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College Decisions: How to Choose the Right School for You

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

Torn over which college to commit to? Maybe you're wondering if that prestigious college you got into is worth the expense, or perhaps you're still on the waitlist...everywhere. No matter where you are on the spectrum of college admissions decisions, choosing your next step is stressful. After all, this is one of your first big decisions as an adult. We've asked our college admissions experts Amanda Merrifield and Josefine Borrman, to share their advice on what students should consider before taking their next steps. Their answers may surprise you.

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Your College Decision Process

Step 1. Figure out what is important to you.

Amanda: It’s time to go back to the drawing board. Go back to square one and pretend you never even made a list of criteria. When you were a junior, or maybe a first-semester senior, you hopefully had some time to reflect on what would make a college a good fit. But you’ve changed. You’ve grown. You’ve discovered new interests.

Make three columns: 'Must Haves' / 'Should Haves' / 'Don’t Care.'

  • What criteria must your future college have?

  • On the other hand, what are some things you’d enjoy but could live without?

  • And what is stuff you don’t care about?

When you do this exercise, it’s helpful to have some guidance (sometimes I find myself just staring at a blank piece of paper, wondering what I ever longed for in life because that paper is just making me forget even my innermost desires). I recommend a tool like Corsava - it’s completely free. It spits out a bazillion criteria you may not even have thought of in the form of a card deck. It’s great for the visual learners among us: you get to throw the card out or keep it and rank it according to its importance to you. Think about aspects across many factors: social, academic, financial, sports, extracurriculars, philanthropy, religion, geography, special programs, study abroad, housing, campus culture, student body, etc. Josefine: Are you looking at a specific major? Take a look at every one of your colleges and what they offer within that major. Get in touch with that department. And tell them,

"Hey, I got in, and I'm going to decide which college to go to because I have some great options. And I'm really intrigued by yours. Can I meet with someone on Zoom to learn more about the major? Can I maybe talk to some current students and see what their experience has been?"

Another big thing is, you know, where do you want to live?

I mean, it's not just the university you'll be attending. It's also a place you'll be living. Do you want to be in Chicago, or do you want to be in Miami? If you're deciding between those two. The climate is very different. The cities are very different. Hopefully, you can afford to go visit them. And if not really again, try to get together somehow with other current students on Zoom. Try to get a sense of the place and understand the campus culture as well. Take out the selectivity aspect of your universities. Really think about the experience that you want to have in your next four years. And where you want your adventures to take you. Think about those goals and then see which school best unites the two. Sometimes it's hard to figure that out. I recommend making giant spreadsheets because I'm a list person. I love them.

Does that always answer all your questions? No, but it is a great visual way to lay it out. And so that's one of the things that I would do.

Step 2. Research. No, really: RESEARCH.

Amanda: Scour those websites. If you can’t find something (because, let’s be honest, was someone trying to build a maze when they designed their college’s website?!), just google it. Once you know what you want, find out who offers it to you in the way that most vibes with who you are. Sophisticated, I know. Just type in ‘University of Awesome Students Honors Program.’ Suddenly, you’ll find that the University of Awesome Students does indeed have three different honors programs - even though their website had refused to yield and show them to you.

Use the opportunities the universities extend to you. Attend ALL admitted student events (not just some). This has, funnily enough, actually become easier because of Covid. Now, you can hang out with current students on Zoom, attend panels, and meet with an advisor, all through your screen. Suppose you attend a university with outstanding opportunities on paper, but you feel intimidated, unwanted, and like you don’t fit in. Do you really think you’ll be able to actually take those opportunities? Of course, it’s not ideal, but it allows you to expose yourself to the people at the institution you’re considering. And, in the end, the people really count. Do you think you’ll have the guts to apply for that research position, to ask for a mentorship? If you don’t like people, you’ll feel intimidated, lonely, and depressed. And intimidated, lonely, and depressed students have a significantly harder time putting themselves out there to seize unique opportunities. Go where you feel energized and enthused, not small and unimportant if you want a shot at experience, connections, and personal growth.

Step 3. Visit.

Now that you know what you want and you’ve done your research, it’s time to go there (yes, even if you’ve been there before). Now, I don’t recommend visiting all colleges you’ve been accepted to; I don’t want you to spend all your tuition money before going off to college. But choose your top three, and go there. Yes, I know, it’s expensive. You might miss school. Is it really that important? Yes. 100%.

