ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / Applying to College / Making Your College Choice

Making Your College Choice

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Feb. 6, 2020
Making Your College Choice

Michael Marsh/Unsplash

The remaining college admission decisions will be arriving in a month or so. I imagine that if a top school releases its acceptances earlier than competing colleges, that would be a significant psychological impetus for an applicant to enroll, since that acceptance would be his or her first.

You may know the old marketing saying: It's better to be first than it is to be better. Accordingly, if a college sends out its acceptances first, before other schools, that could very well appear also to be better in the eyes of eager applicants. However, most savvy seniors wait until they have all their acceptances before making an enrollment decision.

When it comes to college acceptances, can there be too much of a good thing? Sometimes. If you applied to college, you'll know soon who has accepted you (and, unfortunately, who hasn't). Some of you may even get into every school where you applied. If so, congratulations in advance!

However, having a pile of acceptance letters from schools you like can pose a problem. It's a happy problem, to be sure, but a difficult one, nonetheless.

Take Stock of Your Outcomes

Perhaps you'll gain admission to your clear first-choice college next month. Maybe, in your pile of acceptance letters, there will be one that suits you perfectly, making all the others unnecessary. If so, no problem.

What should you do, though, if you have three or four acceptances and none is a clear favorite? This happens more frequently than you might imagine. The solution to finding the right one lies in doing some careful evaluation while consulting with your family. If considerations such as location, student body size, program offerings and reputation are all about equal (and you detect no true preference stirring in your heart), then money has to be a major consideration. Financial aid awards arrive with acceptance letters (or at least they should). Examine them carefully. Ignore the "sticker price" of the schools for a moment and go straight to your bottom line.

Which school's offer puts the smallest drain on your family's finances? Is there a clear winner now? Also, don't forget to look very carefully at the student loans that are included in those packages. First-year financial aid packages tend to be the best that you'll see over the next four or five years, so try to do a projection to see what your total indebtedness might be at graduation. You certainly don't need $50-100K in loan debt at the end of your undergraduate degree program.

Again, if there's no other criterion for deciding, then money should be key. Don't forget that you can sometimes earn extra financial aid with just a phone call and some additional supporting documentation sent to the financial aid office that explains in greater detail your family's financial situation. After you have satisfied yourself that you have the best-possible package (among your other criteria), then decide.

Remember, too, that you can make a quick visit between your acceptance notification and May 1, the traditional enrollment response deadline. Visits can sometimes sway the undecided. Please keep your parents involved in your decision. They maintain a large stake in your college education. Although most parents respect their child's decision on college selection, they can also provide valuable perspective for that choice.

Juniors: Start the College Search With These Tips in Mind

What about juniors (or even sophomores) who are still in college-shopping mode? Which schools are on your list and how are you going about evaluating them? The search for the ideal school can be a real challenge. You may not think of yourself as a "consumer" about college matters. Perhaps to you, consumers are those people who buy laundry detergent and then give their opinions to telephone surveys. Higher education is definitely a "product" that you are "buying." Thus, you are a consumer who should also make careful choices.

When you ask yourself what you want from a college, don't be shy. What do you really want? Do you want a school that has a beautiful campus in a secluded part of the country, or one that's in the heart of a big city? Are the school's prestige and reputation important to you? Can you define what level of academics you prefer in your chosen area of concentration? How far from home do you want to be?

Will teaching assistants (TAs) who instruct some of your classes satisfy you or do you always want senior faculty teaching you? How about access to that faculty? Will your school have professors who are approachable in situations beyond office hours? How about student body size? How about the weather?

By Thanksgiving this year, you juniors should have quite a detailed summary of what you want from a college. Then it will be up to you to find the matches for your candidate list that will form the nucleus for your college search. Your research should come from guide books, campus visits and your own honest reactions.

Of course, don't forget internet search resources. A good place to start might be College Board's Big Future. If you can state what you really want from a college, you'll find that there are numerous candidates out there waiting for you.

Avoid These Mistakes

It's also possible to make mistakes when selecting a college. To be cautious, check out Fastweb's Top 15 Mistakes to Avoid in Choosing a College. Here's a half dozen from those 15:

1. Rushing the process. Finding the right college takes time and effort, not to mention research and an often lengthy application process. Waiting until the last minute or just "falling into a college" is never a good idea. It takes the most important factor out of the equation — you.

3. The legacy lure. We're aware the commandment states "Honor thy father and mother." However, only considering colleges your parents, siblings or other family members went to in order to follow in their footsteps may not be in your best interest. It's always better to explore your options and find the right fit for your personality.

5. You're a die-hard fan. We've all got our favorite teams, but let's remember that just because they have a great sports team does not mean it's the right educational fit for you. After all, you're there to learn, not cheer them on. You can be a fan anywhere, but you can't learn everywhere.

9. Location, location, location. Whether you're a homebody who wants to stay close or an escape artist who wants to get as far from home as possible, the location should be a factor in choosing a college, not the sole decision maker.

11. Not visiting. Experiences are relative and one person's dream college could be another's nightmare. This is why going by what you've been told is never a good idea. A person very different from you could have had a positive or negative experience that you likely would not have had. Also, only looking at the website or relying on a college's advertising is a mistake because they tend to idealize college life and students get unrealistic expectations of what campus is like. It's always better to visit and experience the college — or one very similar to it — for yourself.

13. Pushy parents. Letting your parents decide which college is right for you, or being forced by your parents to attend a certain school, is not healthy. You need to think about what you want out of a college. After all, you're the one attending the school.

Be sure to check all 15 and when your process is complete remember: No matter where you end up going to college, compliment yourself on a search, evaluation and choice well done!

Share Your Thoughts

We'd love to hear your take on how to choose the right school. Check out our forum to contribute to the conversation!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

More on Applying to College

See all
typing at computer- karolina-grabowska-6958506-resized

Authentic Voice in College Essays

That’s why you want to use your authentic voice when writing any college essay.

So what’s the problem? A student has shared an ess…


College Interview Prep Tips: Brainstorm, Research, Analyze, Generalize

I recently visited Washington University in Saint Louis and was lucky enough to set up an interview. By speaking with peers of mi…

campus gates

Academic Index Scores: Why They Matter and How They're Calculated

Note: Click here for 10 Summer Programs You Can Still Apply For or keep reading to learn more about academic index scores.

8 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

7 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

Podcasts can offer a wealth of information to busy students, particularly when it comes to the college admissions process. We…


Avoid College Application Regrets: Tips For Getting It Right the First Time

Decision Day occurs each year on May 1st and is the deadline for students to inform the college of their choice of their intent t…

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!
Find Your Scholarship

Want to find money for school that doesn’t need to be paid back? Access insights and advice on how to search and apply for scholarships!

Search for Scholarship