In the brave new world of college admissions, there are three distinct realms of parental existence. In the upper realm, there are those who breathe the rarified air of private college counseling and test prep tutors. They can afford to take advantage of an industry devoted to helping Johnnie and Janie get into Harvard or one of its rivals. They spend thousands of dollars helping their child prepare for standardized tests, write and rewrite college essays, hone colleges lists — basically handholding their teen through the entire process.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are parents helping their kids despite the odds. Whether or not they know it, there’s a web of services and nonprofits (like these five organizations) dedicated to helping teens from low-income families and/or teens who’ll be the first in their family to go to college. These groups offer supports that include college counseling, test prep, scholarship matching, deciding where to apply, deciphering student aid awards, and other college communications — basically helping teens in every step of the process.

But the vast majority of American families are stuck in the middle: unable to afford the private services and ineligible for nonprofit programs. For these parents — even though many applied to and attended college themselves — the college admissions process is an overgrown jungle that’s overwhelming to navigate. And that nice college counselor at your child’s high school? There aren’t enough minutes in the day for her to help all the students on her list — even if she worked throughout the night and weekends.

Tools to help parents navigate college admissions

Thanks to technology and innovation, there are a few relatively new solutions for the rest of us. There aren’t many — parents still need to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with financial aid forms — but it’s a start.

These are the best low-cost and free tools that are designed to help middle class families with the college admissions process.

  1. Lifelaunchr

    The closest thing to a college counselor without spending thousands of dollars, this multifaceted site is trying to solve multiple problems. (Full disclosure, the founder of this company used to work here at GreatSchools.) To start, it allows students to create a public profile to share with colleges and teachers who are writing letters of recommendation. If your teen has no idea about where to go to college or what to study, the site offers a strength-exploring tool where students answer a list of questions and get suggestions about potential majors and careers. The next step in the process involves finding good-fit schools, an overwhelming process for a lot of families. The site’s college matching tool helps students find colleges based on multiple factors, including location, size, majors, and interests. The site has a unique scholarship-matching tool that, unlike the many services that are really just a ploy to sell your email address or market bogus sweepstakes, emails you about scholarships that match your profile. There are online classes about specific aspects of the college application process. Plus, parents and teens can ask any question about the process for free and get an answer from a real expert within two days. For a fee, there’s also a portal of accredited college admissions advisors available for live, personalized consultations via Skype. Finally, possibly the site’s most useful tool is the deadline tracking service: once your teen comes up with a list of schools, you both get reminders about all application deadlines.

    Pros: A plethora of tools and resources for every step of the college application process.
    Cons: You must sign up to use the resources — and you still have to do the work!

  2. Khan Academy

    What famously began as a series of math and science lessons that hedge fund financial analyst Salman Khan created for his niece is now Khan Academy, a vast, free, online library of lessons and programs for kids from kindergarten to college. Lessons cover all sorts of subjects — including SAT prep. In a partnership with the College Board (which runs the SAT), Khan Academy created a free digital program that teens can use to study and improve their SAT scores.

    Pros: High-quality lessons that are proven effective at helping kids prep for the SAT.
    Cons: No help for the ACT. Not necessarily rigorous enough for students seeking to score 1450 or above on the SAT.

  3. Green Test Prep

    This isn’t free, but it’s inexpensive as test prep goes. It’s also far more rigorous than Khan Academy. For $500, Green Test Prep offers unlimited access to online programs to study for the SAT and ACT. Antony-James Green started this company after building a business as the highest-paid test prep tutor in the U.S. Now, Green Test Prep is an intensive, mobile-friendly program that requires consistent hard work from students. According to the website, it has an average score improvement of 215 points on the new SAT and 4.6 points on the ACT.

    Pros: A tough program designed by a tutor who is used to parents who expect miracles.
    Cons: It’s $500 and it’s not a miracle — it definitely requires that your child put in the study time and effort.

  4. Next College Student Athlete

    Is your child an athlete who hopes their record as a track star will tip the hand of the college admissions director? Leveraging athletic prowess to help with college admissions is a complicated process. At the very least, your teen can start exploring the possibilities by building a free profile on Next College Student Athlete (NCSA). This site allows your child to fill out information about their academic and athletic achievements, including pictures, videos, and stats. College coaches from around the country and can find your teen’s profile and reach out if your teen seems like a good fit for their team and school. You can also reach out directly to coaches of the schools your child is interested in and share your child’s profile with them.

    Pros: The basic profile and one-hour consultation is free, and it gives you a good sense of the process.
    Cons: NCSA will try to upsell you to more costly packages (it’s how they make their money). Depending on your child’s sport, athletic ability, and school choices, the upsell may or may not be worth it.

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