College planning on a budget

Question: I am trying to figure out how to help my son, who is a junior, with the whole college-planning process without spending a lot of money.

Answer: Many families are now asking the same question that you pose. As family savings diminish, they need ideas about how to be creative both in terms of finding colleges and paying for college. I offer families more alternatives when we discuss making college visits around the country or test-prep options.

I still advise students not to walk into either the SAT or ACT without having done significant prepping for the test. Even though students believe that they can submit their best scores with Score Choice, I caution them not to use the test day as a practice opportunity. That being said, there are multiple ways to prepare for these tests without spending any money at all. Various Web sites allow you to take a free full SAT or ACT test. Some of my favorites can be found on,,, and Some of these sites even provide suggestions for how to answer the questions correctly so that you can learn from your mistakes.

Other suggestions include going to the Kaplan or Princeton Review Web site and finding opportunities to take practice tests at no cost at various locations in Seattle. After your student sits for the test, you will receive a report outlining how he did on the test so that you will understand where your student has room for improvement. If your student is not able to independently achieve the scores that best represent his or her potential, you might want to consider paying for independent tutoring. However, rather than enrolling in an entire course, you can target only those areas in which your son or daughter specifically needs help. Depending on the number of private tutoring sessions that you buy, you might actually spend less money having it tailored to those specific weaknesses.

The common practice of traveling across the country to make college visits can also be modified in light of these hard economic times. Many colleges offer online tours of their campuses through their Web sites. They allow your student to get a fairly good idea of the college’s physical setting. Some of my favorite new Web sites which allow students to view campuses online include and Families can easily supplement these online tours with information that you can glean from their Web sites, viewbooks and catalogs.

Obviously, when deciding on a school, a campus visit is preferable. Some families, however, are now opting to wait and see where their child is accepted before they spend their money to visit in advance. Other families are visiting in the summer or the fall when the price of air travel is less than over spring break. Right now there are some incredible deals to fly across the country, round-trip, for $200 or less. If you do travel to the East Coast or the Midwest, you might want to restrict yourself to a limited region and focus on seeing one small, one large, one urban and one rural school in that vicinity.

Students can also talk to admission representatives when they visit the area, either for college fairs or admission sessions, usually held in the evenings during the fall, and at your student’s high school. The next college fair in Seattle will be held from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, at Seattle University. A list of participating schools is available at PNACAC’s Web site,

While it makes sense to invest some money in the critical process of choosing a college for your son or daughter and enhancing their admission chances through maximizing their test scores, you do not have to break the bank to do it. Money well spent might be used for hiring or receiving help from teachers or counselors to ensure that your student submits an excellent application in the hopes of receiving some merit money. In spite of the economy, colleges are still willing to give merit money to recruit the students who they want on their campuses.

Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an independent college consulting practice: She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or

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