College & Workforce Readiness

Decisions, Decisions...How To Weigh College Offers

By Caralee J. Adams — March 28, 2011 3 min read
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This time of year many high school seniors are getting the long-awaited word from colleges about whether their application rose to the top of the pile or not. Applying to multiple schools may have seemed like a good idea a few months ago, but now the result may be multiple offers.

How to decide?

Step back and take a deep breath. Students generally have until May 1 to make a commitment and they should take their time to make a thoughtful decision, says Bill McClintick, director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Penn. “Unfortunately, many students make knee-jerk decisions and that’s why there are so many transfers and so many problems getting out in a timely manner,” said McClintick, past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

Don’t get caught up in automatically accepting an offer from the most prestigious school. Students should be sure the college is the right fit for their undergraduate experience. They can always circle back to those name-brand institutions for grad school.

Take a second look. “Going for another visit is a very valuable thing to do,” said James Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. “Now, the student is actually making a choice and they may see the place differently.”

Also, they may have first visited in the dead of summer and getting a feel for a campus at full tilt in the spring may help with the decision. I’ve written about what to look for during the first visit to campus (see post), but this time don’t just go on a tour. Students interested in science should sit in on a class or talk with a professor in the science department. Athletes should meet with coaches. Theater buffs go to a student production. Check out the housing options and social scene. Ask about special freshman experience programs with resources, activities and supports for new students. For a real window into college life, stay in a dorm overnight, suggests McClintick.

Many campuses offer yield days in April for incoming freshman to meet fellow classmates. MClintick cautions against the “dog-and-pony show” and instead suggests students schedule a more personalized visit to zero in on learning more about what interests them about school.

(Your travel budget feeling tapped out after a year of college trips? Amtrak offers a campus visit discount program: Buy one ticket and get the second for half price. Click here for details.)

Make a pro and con list. Students should think about why the schools were on their lists in the first place and consider if that criteria is still important, suggests Don Fraser, director of education and training for NACAC. Students may not know exactly what they want to study, but they know their strengths and should check to see which schools cater to those. They also know if they don’t mind being anonymous in a large lecture hall or want a smaller campus setting. Write down the pluses and minuses for each school to see what rises to the top.

Plug into the social network. Many colleges let newly accepted students join a student page on Facebook to connect with other incoming students in the online buzz, said Fraser. This is a chance for students to get a window in the potential freshman class.

Inquire about financial aid. Since the letters don’t come in a uniform format, it can be hard to compare offers. If a student is really interested in a certain school, but it’s not affordable, ask about additional financial aid. A college may come up with more money if they don’t want to lose a qualified student. But experts say most colleges don’t want to get into a bargaining game and lean times at state institutions mean there is not likely additional dollars to be had. If money is a deciding factor for a family, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Tap into parental wisdom. I’ve written about how the search should be student driven (see post), but how much should parents weigh in on the final decision? Students are the ones who have to live with it, said Jump. On a cold day during the freshman year, if a student questions how he or she ended up on a certain campus, it should be because the student chose it. Still, parents have wisdom and experience to share. The best approach is for parents to be the “askers of questions rather than the provider of answers” to get students to articulate their feelings, suggested Jump.

Making a decision generally means sending in a nonrefundable check for $500. If you change your mind, not only do you lose your deposit, but your financial aid offer may dwindle and there may be no housing availability, cautions Fraser. So, take the full month to weigh the options so when you make that final decision you can feel confident you’ve made the best choice.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.