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Decisions, Decisions, Decisions...


For high school seniors, this is the time of year when all the hard work of applying to college is a not-so-distant memory, and the joyful task du jour is deciding among college offers. One of our students, Jason, contacted us this week with an enviable problem: how to pick among the multiple schools that have invited him to study on their campuses. With 12 acceptances under his belt, Jason was feeling a little overwhelmed and asked us for help in making a decision. Although he is reaching the final stretch of the application process, we suggested that he think back to the very beginning. In order to narrow down their lists, students in the decision-making phase of the college admissions process need to re-think the core issues that helped them assemble a college list in the first place. They should again visit their needs and preferences in the following areas:

  1. Majors/Programs – While all the schools should have majors or minors in the areas your student is interested in exploring, each school will offer different courses, major requirements, programs, and opportunities. Which does your child find most exciting?

  2. Other Requirements - Colleges have different general education requirements or, in some cases, none at all. Which schools’ requirements does your student find most appealing?

  3. School size – As class size is associated with school size, does your son or daughter learn best in a small, intimate classroom or does he prefer a more populous, anonymous setting? Whatever the answer, which of the college choices are a match?

  4. Social and recreational activities – Which schools offer the outside-of-class activities that most interest your student? Consider fraternities/sororities, clubs, party scene, sports, etc.

  5. Location - Where does your child want to live? Consider region, weather, urban/suburban/rural preferences, proximity to home, etc. Which of the choices are a good match?

Addressing these issues will help students winnow down their lists to include only the best of their best-fit schools. Now, with a smaller group of schools, they will want to hone in on two more factors, cost and feel, to help lead them to a final decision. Each school will offer your student a different financial package based on need-based and/or merit-based aid. These packages often mean that what it will cost your child to attend will differ greatly from both the “sticker price” and what it will cost another student to attend. In assessing these offers, think about what makes the most financial sense for both the student and the family. Consider:

  • What it will cost your student to attend. Make sure to factor in each school’s 4-year graduation rate and how the cost will vary if the student needs more than 4 years to finish

  • How costs will impact the family while the student is in college

  • How the aid is structured in terms of grant and scholarships versus loans or work-study

  • How much debt the student or family will ultimately be taking on, when they need to begin to repay it, and how long it will take to repay

  • How repaying that debt is likely to impact the lives of the student or family in the future

Once your student has noodled her way through the facts, it’s time to address the intangible. While they often can’t say why, students frequently know they’re on the right campus the second they set foot on it. Read our article on Peeling the College Onion for tips on how to make the most of a college visit. Remember, students should not be looking for a perfect school; rather, there are multiple colleges that will be a good fit for each individual, although each will have its own unique charms. Just as a vacation in Hawaii is undeniably different than a vacation in New York, both can be equally wonderful experiences.


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