The Final Exam: Choosing the Right College

As May deadline nears, high school seniors pore over course options, visit once more, check out campus life

Synthia Bell has a big decision to make and she's not sure how to do it.

She's read the glossy brochures, asked the questions, and visited the colleges that accepted her. Still, she wavers.

"Being close to my parents is important to me, but I also want to go to a school with a good reputation," says the Chicago senior, who's choosing between the University of Illinois in Chicago and the University of Missouri. "It's hard because all the schools tell you they're great."

For Synthia, and thousands of other high schools seniors, academic D-Day is just around the corner. The May 1 deadline for accepting college offers is fast approaching. For many students, juggling difficult financial concerns, career choices, and lifestyle questions is all new.

To negotiate the experience, seasoned college students, professors, and admissions officers offer some simple advice.

"Students should make their decision both from the heart and the intellect rather than because of other people's expectations," says Ellen Goulding, associate director of admissions at Colorado College, a small liberal-arts college in Colorado Springs. "It may sound naive, but when students chose schools because someone told them to, they're likely to end up unhappy."

To avoid that, current college students say seniors should begin by figuring out what's most important to them.

The filtering process

"I took all the advice people gave me and filtered out what I didn't want," says Bryan Grossman, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. For Bryan, the decision came down to a few basics: the level of academics, the campus atmosphere, and the quality of extracurriculars.

For others, finding a place that was strong in a number of areas was key.

"When I was a senior, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do so I went to a school that had enough to cover my bases," says Semra Koymen, a biology and Spanish major at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.

For most students, the prospect of a bill as high as $28,000 also weighed heavily in the decision-making process.

"There's a reality check for many families," says Keith White, acting director of admissions at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "You may have gotten into your first choice, but mom and dad can't afford it."

Nevertheless, educators encourage students to be choosy. Tuition at some schools has gone up almost 800 percent in the last 30 years, and there are a lot of colleges and universities out there - at last count, the Department of Education listed 3,500.

For seniors who have waited months to hear from schools, this requires a major shift in thinking.

"Up until this point, they didn't know where they stood, especially with selective schools," says Karen McCalley, assistant director of admissions at Bryn Mawr College, a women's school in Pennsylvania. "But now, they really have to ask the tough questions." Ms. McCalley suggests taking advantage of what schools offer during April, the wooing month. Most schools have open houses and encourage prospective students to interview faculty and talk to other admitted students.

Ester Fuchs, a professor at Barnard College in New York, urges students to do even more.

"Find out about the advising system, who teaches classes - professors or adjuncts," she says. "Ask how up to date the library system is and what kind of computer facilities there are."

The big-name lure

In making the final decision, Ms. Fuchs and others also recommended that students avoid going to a school simply because it has an impressive name.

"Kids that graduate at the top of their class in college do have a ticket for life," says Mary Lee Hoganson, a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, a prep school in Chicago. "But, you may be better served by going to a place like Grinnell College [in Iowa] and getting great recommendations from professors versus going to a University of Pennsylvania where no one will know who you are."

For students on a wait list for their top choice, the decision process can be tougher, and extend into the summer. Admissions officers encourage those seniors to accept admission to a school now, while continuing to talk with their first-choice school about snaring a spot.

They also urge students - and ambitious parents - to keep the choice in perspective.

"The process is geared to get kids to think that there is only one college for them, but there usually are a lot of places that are good for a student," McCalley says. "If you can remember that, you can really balance the pros and cons and make a good decision."

Many parents agree. "I think Synthia will do well anywhere she goes," says her mother, Linda Bell, who has already sent two others to college. "I don't think if she ended up at a place that wasn't what she expected, she'd be so knocked flat that she'd never recover. I think you can get the best out of anything if you want to."

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