How to Choose the Right College in Only Thirty Days

The clock is ticking: you have one month to decide which college you will attend. How do you make this huge decision? Expert Katherine Cohen identifies what you need to look out for in each and every offer of admission.

With an estimated 28 percent of students applying to seven or more colleges, chances are that come spring, a great many students will have more than one acceptance in hand and need to decide where to enroll.

More often than not, the anxiety of getting into college eventually gives way to the anxiety of choosing where to attend. If you’re weighing multiple offers of admission with differing financial aid packages, you may find it difficult to make an informed decision right away. You do have some time. Most admissions decisions are released in late March or early April, with the majority of enrollment deadlines on May 1. This gives admitted students one month, give or take, to decide where to attend. Use this time to consider which college makes the most sense for your academic, social, and financial goals.

You’re in — what’s next?

Sometimes the decision is obvious: You get into your first-choice school, which also gives you the best financial aid package — decision made. For many students, however, the decision isn’t so straightforward. You may have had an internal ranking of schools that now needs to take into account other factors such as housing and — the big one — financial aid.

Understand Your Financial Aid

For many students and families, deciding where to enroll comes down to dollars and cents: How much will we spend, and will that sum be worth it? If you apply for financial aid, your financial aid packages will differ from school to school. One might give you a great package of scholarships and grants with minimal out-of-pocket expenses, while another might offer a package heavy on loans, leaving you with debt upon graduation.

Know what your packages contain and compare their differences among scholarships, loans, grants, and other forms of financial aid, such as work-study. If you have been offered a scholarship, does it require you to register for a certain number of course hours each semester? Do you have to maintain a certain GPA? Does your financial aid package cover you for all four years, or do you have to reapply each year? Does the package change after your first year? Thoroughly consider the different packages and how they will affect your overall financial investment.

One important thing to note is that you can sometimes negotiate for a better financial aid package. If you were offered a mediocre aid package at your first-choice college, and a better one at another school, let your first-choice college know that you would like to attend but have a better aid offer elsewhere. See if there is any room to get additional aid. Some schools state in the financial aid offer that the decision final and non-negotiable. Make sure you understand the school’s policy. If you’re unsure, ask!

If Possible, Attend Admitted Students Events

Whether it’s a weekend on campus or a local meet-and-greet, many colleges offer events for admitted students. These give you the opportunity to meet other admitted prospective students, current students, and alumni. They also afford you an opportunity to learn more about the college and if the event is on campus, to get a better sense of the school’s culture.

Sometimes feelings about a college can change after you have been admitted, so even if you’ve already visited, try to attend any on-campus events for admitted students. A fresh look at campus might help you make a more informed and confident decision about where to place your deposit — and where to invest the next four years.

Know Your Deadlines

Most colleges require admitted students to submit their enrollment deposits by May 1. Sometimes the deadline can be earlier or later, depending on the institution. Make sure you’re aware of these dates so that you can plan accordingly. You don’t want to lose your spot because of a mistake.

What About Waitlists?

Sometimes, instead of an acceptance or rejection, students can end up on the waitlist at their first-choice colleges. This can cause a great deal of anxiety and confusion, especially with enrollment deadlines looming. If you’re placed on the waitlist at your first-choice college, decide if you still want to enroll. This admissions outcome might have changed your feelings, and maybe after this development, it’s no longer your first choice. That’s OK! If that’s the case, write to the school to withdraw your name from the waitlist so you can free up that spot for another student..

If the school remains your first choice, let the school know. Tell the admissions office of your continued interest, and update the college on any accomplishments you have achieved since you submitted your application.

Next, understand that it’s rare for students to be accepted off the waitlist — and many don’t find out until later in the summer if they’re admitted or not. Assume that your first-choice school is out of the running — for now. Weigh your other options, and submit a deposit for your second-choice school. This should be a college that you’d also be happy to attend. (You should only apply to schools you would be happy attending.) Secure your spot so that, should you not get in off the waitlist at your first choice, you still have a great-fit school to attend in the fall. If you do ultimately get into your first-choice school, you can accept the offer of admission and politely decline at your next-choice school, though you will probably forfeit your initial deposit.

Submit Additional Materials

Just because you’re in and you’ve submitted your deposit doesn’t mean the work stops. Avoid senioritis, and keep your grades up through the end of the year. Your college will request a final transcript, so make sure you’ve gone through the proper steps to have a final grade report sent from your high school. Also be sure to send any other materials requested, such as housing forms and orientation registration paperwork. Every college has a different timeline for these additional materials, so make sure you know what you need to provide and when.

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