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Countdown to May 1: Advice on Making the Final College Choice

How will I ever decide?

That's the angst many high school students are facing this month as they struggle with college-admissions offers. While parents may have allowed students to process their options for a few weeks, now the deadline of May 1 to decide is approaching.

For some, a second tour sealed the deal. For others, it only confused them more. (See past blog on tips for revisiting.) Often, the final schools are very similar, but in the student's mind the choice is huge.

"Now the instincts kick in. You have to trust some of that," says Don Fraser Jr., director of education and training for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Go back and think about what made each school interesting enough to apply to in the first place. Then consider if you have any new factors or interests, suggests Fraser. A student's perspective and criteria may change after six months.

Some students might find writing a list of pros and cons for the schools are helpful. Even if it seems superficial, like the quality of the food, put it down. Now, it's about the best fit for you, personally, not just the rankings.

Check out what others are saying online on the Facebook pages set up for accepted students. "Engage in those conversations to get a sense of the school culture," says Fraser.

Look for student opinions about the schools on College Prowler and Unigo. Or see what they think about the quality of teaching at RateMyProfessors.

Often, the phone is ringing in the homes of high school seniors this month with students and alumni calling to congratulate students on their acceptance. Take advantage of their expertise and ask why they chose the college and what they would change about the school if they could. Talk with family members about their college experience.

Danielle Moss Lee, president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund in New York, advises students in its college-readiness program to consider size and location carefully. Research the class size, teacher-to-student ratio, and options on campus for research, internships, and activities. Now that the move is near, how far away can you be from home and still feel comfortable?

Even if you don't know your exact career path, consider the academic focus and the variety of courses, curriculum, and majors available, advises Lee. Also look closely at finances and the total costs of grants versus loans. Will the price tag require your parents to take a second job? How many hours will you be allowed to work on campus?

The best role for parents is to talk about the realities of the financial picture, says Megan Dorsey, founder of College Prep LLC in Sugar Land, Texas. "High school students don't have any concept of how much money we are taking about—we are about to spend in four years the equivalent of a dream home. ... Parents can say, 'This is the reality of what our family can afford, and let's look at the options.' "

For all the research you do, experts remind families that there are lots of unknowns. You won't know in advance your roommate and your professors, but they are likely going to have a huge impact on your college experience. So, it comes down to making the best choice with the information you have and then not looking back.

"There is no right or wrong decision," says Dorsey. "If you make a wrong decision, you can always transfer. It's not a permanent decision."

Remember, nearly one-third of all undergraduates switch institutions before they get their degree.

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