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Looking beyond the “Usual Suspects” in the college search

By Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

Sometimes it’s the mom or dad, but more commonly it’s the student who is unfamiliar with the college landscape, who at first blush is challenged to look beyond the “usual suspects.”

Every area of the country has its “usual suspects.” Here in Charlotte, you’ll find lots of students having the following colleges on their list: UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, University of South Carolina, Clemson, University of Georgia, etc.

They may toss in Elon, Wake Forest, Duke or perhaps Appalachian State if they like the mountains or UNC Wilmington if they prefer the beach, but it’s all quite predictable. I maintain a sheet with stats on these usual suspects and am happy to share information about any of these schools.

But honestly, I try to encourage students and parents to consider schools where there is less familiarity. We talk about schools that aren’t on the usual suspects list that might have that hard-to-find major or are more likely to offer merit-based scholarship money.

At first there’s a lot of squirming going on, but as students dig into the college research process by watching videos, reading reviews, etc., they get more comfortable with the possibility of being a little farther away from home and not surrounded by students who look just like them. For some it is life-changing; it is a self-confidence boost to think that they can go to college someplace different and be successful.

For parents, it’s part of the letting-go process. They may have envisioned Junior at State U and now Junior is talking about “student-faculty ratios,” “professor accessibility,” as well as internship and study abroad opportunities.

I’ve witnessed self-described “unmotivated students” getting jazzed about high school because they start researching colleges. Parents are always happy about that outcome.

So if you have a high school junior in your house and you haven’t started the college search process, now is the right time.

• Purchase a college guidebook. My recommendation is the Princeton Review Best 378 Colleges.

• Set aside your spring break this year for campus visits. If you’ve already booked your trip to Disneyworld, you’ll have to work harder to schedule your college tours around upcoming teacher workdays and weekend Open Houses.

• Find out if the colleges you’re interested in visiting schedule campus visits on weekends.

• Look into your school’s policy on excused absences for college visits. Most high schools allow two or more days per year. Maximize these days by adding nearby colleges that offer tours on weekends.

• Try to remain open-minded and encourage a sense of discovery.

•  Enjoy the ride!

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;
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