Feeling so lost

1- You are not too late. You are at exactly where you should be- a talented, hard-working kid focused on his academics and EC’s, who seems pretty relaxed about the whole process.
2- The most important thing right now is the financial piece (and your son not slacking- sounds like that’s not a problem).
3-Your son not having huge preferences at this point is an advantage- a really big advantage. Pity the kid who who can’t stand the thought of their state flagship, hates all the merit-giving schools for which he/she is qualified, and is betting it all on getting into Stanford or Princeton because their aid would make it affordable.

Get yourselves a quick education about how aid works (the poster above who cautioned you that there are limits on the loans your son can take- and since you’ve got more kids to educate, you really, really, really can’t be looking at taking out any loans for yourselves as tempting as it might be). It’s a bit of an alphabet soup at first but you’ll get there quickly. And as I said before- if you can afford your own state flagship, you are in great shape. I think 60% of the college application misery is caused by the hunt for an affordable school where your kid is sure to be admitted- and you might be there already.


I’d add my voice to those suggesting going for need-based aid at schools that really offer it while keeping a MT state school in hand as a safety. Besides many of the Ivies, one to consider is the University of Rochester. That’s a medium sized private research U in Rochester, NY. I’m assuming coming from MT, the weather isn’t a problem. :wink:

The reason I’m suggesting checking into that one is because one of my son’s went there and while we were at the admissions info session they outright told us they aim for students from all 50 states. That year they were missing one (MT!) and the guy giving the presentation chuckled when he added, “so if you know anyone who wants to apply from MT, give them our number.”

There are other reasons too, of course. They can give really nice aid packages - for my lad they were the least expensive of his options even beating Pitt and U Alabama after top stat merit awards from each of them. They don’t always give great aid though, so apply to other options. Then they have a more open curriculum with just one required course (a writing course with oodles of options) and two required distributions of courses (also with oodles of options - and only one distribution needed for engineers) allowing students to study what they want to study vs a common core like many LACs have. They are also located 15 minutes (maybe 10) from the airport making transportation easier. Rochester is a nice small city with many small different eateries, etc, but also has Eastman School of Music there giving one access to a nice music/show culture. My guy really loved his time there.

It’s worth looking at their website and seeing what you both think.

Otherwise, I agree with the usual high merit aid places like U Alabama, potentially U Kentucky, U Arizona, etc. Pitt might even be a good shot pending what he gets on his ACT (33 or 34 minimum for potential for good aid). Being from the Eastern US myself, I’m not as up on the Western state agreements mentioned above, but I’d be looking into those as well.

Don’t worry about his not knowing what he wants to study. That’s quite typical. Many will go to college and then change their minds too (over half according to some studies). What I tell kids at school to do is pick something they like (or don’t hate) and start there, then keep their eyes open. It’s mainly important to know freshman year for engineers, architects, doctors (due to grades needed), and probably a couple of other majors I’m forgetting. Most have a bit of leeway in them.

It’s possible to get overwhelmed at everything, but I enjoyed the college search journey with my three kids - each going to schools that weren’t common in our school. I also enjoy talking with kids from my high school as they go along their paths (I teach, though not this year with Covid). It can help to remember there are usually several paths that will be just fine, not just one. But you do want to put effort into to find one of them that is right - esp with costs.


I LOVE that he is so focused on his school work, test prep, and sports! That’s exactly what he SHOULD be focused on, at this point. Be thankful that this kid is self-motivated and focused on the right things at the right time. Let him be, other than pleasant, optimistic, exploratory dinner table conversations about urban vs rural, big vs small, possible majors. Forget the virtual tours for right now - he doesn’t have time for them right now. You can do those as soon as he’s done with this semester of school. We didn’t finalize my kid’s list until mid October, and I have no idea if he ever took a virtual tour. He can do this starting in June, and make his list over the summer.

