When I was deciding where to attend college in 1976, it came down to Yale or Smith; I’d been waitlisted at Harvard—and since that was the last news I got, I was a bit mopey—and I had other choices, but it was really a decision between two very different types of communities.
I hope you were admitted to your top choices. And I hope you have options that include the scholarships you need. Maybe the list feels imperfect. Maybe you have a couple of painful rejections and dubious wait lists. You should still choose one of them.
[Search for scholarships to fund your college education.]
Even in the shifting landscape of higher education, and even though you will have to keep learning after college, attending (and completing) college is still your most likely path to financial success in adult life, since college graduates, on average, earn more than $1.4 million more over their lifetimes than people who only graduate high school.
How do you sort through your offers and make the right decision for you and your family? Try these five steps to help you decide which college is right for you:
1. Consider all of your choices
Consider the strengths of all of your choices, not just your favorites. Also, be honest about any deal-breakers at those places. Revisit as many of the colleges as possible. While you are there, talk to current students and schedule a 1-on-1 meeting with an admissions officer if you can.
2. Be real about money
Consider how much money you were offered in grants, scholarships, and financial aid at each college you were accepted. If you or your family will need to take out loans in order to finance your college education, calculate how much debt you would have after four years based on your awards at each school. Before you make a final decision, communicate and negotiate with the places you were admitted to make sure you have received the best offers you can. If your second choice offered you a lot more scholarship money than your first choice, reach out to the Financial Aid office at your first choice and ask if they can kick in some more.
[Get the facts on making a financial aid appeal.]
3. Ask tough questions
Reach out to admission officers and current students, especially if you return to schools for a follow-up visit. Don’t just ask what they like most about the school, who throws the best parties, and what’s the most popular Greek organization on campus. Ask the tough questions:
- What is the learning community like—small classes or big lectures? Interdisciplinary programs? Study abroad?
- How are the academic and counseling services? What about tutoring, career coaching, and other services?
- What was their transition like during freshman fall?
- What is diversity really like at their school?
- What is the community like on and off campus?
- How involved are the school’s alumni?
4. Honestly evaluate any weaknesses
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, for each college that remains ask yourself: are you ready to succeed there? If not, identify what else you need to succeed. Summer classes? Help planning your schedule? Tutoring services? A current student mentor? A crash course from mom or dad in cooking, doing laundry, and budgeting? Whatever you’re afraid of, ask about it. Honestly evaluate any areas you need extra help or guidance, and use your resources to address your concerns. If a college has admitted you, they want you to succeed there—but at most places, help won’t seek you out; you will have to take charge.
[Read our four-part blog series on healthy eating and special diets in college.]
5. Make a choice and make the most of it
Making choices feels expansive. Each choice opens up space for other choices. So make a choice and enjoy it! Buy the sweatshirt. Join your class group on Facebook and connect with other students who will be your classmates in the fall. This is your new community. Imagine yourself there and research courses, activities, clubs and organizations, and places to hangout—so you are prepared to hit the ground running when you arrive in the fall.
[One student’s story about staying safe in college.]
Remember the most important thing is what you do once you get to college: how you challenge yourself, what new opportunities you take on, what difference you make in the lives of others. So, all things being equal, choose the place where you feel you’ll have the most opportunity to make a difference. And then go forth and make that difference!
Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO of Story2 and author of Write Out Loud, has empowered 15,000 students around the world—from first-generation college students to the children of bankers and CEOs—to tell their stories out loud and write essays that win admission and scholarships at selective colleges. Have questions about storytelling, college admissions, and life choices? Ask her anything on Twitter @carolbarash.
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