Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

How to REALLY Decide on a College

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” – William Shakespeare.

laptopyoungredheadYour high school senior will be receiving responses from his or her prospective colleges by mid-March (or the first of April) and the universal enrollment deadline is the first of May. After all the agony of completing applications and essays, and the excruciating anxiety of waiting, now the ball is in your family’s court at last. Spring of senior year carries a different kind of angst. How to decide? Here are three principles to keep in mind when making that final decision:

asianpencillaptop1. There is no “perfect” decision; compromise is part of life. There may have been a time, earlier in your son or daughter’s senior year, when he or she thought, “There is only ONE college for me!” Perhaps this all-or-nothing ideal has already faded, especially if your student was denied or deferred at an early notification school or placed on a waiting list at a Regular Decision “dream school.” Or there was not enough money to afford the “dream school” without huge debt and the “starry-eyed” beginning of the college process had to be balanced with pragmatism. It is actually a good thing that this painful process has led to your teen’s enhanced maturity, realism, and wisdom.

boygirldanceCompromise is part of good decision-making. Generally we cannot have everything we originally wanted, but that does not mean we can’t have anything. Hopefully, we can be resilient enough to de-invest in the original choice, process the disappointment, and redirect our energies toward another worthy option. For example, just because the most beautiful girl in the senior class has turned you down for the prom does not mean you cannot persuade another desirable girl to go with you. Who knows, you may actually have more fun with that girl, if you approach the situation with openness, flexibility and enthusiasm. This simple metaphor applies to getting into college, finding a job, a spouse, and many future life choices. Hopefully, it is a life lesson you have successfully learned as a parent, and you will be able to guide your child in learning it.

campusgirlonstairs2. The “wow” factor is something worth considering, but not everythingIt is nice for the chosen college to offer an excitement factor that gives your student a feeling that this long struggle has had a rewarding outcome. It is desirable for your son or daughter to have a gut feeling that he or she can be happy at this school, driven by perceived “fit” from college visits. Other appealing features,  such as campus location or academic prestige, can have their place in the equation (we’re all human, after all), as long as they do not become more salient than the student’s authentic belief that he or she will be happy and successful at the school.

redsportscarJust like any big-ticket, complex purchase, however, the buyer needs to look beyond that overall good feeling. To use an obvious metaphor: When buying a car, you may want a “wow” factor, such as snazzy styling, speed, or classic luxury. A car is more than transportation; nobody wants a boring, ho-hum automobile with no excitement. You must pay attention to a full range of attributes, however. Can you afford it? Does it offer the practical features you need, such as: four-wheel drive if you live in a snowy, mountainous area; high safety ratings for a first-time driver; large trunk for family travel; or economical gas mileage if you have a long commute?

Piggy bank with a graduation cap with dollar bill

You and your student certainly need to look beyond the “wow” factor for college. Affordability (now that financial packages are in) and other dimensions need to be analyzed now, with a much sharper pencil. You may be comparing two or more schools;  the one with the slightly higher “wow” factor may lose out once you have compared all practical factors in this complex decision. Some parents shield their children from practical considerations early in the college process; however, high school students are quickly becoming young adults (who will have to repay debt on college loans). It is to students’ advantage to be brought into all aspects of their college education as soon as possible. If your adolescent has been insulated from monetary realities that now need to be revealed, you may be in the “dream stealer” position, avoidable only if expectations were managed all along.

chooseBelow is a checklist of key factors to be considered, most of which you have examined before. They must be revisited again, however, because your son or daughter has evolved and priorities may have shifted. Your family’s situation may have changed. It is always a moving target.

Affordability: The family financial situation, availability of need-based aid or merit scholarships, and estimated future debt under each school alternative will likely have a significant impact on the final decision.

stadiumsilhouettecheeerPublic or private university, or liberal arts college: Visits may have shifted your student’s preferences. Acceptance to, or rejection from, a program within the institution (such as honors college or business program) may render that school more or less attractive. See my post, Public vs. Private Universities or Liberal Arts Colleges.

