The ProcessThe tables have turned. You have spent years trying to figure out how to impress colleges, and now colleges will spend the next month trying to convince you to enroll. They will send you gifts and fancy pamphlets. They will call you and invite you to special programs.

You have until May 1st to decide, so how do you sort through all of the information you are receiving? How do you know that you are making the best final college choice?

The truth is that making your final college decision is not an exact science, and it is going to be a different process for every student, however below are a few questions every student should ask as they are comparing final college options.

1. Which college is the best fit for you academically?

Academics are the center of your college experience. For some students, academic “fit” is a particular major. For others, it is having adequate support systems (i.e. tutoring or academic advising). It is important to know what type of student you are to determine if a college is a good fit for you academically. Here are some specific questions to ask about the academic aspects of college:

  • What is the core curriculum of each school? Will you be required to take specific courses that you may struggle with (i.e. math or foreign language)?

  • Do you know what you want to major? If so, research that academic department. Read the faculty bios and look at the required courses. Are there opportunities to explore your major outside of the classroom (i.e. conduct research, internships, etc.)

  • If you don’t know what you want to major, determine how each college will help you make that decision. How much access will you have to an academic advisor? Will the career center help you explore different career options? Does the general curriculum allow you to take courses in multiple disciplines so you can nail down what academic subjects interest you?

  • What is the academic environment of each college? Are students competitive with each other or supportive? Are the classes large or mainly discussion based? Do professors meet with students outside of class?

Knowing what type of academic environment you need to be academically successful is an important consideration for your final college choice.

2. How do the colleges compare financially?

It is essential to understand all of your financial aid awards when making your final college choice. So what should you consider when comparing awards?

  • Determine your budget. Every financial aid award should give you an example student budget. The budget should include an amount for tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses, and travel/transportation. If this information is not in your financial aid award, contact the college and ask for it.

  • Once you determine your suggested budget, figure out if your needs will change aspects of the budget. For example, if are you looking at colleges out of state, your transportation budget might be higher (depending on how often you want to fly home). If you are looking at specific major that requires addition expenses, you need to take that into consideration. If you are thinking of living off-campus, your room and board and personal expenses may change.

  • Check on the details of each aspect of your financial aid award (grants, scholarships, loans, work-study, etc.). When do you have to pay back each loan? What is the interest rate? Is the scholarship just for the first year or for all four years? If the scholarship is renewable, what does the student need to do to keep it (usually it is maintaining a certain GPA)?

  • Make sure you understand the difference between taking out federal and private loans. If you need to take out private loans, do your research. Learn the true cost of student loans by using a loan calculator to determine how much your loan will be once you pay it off.

  • Determine the actual cost of each college. Create a spreadsheet or use an on-line tool to determine the final net price of each school.

Once you have the final cost in front of you, that may be the determining factor in your final decision. For other families, it is more complicated. More often than not, your “dream school” is going to cost more. It means student debt and financial strain for the parents. It is important to have an honest conversation about what debt will mean for the student and the entire family.

3. Which college is the best fit for your everyday life?

Remember you are not just visiting a college anymore, you are going to live there. You will eat, sleep and exist in an entirely new environment. Here are some important questions to ask you look to transition to this next phase of your life.

  • Consider location. How far away from home will you be? Will be it be a different environment than what you are used to (i.e. urban vs. rural)? Will it is important to step outside of your location comfort zone for the “right” college, you need to consider how location will change how you currently live.

  • Where will you feel at “home” at the college? Making sure a college feels comfortable is important. Can you continue habits you have already formed (i.e. exercising, hiking, etc.)? Are there clubs and organizations are offered that match your interest? Is there an opportunity (i.e. a church, non-profit organization, etc.) in the surrounding area that will help feel like a part of the community?

  • Are you too focused on the amenities? So many colleges are trying to emphasize extra services (i.e. room service and valet parking), but are these things going to help you be successful in college? Are they going to help you explore your intellectual interest or develop the skills you need to hold down a job?

  • Does the overall mission of the college a match to your personal goals? Is the school striving to teach “global citizens” or “critical thinkers”? If so, how have they integrated that mission into the curriculum and community? How does the mission of the college correspond with your goals for your future?

Making your final college choice can be stressful, but if you take the time to make sure all to find answers to all of your questions, you will be able to make a well-informed choice.