Based on a recent survey, 67 percent of parents reported that saving for their children's college is more important that saving for retirement. College planning is obviously a concern for most families, and for good reason. The average annual cost of a four-year private school is now close to $45,000, and student loan debt has reached a staggering $1.3 trillion.

 College planning is obviously a concern for most families, and for good reason. The average annual cost of a four-year private school is now close to $45,000, and student loan debt has reached a staggering $1.3 trillion.

Choosing the “right” college for your child to attend is an integral part of any college planning strategy.  Where will they fit in best? What should they major in? Can they afford it?  These can be difficult questions to answer without some guidance.

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As part of our “Personal CFO” team we’re fortunate to have Chris Teare on board as a college admissions resource.  We recently asked Chris a few questions and hope that his answers can help guide you in the right direction.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and areas of expertise?   

My background in the college process starts with my own search 40 years ago, and it includes hundreds of young people and parents I have helped since I counseled my first group of seniors off to college in 1983.  Through the decades, I have visited hundreds of campuses, including most of those included in the Fiske Guide to Colleges and The Princeton Review Best 380.

I have written a weekly newspaper column on college admissions, hosted two seasons of a radio show, and now contribute to

On the higher education side of the desk for the first time, I am continuing to learn about selective college admissions.  My primary area of expertise is captured by the title of my newspaper column: “Finding a College That Fits.”  I have helped hundreds of young people do just that.

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What trends do you see in how parents and students are planning for college?

The trend in some communities is starting earlier, which can be good, because success in the college process is usually the culmination of years of effort and achievement in academic, extracurricular and personal endeavors.  That said, parents–wanting the best outcomes for their children–sometimes inadvertently put emphasis on results rather than process.

The best way to engage in planning is to help young people and their parents identify and pursue intrinsically meaningful experiences, building an authentic record of commitment, even passion.

The “resume builders,” who do things “because they will look good,” are seizing hold of the wrong end of what can be a valuable educational process.  I urge students to do the right things for the right reasons; offers from colleges that truly fit tend to follow.

In what ways can you help students with the college admissions process?

My ways of helping students start with exercises such as The Fiske College Guide “Sizing Yourself Up” Survey, Princeton Review's “If the U Fits…” 10 Questions, and Student and Parent Questionnaires.  Different students from different families need different amounts and types of help.

Eldest or only children are pioneers in their families; they may or may not have already done a lot of reflection and had exposure to college options.

Younger siblings may already know more from being taken along on tours.  Some parents have a lot of knowledge; others have very little.  As in all good teaching, I need to know what my students know before I can determine exactly where to engage them in moving forward.  The best counseling is individual, even unique, and not formulaic.  This work is both art and science.

What suggestions do you have for students who don't know where to begin?   

As above, personal inventories are always where I start.  In ancient Greece, the inscription over the cave of the Oracle at Delphi read, “Know Thyself.”  Self-knowledge is the most essential guide to success in the college process, to finding a place that will truly fit and lead a young person not simply to gain admission, but to enroll, thrive, grow, and graduate ready to succeed in the next chapter in life.

The college process requires students and parents to use both their heads and their hearts, to do a lot of self-examination and research, then to make decisions based upon a combination of rational factors (i.e. programs, majors, career and graduate school placement, financial terms) and emotional attributes (i.e. Are these my people?).

The way to find a college that fits is to use your head and trust your gut.

In addition to college admissions, what other areas should students and parents focus on when developing their college planning strategy?

Generally speaking, there is too much emphasis in college planning on “getting in,” and not enough consideration of “getting out,” in other words, life after graduation.  If the high water mark of the whole thing is the day a student gets the email or fat envelope with a letter from the Admissions Office that starts with “Congratulations!” we're allowing short-term gratification to obscure longer-term considerations.

I want the students in my care to choose a college that fits so well they will feel even better about themselves the day they graduate than the day they get in.

There's no point in gaining admission to a place that will demoralize you through competition or saddle you with unreasonable debt.  I try to help my students have an eye toward positioning themselves for the next step after college.

Determining your best strategy to pay for college should be a priority for every family with college bound children.  For some this will begin with choosing the proper savings vehicle and for others it will be how to best us their personal resources to pay their share of the cost.  The right strategy will be one that helps get your child in the best school, graduate with minimal student loan and protects your retirement assets.

(Tushingham Wealth Strategies' “Personal CFO” Services that Integrate College and Retirement Planning into one Strategy)