Academic program: The student’s likely major, changing academic interests, or learning more about one’s aptitude through high school courses may affect choice of institution. Especially if a student’s field of study choices are in flux, one may be attracted to a school with program flexibility to accommodate further mind-changing.

youngfootballExtracurricular activities: The student’s changing priorities may dictate college choice. If an athlete started the college process hoping to play varsity sports or a talented singer originally sought acceptance in an audition-based fine arts program, but discovered that such tracks were too competitive, or the accompanying lifestyle unsustainable, that student may dial back the activity to an intramural, hobby, or elective status. Such a shift would definitely influence the choice of institution.

Size and student-faculty ratio: Campus visits may have shifted your student’s preferences. Perhaps a student might find that an intimate school community just feels “too small,” or, after sitting in some classes, one might be pleasantly surprised that a small school offers a more friendly, personal atmosphere than a larger school.

campushappyUrban, suburban or rural setting: Visits may have changed your student’s perspective. The idea of attending a big city school may have initially sounded attractive, but after an overnight visit your student might not feel comfortable with the anonymity of an urban, high rise dorm. In contrast, a student who has grown up in a sophisticated urban or suburban community may feel isolated on a rural campus miles from nowhere.

Physical campus: Campus tours may have shifted your teen’s preferences. Perhaps the student who did not initially place a priority on a traditional campus might feel no sense of “center” on an urban campus with no green or place to naturally encounter one’s classmates.

campuskidsstudySocial atmosphere: Visits may have influenced your student’s preferences. After spending a day shadowing a current undergraduate or doing an overnight stay, a student may find that there is too much of a party focus, or that the students are too nerdy, competitive, or intense. Even just observing students on campus might change a prospective student’s mind, if the impression is: “too preppy,” “too hipster,” “too techie,” “too many body piercings,” “too Animal House,” “not diverse enough,” “too Greek,” “too quirky,” “not intellectual enough,” “too pre-professional,” “too much like my high school,” or whatever does not feel comfortable for that student. The student needs to be able to picture oneself fitting into this social environment, making friends, and thriving for four years.

harvardsnowGeographic region, climate/weather: College trips may have changed your teen’s mind, especially at different times of year. Upstate New York or New England are beautiful in the summer, but a college trip in the middle of winter might change a student’s mind, especially if one suffers from seasonal affective disorder. See my post, Weather and College Choice.

Distance from home: Now your student needs to get in touch with his or her “real” tolerance for distance. Is it really okay to have to get into an airplane every time one wants to come home for the weekend? Can your family afford the transportation costs, or the time off from work to rent a U-Haul and drive for several days at the beginning and end of each semester? Since most freshmen are not allowed cars, will you be able to drive several hours up and back to drop off and pick up your student several times a semester?

guidancemanwithgirlSupport services: If your student has physical, learning, or emotional challenges, or any kind of medical or health issues, the college decision becomes even trickier. Does the prospective school offer not only appropriate structured programs, but a supportive atmosphere that cares about the individual (vs. one-size-fits-all support)?  Is the student atmosphere tolerant, friendly, and helpful? Your student’s challenges may require attending a college near home for medical or mental health treatment, or you may need to engage a doctor, counselor or special needs tutor associated with the university or nearby. Remember, the goal is not only to be admitted to a college, the goal is to succeed at college.

fathertoughwithson3. This is not the only important decision your adolescent will ever make. The college choice is the first of many major, multi-factor, life decisions your son or daughter will make in the future; decision-making is a “lifetime sport.” The beauty of this situation is that you are sharing the decision, providing guidance and role modeling, and you clearly have major skin in the game. Since you are most likely financing college, this decision will not be entirely left up to your child, no matter how autonomous, mature, or determined he or she may be. From my perspective, it should not be totally up to your student, who is, after all, only seventeen, and the brain’s executive planning function (frontal lobe) is not mature until one’s mid-twenties. Your son or daughter should have significant input, but I feel it needs to be a collaborative decision, leveraging the parents’ wisdom and experience.

motherdaughterorigamiThis decision should be a participative learning experience, in my view, that will set the stage for your adult child’s optimal, independent decisions in the future. When your student chooses internships, a job, a place to live, graduate school, and other multi-faceted decisions in the next few years, he or she will have a valuable template upon which to draw. Your son or daughter will have a sense of how to attack the puzzle. Choosing one’s college, with parental support and role modeling, is one of the initiating “rites of passage” to adulthood!