Meanwhile, you are doing the right thing, too, by beginning the research process for him. From what you described regarding financial aid, I think that you should choose a mix of Ivies/tippy top schools with big endowments and known for giving good financial aid, and big state schools that will give merit money for him. Also some second/third tier schools that he’d be happy to go to, where he might get a free tuition, or even a free ride. If he has no idea of what he wants to study/become, then a small LAC is NOT the right place for him, because they cannot offer enough fields of study. Even if the small LAC is in a consortium, the travel time and the inferior position for class registration for popular classes make that no substitute for being in a large U that offers many majors. The WICHE WUE tuition program means paying no more than 150% of the in-state tuition - and if you’re looking to pay no more than 20K/yr, that is probably a no go for you, because his costs would be probably over 30K/yr under that program. Also, the program has limitations regarding popular majors, and whether such are available in your own state. BUT, there are a lot of flagship state U’s at which he would get a lot of merit money - although I don’t think that those are necessarily the right places for him, and some of them happen to be in WICHE, but he’ll get more in merit from them than he would have gotten through WICHE. My point is, I think he will definitely do better with merit from OOS WICHE schools than he would have with just WICHE, so I think this is WICHE is kind of irrelevant for him.

I’m going to posit something that my husband did with my son when my son was “stuck” on the essay. He asked him, “What do you love doing? What makes you really happy, brings you joy?” My son thought about it, and answered honestly, and came up with three things that brought him joy - and one of them was playing ping pong with his father and big brother! But there were other things, too - his love of playing music, and his budding interest in his intended field of study. And from that, he wove an essay. Open, optimistic, pleasant dinner table conversations about what makes the kid happy, what kind of life he wants, how he thinks he might make his mark in the world, could help to focus the college search.

Because of the advantage of applying from Montana, your son might be able to get into Harvard, which is very generous with financial aid. Similarly, he could consider all the Ivies, and non-Ivies at that same level, like Duke. Or he might be able to get a full tuition scholarship at a place like Tulane, which is trying and succeeding in attracting top students like your son with large merit scholarships. His reach list should include places like this - academic reaches, known for good fin aid, plus just below Ivies for which the merit scholarships are a reach. His safety list should include large southern and western flagship state Universities which would likely offer him a full tuition scholarship - although I really would not want to send my kid to certain parts of the country, so it’s got to be ONLY places he’d be happy to wind up at. I would also put into the consideration list premier flagship state U’s like U Mich, UNC, UVa, the leading California state U’s, possibly U Washington. I think that he would be in the running for their top standard OOS merit scholarships at each flagship state U - you can look on their websites at the merit aid, and see their list - scholarships like the President’s or Chancellor’s or whatever they call it - but he’s likely to get that top level of OOS scholarship.

If you have the time to do it, start doing the research for him, and come up with a very large, possible list. Just running through the US News lists can help give you ideas. Then, in June, when he’s finished compiling his stellar record, you can sit down together and begin narrowing it down.

BTW, he would not qualify for an app fee waiver, would he? Applying to twenty schools would cost about $1700! But from what you describe, it sounds as if he would not qualify for this.

Just to streamline the advice above:

  • Financial issues first. Right now…
    You know your EFC and you know it’s barely doable. That’s good (many parents don’t/assume it’s similar to back in their day). Forewarned, forearmed. :slight_smile:
    Run the NPC on UMontana and Montana State to see if it’d work - they’ll likely have merit scholarships (scholarships that don’t depend on how much you make but on what he gets on his SAT/ACT or other things); if one of these or both are affordable, you’re in good shape! He’s got at least one decent, affordable safety.
    Then, for a contrast, run the NPC on Bowdoin and Yale: these are super generous so they may be more affordable than some universities that provide merit scholarships. Obviously Bowdoin and Yale are just two examples of highly selective colleges no one should count on, but running the NPC on these two extremes (instate publics, most generous colleges) will tell you if it’s even possible for him to try and apply there, or not. If it’s not affordable for him to go if he gets in, no need to waste time applying; if it’s cheaper than your State Us, that’s great.
    Bonus: Thinking about finances, range of possible costs, etc, doesn’t need to include him. You can do it on your own (with your spouse if they want to/can).

  • Between now and May: Check out a few websites: Colleges that change lives, niche, princetonreview, the WUE website.
    This website right here will include TONS of information and the forums are peopled with experienced adults, so create threads and ask questions.
    You can also read some “journey” threads (a parent tells the story of their child’s search for an affordable college) as well as the results threads. Some are in “Hindsights”, I think.
    Share the best ones with your son, no pressure.
    You have plenty of time to read, think, refine.
    In June, buy or borrow a PrincetonReview’s Best (2-page reviews of the country’s top 10% colleges, roughly), to be completed with a Fiske Guide (4-page, in-depth profiles of each state’s flagships+majors universities/colleges.)

