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Articles / Applying to College / How to Pick Which College to Attend When You Have Multiple Options

How to Pick Which College to Attend When You Have Multiple Options

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | March 13, 2020
How to Pick Which College to Attend When You Have Multiple Options


It's approaching the middle of March, and all those Regular Decision admission decisions are looming. Some have already been issued, but the majority will be streaming out over the internet or even through the old-fashioned United States Postal Service. I've been through this many times. Thinking back across how many times, I come to realize that I have been experiencing sympathetic decision emotions with counseling clients since 1988.

This will be my 32nd March Madness season. I'm not talking about the NCAA basketball tournament ("The Dance"). I'm talking about going through the heights and depths of a hard-fought college admissions season with high school seniors and sometimes college seniors looking for success in graduate or professional schools. It's an emotional roller coaster that can cause all kinds of anxieties, disappointments and euphorias.

A Win-Win-Win Situation

Let's take the sunny side of the street and talk about some of those euphorias. Even euphorias, though, can be fraught with complexities. For example, take the seemingly win-win-win situation of receiving acceptances from far more colleges than you expected. Your plan may have been to take advantage of the Common Application's capability to apply to a large number of schools, in hopes of scoring with just one or two that you really like.

What to do. then? if you strike it rich and score with the majority -- or even all -- of the schools to which you applied. That's a dream outcome, right? Well, maybe somewhere between a dream and a nightmare. Let me explain.

Okay, say that you have applied to at least a half-dozen schools. If you're a savvy applicant, you have spread the hoped-for wealth of your possibilities across the "Reach-Ballpark (sometimes referred to as Target)-Safety" spectrum. Of course, I realize that many seniors these days are hardly satisfied with, or feel secure about, applying to only six or so colleges.

I've worked with and heard of many seniors who have applied to 10, 15 even 20 (!) colleges, exploiting the Common Application to the max. While I may see 10 applications as reasonable, to me, 15 or 20 applications is excessive. In my professional opinion, applying to 15 to 20 schools represents both a lack of specificity about what one wants in a college as well as a kind of desperate shotgunning of admission chances. Other than the time, effort and expense required for so many applications, I don't think a young person (or his/her family) is ready to deal with the possible outcomes of that many applications.

Thus, the point of my post today: How to handle an abundance of good news.

What if you aren't quite as manic as those who have submitted applications to a "teen" number of schools (13, 15, 17, etc.). We'll assume that you have done diligent research and considered as many personal and family circumstances as possible before your final group of applications went in. By "circumstances," I mean your own criteria for selecting a college (location, size, weather, available majors, etc.) as well as your family's financial position -- going through the NPC (Net Price Calculator) process and having an honest discussion about affordability. There may also be other considerations, but these are the fundamentals.

So, your carefully considered list of schools generated all those applications. You chose not to limit yourself by applying Early Decision since ED is a binding contract whereby you pledge to attend if accepted. Maybe you applied Early Action, which is a more forgiving type of first-choice option, allowing you to get good news before Christmas but not requiring your commitment before May 1.

You may have already received an EA acceptance (or two, if you didn't apply SCEA (Single Choice Early Action, which is a kind of hybrid that falls somewhere between ED and general EA), so you're assured of at least one place to go this fall, assuming that financial aid works for you and your parents. You also may have gotten some good news from a safety school or two through their rolling admissions protocol. If some or all of the above is true, congratulations! You're in a cool driver's seat right now.

More Good News on the Way?

However, chances are that the applications you're most eagerly anticipating are still out there, waiting to be resolved. There's a possibility that more than one of those key schools will be sending you good news. If so, what then?

I call this "an embarrassment of riches." Look at you! You're sitting there, after the admissions dust has settled, with a pile of good-news mail, both paper and electronic. You even may have received a T-shirt or two or other school-related gear, tempting you to enroll. What's a lucky senior to do?

Here's a question I receive now and then this time of year from puzzled parents:

"My daughter was accepted to two colleges that she really likes. The colleges have told us that we must submit our deposit by May 1. Since we may not be completely sure by then, can we just submit two deposits so that we have more time to make a decision?"

On the surface, this sounds reasonable, but there are problems with this approach. I know that it can be difficult to make the important decision about where to go to college, but accepted applicants should only submit a deposit to one school. An enrollment deposit is a kind of informal contract that implies a commitment to attend. Sending two deposits is not only unethical but also could jeopardize an acceptance if a school discovers the double deposit. It has happened before. The May 1 deadline allows students ample time to research their acceptances. Extra weeks won't make the decision-making process any easier.

Another important no-no associated with double-depositing is that it takes a slot away from some other deserving applicant who may be hanging by a thread on a waitlist. Hedging your bet by trying to cover all possibilities just isn't the right thing to do. For more details about the ethical side of applications, check out this College Board article.

Use These Tips When Deciding

Consider the following four ways to resolve your multiple-acceptance conundrum:

1. Visit (Or Revisit) Those Schools Again, if Possible

If you haven't already done so, try to visit the colleges you're considering. If you do, talk to current students. If you don't know anyone at those schools, call the admissions offices and ask to arrange a meet-up with some students. You also may be able to connect with young alumni that live near you to discuss the school in question.

2. Make Sure You're Set with Financial Aid

If you're waiting on financial aid awards to make your decision, don't hesitate to contact the financial aid offices. Confirm that your aid applications are complete. If they are waiting on additional documentation, make sure to get it to them immediately. If you're trying to appeal for more aid, evaluate the colleges on other factors so that once you get the final aid award(s), your choice will be clear. Don't hesitate to tell the admissions offices that you're deciding among schools and that finances will likely be the deciding factor.

3. Think More Deeply about Your Indecision

You need to ask yourself why this decision is so difficult. Are you confused about academic programs? Is distance playing a major role? Is "brand" (prestige) driving your decision? Make a list of pros and cons and see which college comes out on top. Think long term about what you want to do after college. If you're contemplating a graduate program, does one or the other college have a greater success rate for grads? Try to learn about the various cultures of the schools to see where you might be a better fit (campus newspapers are helpful here). Are there specific opportunities, academic or extracurricular, present at one school and not the others?

4. Accepting an Offer from a Waitlist

The only situation where you would eventually withdraw an enrollment decision would be if you're accepted off a waitlist. When you receive an acceptance from a waitlist, you must contact the school where you submitted your deposit May 1 or earlier and inform admissions that you are withdrawing your enrollment. You will most likely lose your deposit.

Parents, keep in mind that while you will likely have the final say in matters of affordability, your son or daughter should be the expert on college considerations. They will be spending those undergraduate years on campus, not you. Thus, don't fall into the trap of trying to influence an enrollment decision based on some vicarious motivation or other personal prejudice.

Whatever the situation turns out to be, I wish every senior good news over the coming weeks. If you find yourself with too many great choices, keep in mind the information above. Here's to success and the perfect decision!

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. 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.

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