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High School Seniors Enter Homestretch of College Process

The last of the college-acceptance letters (or, more likely, emails) are arriving this month, and high school seniors around the country are weighing their options. The offers trickled in, but the higher education community has agreed on a common deadline for committing: May 1. That gives most students a month or more to make the big decision.

As at many schools, students at Bellarmine College Preparatory often think they have to make a decision right away, says Katy Murphy, director of counseling at the all-boys Roman Catholic school in San Jose, Calif.,and president-elect of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "At first, we just try to get them to just breathe and spend some time thinking about it," she says.

When meeting with students who are undecided as seniors, Murphy finds it can help sometimes to pull out the pencil drawing the student made as a junior of what he would look like at college. Sometimes the setting is in a city or near the beach, with a football stadium or certain books. Reminding students of what they wanted initially can help them make a clear decision away from the noise and hype, she says.

"To some extent, it's an emotional decision. It should be rational, but there is an emotional connection," says Murphy.

Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling and upper-division admission at Garden School in Jackson Heights, N.Y., says colleges are getting better about letting students know exactly what day they will be notifying students of the acceptance decision, which has taken some of the edge off the uncertainty.

For students with multiple offers to consider, she advises they take the month of April to visit those campuses—some for a second time—to ask more specific questions about majors, professors, and money.

They should clarify what's in the financial-aid packages, not just grants versus loans, but also understand the different kinds of loans, suggests Sohmer. The best sources of information can be found on the FAFSA website and individual college financial-aid offices, she adds.

At Bellarmine, Murphy gives students a one-page, cost-estimate sheet to plug in the different figures for each of the final schools to make it easier to compare the expenses. To give advice on the decisionmaking process and discuss college expectations, Bellarmine hosts a senior transition night that draws as many as 350 students and adults—a good turnout for a class of 400.

Sohmer says students today started high school about the time of the economic collapse and have become aware of issues around money and debt. "The notion of defaulting and interest rates became part of daily conversation," especially in families affected by the downturn, she says, adding that enrollment is up in her school's economics classes.

Surveys have shown families are increasingly worried about money and are considering cost more closely in the college decision.

Colleges are getting more questions than ever about costs, and decisions often come down to finances, along with academic and social fit, says Jim Rawlins, executive director of admission at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., and president of NACAC.

In this homestretch of the application process, Rawlins encourages students to get past the "thrill of the chase" and take time to ponder the decision. Rather than choosing the school that was the hardest to get into, now the student should consider if it is the right place. "It's not about just seeing where they get into, but where they are finishing," he says.

To help students decide, Colorado State is sending representatives and students to 30 cities to host accepted-student receptions and is holding four welcome days on campus in April. As students apply to more colleges, Rawlins finds as many as 40 percent of out-of-state accepted students have never visited the campus. He maintains that students need to have some "true interaction to find out the fit part" by meeting students or coming to Fort Collins.

For more advice on what students should look for when visiting a campus, see my past blog here or for tips on revisiting a college, go here.

"We want students to make the decision with their family," says Rawlins. "So often, while it needs to be about their fit—not mom or dad's—there are practical things about finances that everyone needs to feel good about."

If students have applied to the right colleges, Rawlins says there should not be a bad choice. "The fit starts with the decision. Then it's up to students what they choose to make of it," he says. "It's not just a T-shirt to buy. It's a community they decide to join. The student needs to think about what they will bring, not just take from the college experience."

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