Most students who have come back to work with me on transfer applications were students who didn’t visit before committing or only visited once a long time ago. You are not just choosing a new school. You’re choosing a new life. This is a place you will live in for the next four years. It’s not just about going to class. It’s not just about getting a certain education. It’s not just about a brand name on your resume. This is where you will grow into adulthood, who you want to become. You gotta be comfortable. I cannot stress enough the value that a gut feeling brings. You either feel it, or you don’t. There’s really not much in between.

I just had a conversation with one of my seniors last night. She ended up adding a college to her list at the last moment (one I’d suggested months earlier, but she had thrown out). Last week, she visited it, along with four other colleges. Well, guess what? She fell in love and will be committing to said college this week. Now, we knew this college hit all of her 'Must Haves' and 'Should Haves' on paper - but so did all her other colleges. She originally threw it off her list because she felt she already had “too many reach schools” on her list. So, on paper, we both knew it was as great a fit as her other top choices. But when she visited, everything was transformed. She told me she knew she could just see herself there. None of the other universities gave her that sense of belonging, buzzing excitement.

Should students always choose Reach over Target colleges?

Josefine: It's easy when you get into all safeties or targets and only one reach to say, "I got to go to my reach, now I have to go because I got in." But just know that you don't have to. You should go to the university that is the best fit for you. Go to the university that will allow you to build a resume that will enable you to succeed in your future.

A brand name university might be able to give you, you know, maybe able to get you a foot in the door, might be able to contact you an interview. But does it help you seal the deal and get the job? No, that's what's actually on your resume. That's the practical experience you have gained. That's the research you've conducted that the works have published. So go to the university that really gives you access to the opportunities that you need access to.

So I think the most important part is to not focus on where they target or whether they are reach schools. It's really to take a look at,

"what do I like about these colleges? Why did they end up on my list in the first place? What makes those colleges a good fit for me?"

And reestablish what your good fit criteria are anyway.

The Pros and Cons of Reach vs. Target Colleges: Relative Deprivation Theory

The dangers of feeling like you are falling behind

Josefine: I had a student a few years ago who got into UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. That was when Berkeley was as selective as it is currently, and UC Santa Barbara was less selective than it is presently. And so she really loved Santa Barbara and thought it was a good fit for her, both the major and the campus culture, the sense of balance, the location, everything. But then she got into Berkeley, so she is like,

"I got to get to Berkeley. Like, how do I say no to Berkeley? Do I want to say no to that? Or do I just, you know, go and not have a life for the next four years? Because I don't think I'll have the balance I want it because I'll have to really throw me into my studies."

So she was really struggling with that decision because she felt like she was throwing an opportunity out the window to take a less prestigious opportunity. After going back and forth, she decided to go to UC Santa Barbara, which I really think was an excellent choice for her.

So one of the things I love doing with my students is introducing them to the idea of relative deprivation theory.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent book called David and Goliath. He talked about relative deprivation theory as it applies to going to university and how successful versus how happy you will be at a university during your four years. Based on how do you compare to the rest of the students academically?

When you applied, were you in the lower 25%, mid 50%, or top 25% of the student academic profile? And it's really quite interesting.

But it really talks about the fact that when you are surrounded by people who are just as smart as you, maybe a little smarter, they just work a little harder, whatever it might be. Maybe they have a different sense of what balance me means to them, right? Or for what values are important in their daily lives.

But when you are constantly around people who are outperforming you, whether that's going to happen or not. In that case, you tend to lose a lot of confidence, which makes you go way less towards those opportunities that you might have had or that maybe you should have gone for.

But suppose you do find yourself in that situation. There's also a lot more competition for those opportunities. And so what can happen is that a wonderful, intelligent, hardworking student can end up dropping out of college because they went to a university where they constantly feel like they're running to catch up.

Think about Course Load

Josefine: Compare that experience of going to university, where they feel like, "Wow, you know, I am doing really well. I'm actually going to take a heavier course load because I want to challenge myself."

And they're choosing that challenge. Right? There are always ways to up your load once you are at a university. Maybe by increasing their course load, doing an internship, or joining the Honors College. Still, it's tough to decrease your load if you're at a university that is very go, go, go and doesn't have quite the balance that you might be looking for.

And it can have really adverse effects on how you view yourself and how you continue to progress and grow. So oftentimes, it leads to a little more fixed mindset than a growth mindset when you find yourself in a situation like that.

I love asking my students, "So, how many hours a week do you spend in class?"

And that's usually going to be, you know, 15 plus-minus a few. And then I love asking my students. "So, you know, if you have about 15 hours of class a week. So how many hours outside of class do you usually spend studying, doing homework, preparing for tests?" And some schools, you might hear students say 15, 28 others, they might say 30 or 40.

