Michelle Obama's message for high school seniors fretting about their college prospects is simple.
Do your research. Visit college campuses. Sit in on classes. Talk to professors, graduates and students. In the end, picking a college "is a very individual decision."
The first lady could just as well have been talking to her older daughter, Malia, who is expected to head off to college next fall with the Class of 2020.
The 17-year-old is among U.S. high school seniors who are nervously taking standardized tests, completing college admissions applications, filling out financial aid forms and writing personal essays — all on deadline. Then they get to spend a few months waiting to find out if they got into their dream school.
Malia has some advantages, though. What school would turn away a president's daughter?
She also doesn't have to worry about how to pay for her college education, unlike many of the students President Barack Obama and his wife regularly encourage to pursue post-high school education.
Some of what's known about Malia's college search:
SCHOOLS ON HER LIST
Malia has visited at least a dozen public and private schools, mostly on the East Coast. Among them are six of the eight Ivies and a few with Obama family ties.
Dad is a 1983 graduate of Columbia. Mom graduated from Princeton in 1985. Malia's cousin, Leslie Robinson, is a sophomore forward on Princeton's women's basketball team. The president and first lady earned their law degrees at Harvard.
The other stops on her college tour: the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford; New York University; the University of Pennsylvania; Barnard; Tufts; Brown; Yale and Wesleyan.
HOW MUCH HER PARENTS WILL PAY
The bill for tuition (and fees, in some cases) alone at these universities costs between $40,000 and $50,000 for the current academic year. Tack on room and board, books, other fees and expenses, and the total tab for Malia's undergraduate degree could top one-quarter of a million dollars for the four years.
It shouldn't surprise her parents, though. They've paid hefty tuition bills for the past seven years to send Malia, and her younger sister, Sasha, 14, to the exclusive Sidwell Friends School. Tuition at the private school in Washington is $37,750 per student this year.
The Obamas planned ahead for their daughters' college educations. Like millions of families, the Obamas have been investing money in 529 college savings plans (which are named after a section in federal tax law). The couple has four of the tax-free savings accounts, each valued at between $50,000 and $100,000, according to the president's financial disclosure forms.
HOW IS MALIA PREPARING?
Mrs. Obama has said Malia wants to be a filmmaker, and NYU has the respected Tisch School of the Arts, which counts directors Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee among its alumni.
Malia spent last summer in New York City interning on the set of HBO's "Girls," the raunchy comedy-drama starring Lena Dunham. She decamped to California in the summer of 2014 to work as a production assistant on "Extant," a CBS sci-fi drama featuring Halle Berry.
Mrs. Obama recently disclosed that Malia has also done several internships at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington.
Malia's travels across the U.S. and around the world with her parents could inform her personal essays. Malia (and her sister) have visited Europe, Africa and Asia. They've met two popes, Queen Elizabeth and American civil rights leaders during this year's 50th anniversary commemoration in Selma, Alabama.
DAD IS FREAKING OUT
Obama was in Malia's room the day she started her senior year of high school and says she told him it was probably the last time he'll ever send her off for a first day of school.
"I had to look away. I didn't want to just be such a crybaby," he said in September in Michigan while pushing for free community college. "It makes no sense. Michelle and I are way too young to have daughters who are both almost in college now. So as a parent, I was a little freaked out."
WHAT IS MOM DOING?
Through her "Reach Higher" initiative, Mrs. Obama encourages students to attend college or technical school after high school. During a panel discussion in September at Howard County Community College near Baltimore, students sought her advice on everything from how to figure out which school is best for them to what tips she's giving her daughters.
"We are talking about this in my household every night, every night. And there's really no magic formula," the first lady said. "It is a very individual decision."