  • This Spring: If he can take the SAT and/or ACT, as seems to be the case, you’ll have scores. Many colleges will be test optional so you’re good to go regardless of results, but strong results will certainly help, especially with merit.
    By taking tests he’ll be on the radar for many colleges far and wide; he’ll likely be deluged with emails and glossy viewbooks.
    → he should create a college-specific email address (like FeelingSoLostsSon.College@gmail. :smiley: ) where all his college-related mail is sent. “interest” is factored into the admission decision - “interest” can be expressed by him opening emails and clicking on links in the email.
    Have three carboard boxes, one per “reaction”: one for “cool”, one for “whaaat? Never!” and one for “don’t know/no reaction”. They can “sit” by the mudroom door :slight_smile: Have him sort through his mail by tossing into the right box every day. It’ll help store the physical college mail rather than in haphazard piles and the “never” box can go straight to the recycle bin (you can check it out yourself before recycling the whole thing, in case he was put off by something such as a picture or a name he doesn’t like the sound of, at an otherwise great college for him.)

  • Between now and July: Go together on little trips to visit different colleges: Montana State or UMontana, Carroll College if they’re within driving distance; if for any reason you are in an area with a college, walk around or take an official tour (even if the college itself doesn’t interest him yet). Emphasize to him it’s just to get a “feel” for this type of college, not because you expect him to attend: does he like a huge campus that takes 2 hours to walk across or a compact campus where everything is within a 15mn walk? When he sees students, does he like the anonimity of the crowds or the friendliness of students constantly saying hello? Does he like being in the middle of a city, does he prefer a college town, doesn’t mind how rural the locations, prefers one over the other, truly doesn’t care? Does he like the Chapel on campus or does it put him off? What’s the library like, does it make him want to go study or relax there, why? What’s on that weekend’s evening calendar (Magyk games, arts&crafts for all, free movie, Residence Hall A v.B broomball games, major spectator sports game, famous band, hike up a nearby mountain with the outdoors club? All of it? Some of it? None that appeal to him?) =< afterwards, he can write down his impressions and refine what he likes and doesn’t like, and you can try and see what “matches” best from the Fiske Guide. :slight_smile:

The whole thing can become enjoyable: he gets to know more about himself, and you too :slight_smile:


I love MT! just makes me smile thinking about it!

so much good advice here. so many options to consider. Going to school outside of where your kids grow up is such a good opportunity to learn so much about life; not just education. you know that!

with 4 kids - this was the hardest part for us. imagining EFC x 4 x 4. An efc of 20k x 16 = 320K out of your pocket/savings. An EFC of 30k x16 = $480K out of your pocket/savings. this realization was daunting for us in the midwest - with no high home value to tap into. (yes, a full meets needs school does help a bit with two in college, but what if the other kid is not at meet needs? that was us as we looked at everything)

Every child is different. you dont have to treat them all the same or fairly; I think you treat them according to their needs. Your kid sounds talented - and will probably have some great options. I have no idea on your $ situation at all; but I guess i’ll just encourage you to remember to look at the whole picture for all your kids. :slight_smile:

At a barely doable $20K EFC, WUE is off the table (as noted, total cost will be $25-$30K minimum). But this list is largely irrelevant too, since most don’t offer need-based aid or substantial merit to OOS students and the few that do have need-based aid (notably UVA) are no more generous (and perhaps less so) than privates with comparable admission standards like Georgetown.

Any merit search needs to focus on full tuition plus scholarships. Some will be auto merit but there are many other places where the merit is competitive. This thread is very long but a great place to start since all the final merit details are included at the end: Looking for advice in Merit aid for a top 1% student


Please be aware of the incredible financial aid at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Amherst, Williams and others.

With incomes under $150k (which is far above what we had for income at the time) Harvard costs about 10% of income. For families with income under $65k, Harvard is essentially free.

Too many people stay away from elite schools because of cost, and many GC’s steer kids to public schools when a top private would be much more affordable.

Your son should definitely consider applying to some of these schools. Again, check financial aid at Ivies and “little Ivies.” Google them!


So much good advice here already!

Just another voice to say that you don’t need to worry about access to Naviance. It won’t help you to put together a list that is appropriate for your son. Naviance is only good to see where other kids with the same stats have been accepted, denied, WL. And even then it’s not that accurate because it doesn’t take into account intended majors, hooks, etc…

I’ll also echo that you need to focus on affordability. Super that you have a set budget and are starting the conversation now so you can manage the expectations.