And so think about that. If you're okay with that and if that sounds reasonable, what you were expecting, that's great. Go for your reach. Totally fine . But just be really cognizant of what kind of academic environment you will be immersing yourself in.

Ask yourself daily, how much time and balance do you want how much free time do you want?

Do you want to be studying every day till midnight for the next four years? Or do you want to have time outside of your studies to pursue an internship, do your own research, work, pursue something for fun, and have a social life, right?

That doesn't mean that this school is where you are going to rise to a higher academic level or where you are going to make those connections. So really think about where can you stand out. It's oftentimes better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, gain more of those opportunities, gain more of those experienn more of that confidence in your own academic prowess, and then rise up to those levels.

I mean, there are a lot of different things that can lead to success and I think balance is really important for mental health, and having more consistent mental health can lead to a lot of success in your career and your academics as well.

Why Josefine chose Chapman over USC

Josefine: I'll also provide a little anecdote about myself. I know I've been talking for a long time, but I ended up going to Chapman University and it would it was definitely more of a target or likely school for me when I applied. I chose it simply because I got almost a full-ride scholarship. And for me, finances were really the driving factor in being able to finish my four-year degree.

I simply couldn't have finished it if I hadn't gotten so much money. So that was amazing for me. I got so many opportunities at Chapman, and I think it's because I got an incredible confidence boost really being able to take advantage of these professor mentorships seeing "Wow, I could do my own research if I just fill out this form and just kind of going ahead and doing it and not feeling intimidated about even trying to do that."

So I think for me personally, again, this does not apply to everyone, but for me personally, it was such a great choice because I was able to experiment without having this pressure or this intimidation of looking around me and seeing other people doing all these things that maybe I couldn't even imagine being able to do.

And so I think I grew much more into my academic prowess and into my own confidence, which really led me to then, you know, conduct original research, get published in undergraduate as well as an undergraduate, do an internship at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in the psychiatric facility and do all these things and create my own documentary phones and go traveling with credits for it right there. And I was only there for two years.

I transferred in and I had so many opportunities, and I don't think it would have been quite the same. And especially, I don't think I would have had the same comfort level in pursuing these opportunities. If I had been at a university like MIT where I'm looking around me thinking, "Oh my God, or if I'm buried in work and can't even imagine taking on more outside of it, right?"

Financial Aid Awards

How should someone compare financial aid packages?

Step 1: Look at the total cost across 4 years

Josefine: We actually just had a few blog posts about that. And then on college admissions and you'll find some good stuff on there written by our counselors, Amanda, and William.

But what I can say in general is gather all your financial aid offers side by side and really take a look at those letters and make sure you understand what they are telling you. So one of the things is to figure out which part of that is free me as and when you do not need to pay back. So anything that has the word scholarship or grant is free money. But as soon as the word loan turns up, that is not free money; you are going to have to pay that back. So just keep that in mind.

I also recommend you make a spreadsheet where you do a column per university against the spreadsheet. I know, I know. I like the spreadsheet. I recommend doing a column for each university. And then over on the left, you know, putting the total cost of attendance for that university in each in the top row, the total cost of attendance, which means tuition and room and board. Then include book money, food, etc. Then include a row that has all of your scholarships and grants to subtract from the top rows. Multiply that row by four because you will have the total cost of attendance for your entire degree with trips.

Oftentimes that helps you realize,

"Wow, over here I'd be spending 200,000 total, but I'd be spending 300,000 total on this one. That is a difference of $100,000." That's a lot. Right? And so, seeing it over four years can be really helpful.

Step 2: Negotiate for more financial aid.

Josefine: I also recommend you take a look at your EFC score. Again, this is something you would have emailed by the FAFSA when you first filled it out, should be on your student aid report and your essay are So take a look at that number. It's usually a six-digit number if you're lucky. It starts with a zero. If you're unlucky, it starts with a number means that you can afford to pay in the six-digit range for your annual cost of attendance. So then you will not be able to qualify for need. Take a look at what that number is. So let's say, for example, that number is 30,000. So it would be 030000. It doesn't have a dollar sign. So it's kind of hard to connect that, but just know that that would then be 30,000. And let's say you got into a university that costs 70,000 and they gave you a $10,000 scholarship, bringing it down to 60,000. Now you could reach out to this university and say,

"Hey, thank you so much for letting me. Thank you so much for the $10,000. I really appreciate it. This is amazing. However, you know, my family has an EFC score of 30,000, which leaves a gap of another 30,000."

