I Research Colleges?


Everyone says I need to research colleges and make a college list.  What am I supposed to be doing?  How do I research colleges?

Sometimes advice like “go research colleges” is oversimplified.  With over 4000 colleges and universities (2-year, 4-year, public, private, and for-profit), it can be hard to know where to begin.

First, there is no right or wrong way to approach the college search process.  Devote time and effort to the process and work within any financial or geographical limitations.  The goal is to learn enough about different schools that you can make an educate evaluation of your student’s ability to fit in academically and socially.

The ultimate question for any student is, “Will I be happy and successful at this school?”

Research Colleges Online

Possibly the easiest way to get a lot of information in a short amount of time is to use the Internet.

Search for schools that meet your criteria.

Use sites such as or to find schools with your choice of major or level of college sports.  You can find the top schools for musical theater or how many Division III schools offer softball.

Find out about individual colleges.

Start at the source—the university’s own website.  Read about academic options, social programs, campus life, and admissions standards.  You can often take a virtual tour and read about current students.

Learn what current and former students have to say.

You may be able to read student blogs on the college’s official site and there are plenty of places online and in social media where you can connect.

I’m NOT a fan of some of the popular forum sites where anyone and everyone contributes their advice and opinions on college admission.  After seeing wrong, misleading, and unethical posting over and over, I’ve stopped using these sites.  Be cautious when you read online reviews of colleges.  Just like the travel review sites, you are only getting opinions and the people with negative experiences tend to be the loudest.

Use Books & Magazines To Research Colleges

I’m not a huge fan of rankings, but I keep a copy of the recent U.S. News college edition in my office.  I use it for quick reference when I want figures like admission rate, average SAT scores, etc.

I also have a shelf filled with college guides.  No guide lists every school and different books present different perspectives, so it can be helpful to reference a few sources.

Read and take notes about schools that interest you.  Remember the goal—“Will my student be happy and successful in this environment?”

The College Visit:  The Ultimate Hands-On Research

Nothing tells you more about a school than an official visit The more time your family spends on campus talking to admission officers, students, and faculty, the more information you will have.  During campus visits, step back and allow your child to take the lead in exploring the school and asking questions.

Time, travel, and expense may limit your ability to research every college in person.  Before your family makes a final decision on the college your child will attend, make at least one campus visit.

Get Expert Advice

Because your time is limited, you may want to work with a counselor or independent consultant who has visited tons of colleges.  They can help match your student, his or her goals, strengths, and personality to specific schools.  An expert can offer suggestions to help you get started, but ultimately your family has to decide if a school meets all the right criteria and is actually a good fit in person.

How Do I Research Colleges?

Take your time.  Use the resources available to you and learn as much as you can about each school.  Keep in mind some of your sources may be biased – school brochures won’t tell you the problems and the student who decided to transfer out may only tell you the negatives.  Collect your facts and understand there is no perfect way to research colleges.


College Board’s Online College Search Tool

The College Board website is a great tool for families.  Of course College Board is home to everything SAT, but you can also find some great college planning tools if you know where to look.

In this short video, I’ll walk you through the “College Search” feature which allows students to enter their college search criteria and see schools that match.


Let me know what online college resources you use! 


Students Decide Where To Go To College

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If we are getting ready to conclude March Madness it must be time for Acceptance April, the time when high school seniors and their families wait to hear from the last few colleges on their lists, compare financial aid offers, and decide where to go to college. April is the time the college admissions process becomes Read more