So, you’re down to the wire on making your final college decision. Time to make some tough choices. But first, congratulations are in order. No matter where you’re coming from or where you’re going, it took a ton of work to get here. Congrats too on having multiple offers of admission to consider—although if you’re still unsure of what college to choose at this point, you may not be feeling so lucky. Don’t worry. You’re going to figure this out, make that final college decision, and have a great time next year. These five steps will help.
1. Take an inventory
Now is the time to rehash what you know and like about your final college contenders. A pros and cons list might come in handy at this stage, but as you compare one school to another, you might find it’s a little more complex than that.
Revisit your college research and all of the criteria you used to find colleges in the first place, such as:
- Academic offerings and reputation: Does the college have the major(s) you want or need? And do you have backup options in case you change your mind?
- Postgrad job placement rates: Though these aren't a guaranteed mark of student success, you should be wary if a college has a low job placement rate. You can also probably take some comfort in a high rate, especially if the school confirms that the jobs are related to students' fields of study.
- Financial aid package and comprehensive cost: The total cost to you and your family will make a big difference on where you decide to go to college. That's why we cover it in detail below in tip #4...
- Professor accessibility: What's the student-faculty ratio like for the school and for your major specifically? What kind of reputation do the professors have?
- Campus vibe and student life: What do students do on the weekends? What reputation do they have overall?
- Extracurriculars that match your interests: Does the college offer at least one of your favorite extracurriculars and things you want to try?
- Experiential learning opportunities: Can you get internships, co-ops, or other extracurricular experience related to your potential major/career?
- The campus town and surrounding areas: How close is the nearest town and what kinds of amenities does it have?
- Plus anything else that’s important to you: Whether you can't live without a place to go hiking or you want Greek life to have a big presence on campus or you just hate snow—if it's important to you, it's important enough. And you should at least consider it in making your final college decision.
You don’t need to completely redo your college research; just make a hit list of important facts for each category you can use to jog your memory and compare between schools. Do they still meet your expectations in these areas? How do they rank next to each other? Do they have everything you want and need?
We’re not saying you should make an insanely anal-retentive super-spreadsheet with an assigned point system for your criteria or anything...but we aren’t saying you shouldn’t either.
2. Go back to campus
Refresh your memory and give yourself a chance to experience the campus as “one of them” by revisiting your schools, if at all possible.
Your colleges will likely have special visit days for accepted students in the spring and summer, welcoming you with open arms, special events, and extra swag. This is certainly a fine time to visit, but there is also something to be said for the informal campus visit, where it’s less about the school’s highlights and more about what life there is really like. Try to talk to students and professors (again) if you can to get the inside scoop.
What’s that you say? You never visited one of your final college contenders in the first place? If at all possible, get yourself there ASAP! If you can’t afford to visit campus, try asking the admission office if they can subsidize all or part of your trip. If you really can’t visit in person, try to get a sense of the campus through a virtual visit and by scoping out all of the enrolled student reviews and message boards that you can. Just remember, attending a college you haven’t visited is like getting married after a blind date!
In any case, pay close attention to how you feel when you’re on campus. Speaking of which...
3. Get all touchy-feely
We’re not talking about trust falls and Nicholas Sparks novels here, but you do want to be at least somewhat in touch with your feelings. Have you really taken the time to listen to your gut? To imagine yourself at each school? To feel your feels?! Find some quiet time in a quiet place and just think about the choice ahead of you. No distractions. Maybe even close your eyes. Get your meditation on.
Similarly, Kevin McMullin at Collegewise says his college counseling students often find clarity in their college decision by facing the things they’re “not talking about.” “The answer might be obvious to you. Maybe you already know the part of the decision that you’re not talking about because you think it’s embarrassing, or you’re worried people you share it with won’t understand,” he writes in his blog, citing fears like missing home, not making friends, or disappointing your parents. “Just identifying and acknowledging that part you’re not talking about can be a relief.” He recommends talking about your concerns with your family, or if you’re not comfortable doing so, writing about these issues as a cathartic exercise. It’s really about facing your fears, a tough but necessary part of growing as a person.
4. Figure out finances
All throughout the college search, we’ve said, Ignore the “sticker price.” Just find colleges that fit. Worry about financial aid later when you have your award letters in hand and can make an informed decision...
Well, at this point, you should have those letters, and later is now.
Financial aid (or lack thereof) can often muddy the waters of your college decision. For example, what if you got into your first-choice school, but your second choice offered a better financial aid package? Certainly it all depends on how much money we’re talking about, but you still need to weigh your options carefully.
You should have a crystal clear picture of what it will cost to attend each school you’re considering, including all living expenses, textbooks, transportation, incidentals, etc. You should know exactly what your financial aid award letters entail and compare them all. Keep in mind that they can be tricky to decipher—and sometimes less than transparent (yikes). Check them twice, go over them with your parents, and don’t be afraid to contact the financial aid offices at your schools with any questions you might have. Once you know what you’re up against in terms of cost, you can realistically factor it in against your other criteria and make that informed, if still difficult, decision at last.
If you haven't already, you should also look at the school's average student debt and on-time graduation rates, because these can also indicate the overall value and potential cost of attending the school. (Even though you'll ultimately be in charge of when you graduate and whether or not you take out student loans, a low on-time graduate rate and high student debt are usually red flags when choosing a college.)
Now, when all is said and done, if you find your heart is still set on a particular college that is more expensive than your other options, you and your family may decide it’s worth the extra cost. And as long as you’re not saddling your future self with unreasonable debt (your future self will hate you for that), that’s perfectly okay. This is your college education, not bargain-basement shopping. But you can also try asking the college for more money, supporting your request with your latest grades and any recent accomplishments, and reiterating your great interest in attending the school. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get more money—and if you do, it may not be a lot—but it never hurts to try.
5. Remember the worst-case scenario
Barring any ridiculous, unforeseen circumstances (like, I dunno, a bear breaking into your dorm and terrorizing you and your roommate), pretty much the worst thing that could happen following your college decision is that you have to leave your school. And we know that sounds bad, but you can definitely survive it. Lots of students do.
If you end up on campus and realize things aren’t working out—whether it’s because you can’t make your tuition payment or you’re just not happy—you can always figure out a Plan B, like transferring and/or taking time off to save money. You could also defer your offer of admission and take a gap year. It may not be easy or go exactly as you planned, but it happens all the time, and it’s often for the best.
Remember that this is—and truly must be—your decision. Your family has a stake in your college education, especially if they’re footing the bill, but you’re the one who will be shaped by your college experience for the rest of your life. You owe it to yourself to be thoughtful and prudent in your choice.
Best of luck.