Physician Family College Planning Starts with Junior Year

Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions your family will make. This choice—about where they’ll spend the next four years and where you’ll spend somewhere between $100,000 and $260,000—has a huge impact on their lives. What they will learn, where they might live, how much they’ll earn… even who they might marry… it’s all up for grabs in this one decision.

So how do you choose the right college?

“Take a look inward way before you look outward,” urges Julia Surtshin, an independent college counselor in Portland, Oregon. Instead of asking, “‘What college can I get into?’ ask “What college out there meets my requirements?’” she advises. Take stock of your child’s strengths, their challenges and their expectations about college, then use what you learn to build what Surtshin calls a “thoughtful shopping list” of attributes that define the right school for your child.

While some parents may equate “the right college” with those schools that rank highly in the national polls. Surtshin urges parents to “ignore the rankings” since they give no indication about whether your child can succeed there. “Colleges are like onions. They have lots of layers, and to really understand them you’ve got to peel them back layer by layer,” she says.

To help parents build a list of possible schools, she considers these “layers” but she also keeps an eye on key statistical indicators. For example, the freshman retention rate (the percentage of freshmen who return as sophomores) can give you some idea of how well new students are served by the college. Surtshin’s alma mater, Columbia University, sports an incredible 99% freshman retention rate while the national average runs about 70%. Some schools have much lower retention rates which is “a bright red flag,” she says.

Cost may be one of the factors parents consider as they choose a school but a narrow focus on the price tag may lead parents to make a bad decision. For example, Surtshin says many families believe private colleges are too expensive but the reality is that “very few students pay sticker price.” While it’s true that the Ivy League schools do not offer merit-based aid, other private schools may offer so much aid that the actual cost of attendance falls in line with that of public in-state schools.

To get a good return on your college investment, your child needs to view college as “more than just an information transfer process,” Surtshin says. A student who finds a mentor, builds a network, conducts research, accepts internships, and pursues their passion will gain great value from their chosen school no matter where they go. However, “If all you do is just go to class and get good grades, you’re out of luck,” she warns.

“Ultimately, college success is about attending an institution that prizes you for who you are, supports your dreams and aspirations, and offers the environment, resources, and experiences to enable you to reach your goals,” Surtshin says.

Surtshin, who has 30 years experience helping families make this crucial decision, sees the college years as some of the most formative years of life. “The choice of college has an incredible impact on how students view themselves and their ability to navigate the world,” she believes.

If your child is a rising junior, now is the time to start the college selection process. Their activities this summer and their academic performance in the coming year figure greatly in how they are viewed by the colleges where they will apply.

You can reach Julia Surtshin at (503) 968-2544 or visit her on the web at