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