By the time March and April arrive, you're hopefully getting what you asked for -- multiple college admission letters. This is the ideal time to re-visit campuses (or visit them for the first time), and determine which college choices are best. May 1 is your deadline for deciding on a school and putting down a deposit, so use your remaining time wisely and productively.
Admissions decision: What works for you?
To choose between schools and the different environments they offer, consider some of your most fundamental needs:
- What type of setting is best suited for your success - small class settings or large lecture halls?
- Do you want a close-knit campus community?
- Are sports, Greek life, and tradition important to you?
- How far from home are you willing to be?
- What kind of housing options work for you: on- or off-campus; singles, doubles, or triples; or suite-style living in dorms?
Once you consider these needs, an admission decision should become slightly easier.
College acceptance: Talk it out
As you visit campuses, don't limit your questions to just the "official" people presenting at open houses, orientation sessions, or on campus tours. Try to stop random people on campus, in the dining halls, or hanging out in the student center. Ask them how they like their college experience, assess their level of happiness with the school, and see if they encourage you to enroll. Try to picture yourself at the college, and then determine if that picture seems right for you. If you're happy with the physical environment as well as the student body, you're more likely to be content with your college experience.
Remember that college acceptance is a two-way street. They've accepted you, but now you have to accept them, too.
Admissions decision: Get the inside scoop
See if you can find out about the professors and their reputations as well as their accessibility. It's important to know if they're the ones doing most of the teaching, or if they rely on graduate level teaching assistants to get the job done. You should also find out if the academic atmosphere is competitive. Stop by one or two departments in which you might be interested in majoring and try talking with faculty there. Discuss your academic background and interests, and get a feel for what it would be like to spend a lot of time in that department. If you're interested in doing research, find out if there are opportunities to get hands-on experience as an undergraduate. If it appears that you'll have good teachers you can connect with, your college experience will probably be a worthwhile one.
Admissions decision: Read between the lines
Look carefully at the program and course books from the colleges to see what core classes, distribution requirements, and other mandatory elements you need to complete in order to graduate. For example, most majors require that you take specific courses, but not all of them may require a senior thesis. Look at possible disciplines you might major in and get a sense of your first year of college academically. Decide if you can stay on the required path and if you're likely to graduate in four years in your chosen field of study.
You might also check out the freshman retention rate (the percentage of freshman returning for their second year) for each school - this information is usually available on college Web sites and in their guidebooks. A college admission letter may not mean much if three-quarters of the college's freshman are leaving.
College acceptance: Run the numbers
Compare the total cost of attendance at each school, and consider what you and your parents will actually pay in both out-of-pocket expenses as well as in future loans. If time allows, visit the financial aid office to discuss aid packages in depth. If financial stresses, work-study requirements, and the prospect of too much loan debt seem overwhelming, the college might not be the right one for you.
Since you have until May 1 to make an admissions decision, take your time evaluating your college acceptance choices. If you have only one college to choose from, make sure you are comfortable with it; if you're not, make your deposit but ask to defer your entrance for a year. That way, you can also pursue any waiting-list options you might have.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.