Right. Cost 60 now to attend EFC scores 30. That gap. That would be your need.

And so really making that case to the university, and we do have a great blog post on how to appeal your financial aid award letter. And we do have another podcast episode on this as well. Really have that conversation and have that conversation more than once and really try to discuss it with the university. Tell them this is what I want to be for these reasons. Ask them. "Is there anything else we can do? So anything else I can apply for?"

Keep pushing. You know, talk to people. If you have a different school that is similar in their selectivity, or higher in their selectivity (so as a lower acceptance rate), then you may be able to use that to leverage a little bit and just say,

"My parents are pushing me towards this other university where I got 40,000 from. You guys only gave me ten, but you guys are my first top choice. So anything you can do so that when I have this conversation with my parents, you know, I can, I can really come towards them a little bit because it's just really difficult for my family to ignore that I got 30,000 more at this other university."

So starting the conversation is really important and that's what I did at Chapman. I mean, I was awarded pretty much half of what I got in the end and I went there and I said,

"I love this place, but I can't come if there isn't anything else."

And they found me something else I was able to apply for. So, you know, they didn't just hand it over. I did have to fill out an application, write an essay, things like that. But they did find another opportunity that they had kind of missed before that.

I think I also just got really lucky I was also an extremely strong applicant at that point. But, you know, it never hurts to ask. They're never going to take anything away that they already gave you. So what do you have to lose, right?

Go talk to them. They're real people. These universities are staffed by real humans that understand you and your family and what you're going through, and they will try to make it happen.

So really try to connect with the people at the university that you're hoping to attend.

When should someone officially decline an offer of admission from a school?

Josefine: I would do it after you've committed to another school. Just to make sure that you have to know, you have your ducks in a row, right? You're done if you are that serious about a university you have committed to. You can go and decline the other offers. It's a courtesy to go in and let universities know that you're no longer interested, which allows them to already open up a seat to another senior sooner. You can never talk to them again. But if you want to be kind to the university or some unknown student in limbo-waitlist-land, go and tell the university what your plans are.

Thank them for admitting you, and tell them politely that you're declining the offer. Wish them all the best, and then head on your way.

What should you do if you are on the waitlist?

Josefine: The waitlist is being utilized as an enrollment management tool, which it always has been. Still, enrollment management has been much more difficult for universities this year simply because these times are a bit unpredictable.

College admissions is not a science, and these universities are trying to figure out how they can best get an incoming class that's the same size as the exact spots they have available.

So the waitlist is their leverage tool.

So if you're on the waitlist, you probably won't know if you got off that waitlist until after May 1st. So you should definitely do a lot of research into the colleges that did admit you, and you should choose one that you're actually excited about. Do not bank on the waitlist.

Waitlists are entirely unpredictable. Some years zero students get taken off the waitlist. Other years,

300 students get taken off the waitlists. Even if you look at last year's statistics from that university and the prior year, you'll see it varies widely And why is that? Every year is different, and the people coming off the way are there to fill the unfilled spots that they still have open for freshman year. So if more students accept the offer of admission, then the university thought would accept them, then there won't be any unfilled spots. But if way fewer students take that offer, they suddenly have more unfilled spots, and that's what they will utilize the waitlist for.

So just know not getting off the waitlist is in no way a reflection of you or your worth. It means that the university really wanted you. And they just had such a great applicant pool of awesome students, but there's simply a limit to how many seats they can offer.

So definitely try not to take it personally. It's really not about you. It's really about the seats they have available that year.

Personally, I like to be positively surprised. So I like to think,

"you know what,I'm going to take a wait list as a no."

And then if I get off of it, wow, that's a positive surprise. I could deal with it when that happens, right?

What if you didn't get into any of the colleges you applied to?

Option 1: Community College

Josefine: So, of course, one of the options is to go to community college. Community colleges a wonderful option to have a second shot at your first choice. So, for example, if you are a California student and you really want to go to UCLA, and you didn't get into UCLA, most people don't because they have an extremely low acceptance rate because they have so many applicants.

Right? I mean, the statistics are just crazy. The UC system this application season had 250,000 applicants. That's quarter of a million students to the UC system. Last year it was 200,000. They increased by 50,000. Did the UCs suddenly have 50,000 more seats in their freshman class No. Right?

So this, of course, negatively impacts their admission rate, which negatively impacts you, because then you didn't get in somewhere where you feel like you would have gotten in three years ago. Right? So it's just it's just hard for everyone involved, including the people making the decisions on whom to offer and acceptance to.

