Decisions, decisions: Choosing a college

  • Students walk through campus in between classes at New England College in Henniker on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. The bridge connecting campus to downtown Henniker is seen in the background. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

For the Monitor
Friday, April 14, 2017

Despite a decade of parenting, this week I made a rookie mistake. In the days leading up to the Easter holiday, I took my daughter into Granite State Candy Shop. With the sweet aroma of fresh chocolate and sugar taunting her senses, I allowed her to choose one item as a treat. She was paralyzed. “I don’t know how to decide,” she said, her initial excitement quickly besieged by choice.

I immediately recognized the puzzled look of wonder on her face, as it resembled the high school seniors with whom I work trying to choose a college. Months of anticipation and pinning for college acceptances have faded, and now the hard part begins. Seniors must select a college to attend by the national candidate reply date of May 1, and the clock is ticking. If they – and I – have done our jobs right, students will have a handful of acceptances to colleges where they feel they could thrive. Now like a kid in a candy shop, they must commit to one.

For most students, this will be the first significant decision they will make in their young adult lives. With tuition costs soaring, this is an investment that deserves considerable discernment. As young people and their families unpack their options, here is some helpful advice from the college admission deans and high school counselors guiding students through this decision:

“College is about meaningful engagement with others who don’t share your worldview. Think of yourself as a rubber band. Choose the school that stretches you the most without breaking you. Ask which college’s core values most closely resemble yours?”said Heath Einstein, dean of admission at Texas Christian University.

“Look at anything provided by students. Pay attention to the tone on admitted student websites. Does it resonate with you or not? Ask, ‘can I see myself growing, stretching and evolving here? Will this be an incredible journey? Will I be challenged on every single level at some point during my four years?’ ” suggested Debra Johns, Yale University’s associate director of admissions.

“Start with thinking hard and honestly about what matters most to you, what situations, circumstances, etc. make you smile most often and then look at your school options and consider where you are likely to smile more often and for the most reasons. Ask each college, ‘What are the top two or three reasons that students choose to leave your school?’ ” said Eric Monheim, director of college counseling at St. Mark’s School.

Deb Shaver, dean of admissions at Smith College said, “Don’t choose a college where you feel “totally” comfortable; you grow the most when you’re a little uncomfortable, especially intellectually.”

“Visit a school before enrolling. Sit in a busy spot and look at the students to see if the place feels right. Talk to them too – not only the tour guides,” said Matt Cohen, senior associate director of admissions at Skidmore College.

“Guard yourself from the temptation to think the grass is greener elsewhere. Begin your conversations with others and within yourself with an attitude of gratitude for the opportunities you have rather than a spirit of entitlement or loss. Be careful of developing personal ‘blindspots’ early into the college process, which prevent you from embracing the best personal learning community,” said Michael Schell, director of college counseling at Catholic Memorial School.

Emily Roper-Doten, a dean at Olin College of Engineering encouraged students to “role play enrolling at each college. This will remind you why you applied to the school in the first place and how you might see yourself as a part of that community. Jot down your thoughts about role-playing enrolling at that specific school. Did you have lots of reasons for picking that school? Were you excited when you talked about it? Were you at a loss for words? These reactions can be really instructive.”

“Look for a place where the energy will get you to engage in several areas. Ask each college, ‘what are some of the opportunities here that are not to be missed?’ ” said Sheppard Shanley, senior associate director of admission at Northwestern University.

“Don’t ignore your gut! Finding the best next step is not about rankings and what others think is best for you!” said Nancy Meislahn, dean of admission and financial aid at Wesleyan University.

Moira McKinnon, director of college counseling at Berwick Academy, advises, “Don’t overthink this. There is no predicting where each choice will take you, so don’t try.”

“Ask yourself, ‘do I want to wake up here for the better part of four years?’ Ask each college the often overlooked, ‘What is your retention rate to the second year?’ and ‘what is the four-ear graduation

rate?’ ” said Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University.

“Close your eyes. When I say go, what college campus are you standing on? You are making a decision for one year. You will make the best decision for yourself at this time with the information you have now. If after you attend a school and the information you know changes, you can always make another decision. Try not to place the pressure of ‘this one decision will affect the rest of my life’ on yourself. Life is a series of choices and decisions,” said Sally O’Rourke, director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy.

“Your final choice needs to be a good match for your interests and hopes. College is yours to experience not your alumni neighbor, your parents or your friends. While where you go will have a great influence on you, it is the choices you make and the opportunities you take advantage of which will make even more of a difference. Ask yourself, ‘am I ready to make the most of the college experience and am I ready to self-advocate?’ Colleges have decided you are ready or they should not have admitted you, but you still need to ask yourself,” said Bev Morse, associate dean of admissions at Kenyon College.

“Ask yourself, ‘what type of people bring out the best in me and challenge me to stretch, push, improve, consider and think more deeply?’ Are those type of people at the school you’re considering? Schools can look identical in profile but be quite disparate in ethos and dynamics. Don’t underestimate the importance of that nuance. Ask, ‘how are you different?’ There is too much cacophony and blur in the process these days. Too many pretty pictures and catch phrases. Don’t give me a cliché verb led challenge, tell me who you are. If they cannot differentiate and make a compelling, resonating case for their school, it is reflective of their ability to help you grow there,” said Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission, Georgia Tech. Clark also has a blog where you can find more advice at pwp.gatech.edu/admission-blog.

“Ask each college, ‘what is the most important character aspect of this school?’ It helps separate schools beyond programs, aid packages, and rankings and allows the school to have its own ‘personality’ among others in the same genre of school,” said Whitney Soule, dean of admission and financial aid at Bowdoin College

“Be wary of focusing too much on the noise (aka what others are saying, the bumper sticker, pressure, etc.)” said Tim Cushing, associate director of admission at Wheaton College.

“Ask schools, ‘when I have to do hard things well – in terms of academics, social, artistic, and/or athletics – who will be there to guide me and support me?’ ” said Matthew DeGreeff.

“Students, trust in yourself. Parents, trust in your students. It will all work out,” said Tim Neil, assistant director of admission at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.

Mario Silva-Rosa, director for undergraduatie admissions at Bentley University, advises, “Don’t stop asking questions.”

“Attending college is exciting. It’s time to spread your wings and it’s time for parents to let go. Students may fail at times, but parents need to allow them the latitude to grow up and become independent. Stumbling is part of everyone’s growth. Students in turn need to actively engage in their own educational process, actively seek funding sources and actively engage and they will have a successful experience,” said Elizabeth Keuffel, director of financial aid at Saint Anselm College.