From left, President Barack Obama with daughter Malia walk from Marine One across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, August 23, 2015.
Carolyn Kaster—AP
By Kaitlin Mulhere
October 5, 2015

Even living in the White House doesn’t exempt you from the strenuous job of applying to college. In fact, for 17-year-old Malia Obama, all the media attention being given her big decision may make it all the more stressful.

As the New York Times reported, Malia has visited six of the eight Ivy League schools—Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale—as well as Stanford, University of California-Berkeley, New York University, Barnard, Wesleyan and Tufts.

What kind of advice has she been getting? “One piece of advice I’ve given her is not to stress too much about having to get into one particular college,” her father told a group of high schoolers in Iowa last month. “Just because it’s not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a great education there.”

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We couldn’t help but notice that every college Malia’s reportedly visited so far is very much a “name-brand, famous, fancy school.” And that, with famous parents and an elite prep-school education, Malia likely doesn’t need to worry about being turned down by her top-choice school. The New York Times even called her “perhaps the nation’s most eligible 2016 college applicant.”

Still, even if you can’t write your personal essay based on what you’ve learned from brushing shoulders with people like Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai, you can—and should—follow some of Malia’s college search moves.

1. Visit College Campuses

While it may not be financially possible for everyone to tour a dozen campuses across the country, as Malia has, you should see at least a handful. College admissions experts say visiting a campus is the best way to determine whether a school could be a good match for you. And try not to visit basically identical schools. Yes, all of Malia’s potentials are elite universities. But they include a mix of East Coast and West Coast, public and private, big-city universities and smaller liberal arts schools. You might not realize, for example, that you’d prefer a more secluded, traditional college campus to an urban university, or vice versa, until you’ve visited both kinds. Malia also smartly visited many of the colleges she was interested in before the fall of her senior year, when application deadlines start looming.

2. Harness Your Social Network

Okay, so your network might not include the likes of Olivia Moseley, a Harvard senior who’s the niece of a former deputy secretary of state and deputy Washington bureau chief at CNN, and who had lunch with Malia and her friend when they visited Harvard. But in addition to the official college tour, you should reach out to acquaintances on campuses you may be interested in attending. They can give a better picture of what it’s like to be there day in and day out. Ask whether they’ve had access to professors and academic advisers when they needed guidance. Scope out the social scene by asking what an average Friday night on campus offers. And inquire about activities. If you’re not a sports lover on a sports-crazed campus, for example, ask if you’ll be able to find your own niche. This can be especially helpful if you talk with someone whose academic and career interests overlap with your own.

3. Don’t Let Your Parents Run the Show

Malia’s parents’ connections to Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton may influence her decision, but exploring some college campuses without them helps Malia form her own impressions. Yes, we realize that the times when the First Lady didn’t accompany Malia probably were due to practical scheduling conflicts more than any thing else, and that President Obama’s security entourage likely would have distracted from a tour. But even if your ordinary parents do accompany you on college tours, suggest that they keep their opinions to themselves until you’ve had time to reach your own. Split up after the campus tour and walk around stag for a while. You should listen to your parents’ two cents—especially when it comes to financing college—but make sure you’re picking the right school for you, too.

Want more advice on choosing a good college and paying for it? Check out the Money College Planner and its Find Your Fit tool, which lets you customize a college search based on what’s most important to you.

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