So let's say back to the scenario, you really want to go to UCLA, but you didn't get in. And you spent a lot of time talking about it, you've spent a lot of time exploring that option, and you're 100% certain that's your end goal. Then you should definitely take a look at what are the different California community colleges that speak to you.

There are a lot of different ones, right? You don't have to go to the one right next door to your house. You can go to a different one. You can go explore, you can room with someone else who's going there, and you can do one of the wonderful programs that they have, such as the TAG program. So there are really, really wonderful opportunities at community college.

Option 2: Apply to colleges with rolling admissions

Now, another thing, if you know where you want to go. So let's say you applied to all these universities in Boston and it was filled with universities like at MIT, Boston College. Lovely, lovely, very, very selective universities, such as those. And you didn't get into any. Boston has so many universities. I think over 60 universities in the center of Boston. Take a look at the ones that are a little less selective. Some of them may still have open applications.

You may think, oh, my God, application season is open, is over. Not necessarily.

So many universities have rolling application deadlines, which means they actually accept students even until June, sometimes even July, if they still have space.

Other universities say they have their deadline and maybe their deadline was March 1st, March 15th. But after that, they'll consider applicants on a rolling basis. So there's it never hurts to just reach out to a university, even if their application deadline has passed and ask them,

"Hey, you know, I didn't know about you guys. And now I'm really looking at my options and don't like any of them. Would it still be possible to apply for fall?"

I've had a significant number of students who either didn't apply to college in the fall when everyone else was doing it, or I've had a few students who didn't get into the colleges they really wanted to go to. And so in April, they were in tears, and they were just like,

"What am I going to do with my life? I don't know what to do. I'm not you know, I want to go to the East Coast. I want to go to a four year. What am I going to do?

And so I just said, "why don't you just apply to some colleges?"

And they were dumbfounded. They're like, "wait, wait. I can still do that.?"

And they did. And they ended up going to college that fall to a four-year in New York and Boston. And they were super happy with their choice. And got high scholarships. So, you know, it's never too late. The door is not shut. You have a lot of options.

Option 3: Gap Year

And then, you know, your other option is to take a gap year. Go learn something. Travel. You could even stay local for a gap year and volunteer, or do an internship somewhere. Really do something that'll allow you to grow, that will allow you to find a passion and honestly airing out your brain for a half year or a full year between high school and college can be so wonderful.

It's something that I did myself. I did an intern, I worked, and then did an internship and traveled, so I took a year off. And when I started college, one year after I had graduated high school, I was so excited for my classes. My brain was just such a sponge. I was just so ready to learn something new. And if I had even tried to think of going to class right after I graduated, I mean, I was that was a stress me out because I was kind of saturated at that point. Yes.

So I really loved going to Argentina, perfecting my Spanish interning at a theater, and just getting my love for theater arts, which was my major when I then subsequently entered college, and it just gave me such a wonderful experience.

And I feel like my four-year experience at university I just enjoyed to the fullest because I had had some time to relax in between and to grow in an experiential way. In a way that really heightened my cultural sensitivity, allowing me to figure out how I want to live on my own in a new big city, right?

So not getting into where you thought you wanted to go may not be the catastrophe that it sounds like. It may just be a blessing in disguise and give you all these new opportunities that will lead you to where you actually need to be going. And so it's something that I also highly recommend.

Final Words of Advice

Where you go is not who you’ll become.

Amanda: This isn’t a swanky title I just made up; it’s an actual book (highly recommend!). This is probably the most important sentence in this article, so I’ll say it again: Where you go is not who you’ll become. Also, what you study may not be what you’ll become. Heck, I’m an educational consultant with a tutoring company, and I studied Psychology, Anthropology, and Documentary Filming (note: nowhere do I mention having studied Pedagogy or Business…). Life takes you many places, and the one thing that should always guide you is your passion and your honesty with yourself.

Where to you feel drawn to go when you strip everything else away? When you tune out the prestige factor (side note: a top 20 name may get you an interview some day, but it will not get you the job. Your knowledge and experience will. If you don’t believe me, watch this), when you tune out what your parents and friends want for you (as much as their opinions are rooted in their love for you), when you tune out what you think you should be doing - what is left?

Take some quiet time. Go to a lake. Climb a mountain. Sit on the beach. Or just hang out on your bed with your dog. Visualize your "Must Haves,' your 'Should Haves,' yourself in this mystical place of criteria coming together to form a real space. Enjoy yourself in this space. Look around you. Say hi to passersby. Then, look up at the building next to you. What does it say? What name is written atop it?

This is your university. Choose that one.


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