School Daze

April 2020 View more

By Christie Willhite

Illustration by Kevin Sterjo

You thought the college search process was over once your senior clicked “submit” on the Common App. And it was, for a few blissful weeks—until your teen logged in and started seeing a slew of those acceptance videos.

Now how do you help your child decide which school is the right school?

Take a breath and take your time, college counselors advise. Most colleges give students until May 1 to make their commitments, and students and their families should use this month to really get to know the colleges that said, “Welcome to campus.”

“Ideally, students should be able to say, ‘I’d be happy at any of these schools,’ ” says Rhiannon Schade, a college search counselor with New Jersey-based CollegeWise. “But we advise students to sit in that space and take the time in making this final decision.”

Even if the dream school says yes, seniors should take a close look at how campus life, academic programs, and financial obligations at each school fit their expectations. Brian LaPorte, college and career counselor at Naperville North High School, advises families to visit the campuses they’re considering. And if they’ve already visited, they should go back, he says.

Visit days for accepted students can help seniors envision their daily lives on campus and answer specific questions—from how the dorm cafeteria manages dietary restrictions to how students juggle classes, work, activities, the social scene, and being away from home. Take advantage of opportunities to talk with students and ask questions, LaPorte says. Visit day programs often include Q&A sessions with students, but don’t be afraid to talk with students in the cafeteria or the union, LaPorte says.

Then pay attention to how you react to what you see and hear at each school, he says. “Trust your gut. If you go and something feels off, it could be a sign that something on that campus is going to be impeding you.”

Seniors interested in a particular academic field can use the decision time to do a deep dive on the programs they’re considering, Schade says. Find out what faculty members are involved in the program and learn about them—both their accomplishments and how closely they work with students, especially undergraduates. “Often seniors aren’t diving in that far in their initial research,” she says.

For most families, finances will factor into college selection. “Students and parents need to have a very candid discussion about money,” LaPorte says. “It’s not necessarily a comfortable talk, but students do need to know what’s realistic for their family and what their options are.”

College acceptances usually are accompanied by an aid package that spells out how much incoming students can expect to receive in merit awards, academic scholarships, and need-based aid. If the family submitted a FAFSA form, they’ll also know how much to expect in federal aid, Schade says.

It’s a lot of moving parts to track, and Schade recommends that families keep a spreadsheet that will help compare the amount of financial aid each school offers against the total cost of attending. That total should include not only tuition, fees, room, board, books, and meal plan costs, but also travel and personal expenses. “You have to take into consideration the total cost of attending and get down to the bottom line of what will it actually cost,” she says. “School A may be giving you a larger aid package than School B, but if its total cost is greater, it still may be more expensive to go there.”

Then students and their families need to figure out how they’ll pay the rest of the cost, whether that comes through loans to parents, a student loan, a campus job, or some combination. “What is the financially feasible option might not be the dream school,” LaPorte says.

While U.S. News & World Report’s famed rankings might help get a handle on college options early in the process, counselors recommend ignoring them when making the final decision. “Unfortunately, those rankings hold a lot of influence over the decision process … but there’s so much more to the college experience than where it appears on a list,” Schade says.

Teens may start their search sure they’re headed for the prestige of the Ivy League, only to find they love the energy of a Big 10 campus or the close-knit feel of a small liberal arts school. Ultimately, that sense of connection outweighs any ranking, counselors say.

“You want to choose the school that’s comfortable in the sense that it encourages you to take risks and grow,” LaPorte says. “You want the place that makes you say, ‘I love being here. It makes me feel happy and invigorated.’ ”