Will stress to start the list from the bottom up - affordable safeties your child will be happy to attend. (You have a leg up that you have an easy going kid! Students like that will find happiness no matter where they land). Once you have those lined up, the rest is just extra.

Sure throw some apps at the uber competitive, meets full need, schools if the NPC looks doable but those are long shots for all applicants, no matter how accomplished.

IMO, your time is better spent finding the affordable safeties and matches.


A young person from Montana, in a low-performing school, with lowish family income, second in his class of 500, AP’s and SAT’s that meet benchmark- checks a lot of boxes for elite schools and I think he should apply to a bunch of them. The most selective schools with the most financial aid that is.

Certainly have a couple of safeties and matches but I would say shoot high. Geographic and socioeconomic diversity are factors for admission as is accomplishment in an environment where the drive to succeed is, let’s say, more internal than external.

I have no idea how sports recruiting happens but as a 3 sport varsity player, maybe someone else can comment on how that might contribute.


Spot on, in terms of this kid’s geographical advantage, and the recommendation to shoot high for the top schools that meet full financial need. My kid says that a universal theme among the early action acceptees at Harvard this year was that they were pleasantly surprised at the amount of financial aid offered.

If this kid is not highly competitive at the state level in athletics, he’s not going to be able to leverage sports for college acceptances or scholarships.

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This is great advice!

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I don’t think he could leverage sports. We always assumed that his academics would direct what we do. His running times could get him on the team at D3 schools and he is working hard to improve his times. Track was canceled last year but they are having it now, so he only has his freshman times to work off. He will also compete in races and the Big Sky State games this summer. So who knows if this will be something to work with.
I think once we sit down, narrow his choices, and get ready to apply he will contact coaches at the schools to tell them his official times and that he is applying to the school.
My husband was a D3 basketball player and knows more than me, so he will be in charge of helping on that end because I’m clueless. There have been a lot of recommended books and websites in this thread that will help me understand the process better. It is so different from when I applied decades ago. I only applied to one in state safety school that didn’t even require an essay.

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When I ran NPC at ivies and even Duke and U Chicago the result was less than Our state school.


We are under the 150, but over 65. Cost of living and incomes are lower here.

Not to go too deep into specific schools yet - but will throw out University of Utah. Affordable, great honors program and becoming more and more popular with kids from the Western States. Could be an ideal safety that would be nice to attend too.


So for income of $100k, for instance, cost at Harvard would be $10k. A state university might have merit aid. He can apply and then you can compare.


Unless he’s not comfortable going so far from home, I’d chase the money applying to the places he’s interested in (that are good with money) and see what happens keeping the state school in reserve in case the others don’t come through. There are a lot of really terrific schools out there and he ought to be an attractive applicant.

Noting though, he doesn’t have to go away to be successful. If he doesn’t want to go to any of those or doesn’t get in to any of them your state school (or another low cost school) can work just fine and he’d likely love it there too. Most kids love where they go. But in your case with those schools looking like they will be less expensive and more kids coming to college age in the future, I’d see if he could snag a spot. Browse through any that are good with money, running the NPC, seeing what they offer, and then select some to apply to later this summer (he selects too, of course, not just parents).


That’s close to where we’re at.

When do the applications open up? I’m hoping he has most of this done by the end of summer since he is taking another full load of AP classes next year and xc “officially”starts mid August.

It will depend upon the school. Many use the Common App, but some do not. The Common App has their essay prompts for 21/22 released already for students to be thinking about it when they want to from now to application submitting time. I didn’t look to see if they have dates yet for when it all starts this year.

Here’s their link for first time applicants:

And the essay prompts:

But some schools don’t use the Common App, so each one of those will need to be looked at individually. At our school, kids sometimes have acceptances to less selective rolling admissions schools when we start in August. Many schools don’t release decisions until much later though. You want to be early for merit aid places. A deadline for application submission often comes later than deadlines for scholarships.

My guys were finished applying to places by Thanksgiving (my deadline). You thought you were “late” in your OP. Nah, at our school “late” are those seniors who come by the guidance office in March - May and say, “I want to go to college. How can I apply to X?” You’re right on time to be starting the process, esp for educating yourself.