The April dilemma: deciding on a college

Students weigh their gut feelings, while some schools try some carefully calibrated wooing.

In April, college-bound high school seniors suddenly face a new kind of "all nighter": Rather than tapping out a term paper until the wee hours, they toss and turn in bed, worrying about which college to attend.

Students typically have three to four weeks - until May 1 - to make their choice. For some, it's easy: They rank their campus preferences when submitting applications, and then stick to it when all the acceptance letters are laid out before them.

But for others, it's the biggest fork in the road of their young lives - with no yellow bricks to follow.

What complicates the decision further is that increasingly, students are getting the hard-sell from campuses, whether in the form of a personalized acceptance letter or a call from a famous graduate.

While trying to decide, students struggle with myriad competing - and conflicting - factors: location, reputation, financial aid offers, fields of study. Then of course, there are the "extraneous" influences that come in the form of parents.

Of course, it's hard to think someone has a "problem" when they are choosing between big-name schools like Harvard and Northwestern.

But don't tell that to Kanoe Lum. "I've been agonizing about this for the past several weeks," says the senior at the Punahou School in Honolulu. She wants to be a broadcast journalist, and applied to seven schools near major media markets.

She was accepted last fall through "early action" at Notre Dame and Harvard, and they became her first and second choices. Harvard was second because she heard the Cambridge, Mass., school was so academically oriented she might miss out on a fully rounded campus experience.

Soon, other acceptance letters began arriving and quickly upended her thinking. In the end, it was a clean sweep. She got in everywhere she applied.

Now Kanoe's really confused, and the decision deadline looms. After a visit to Notre Dame recently, it dropped down among the contenders because of low prospects for good TV news internships in the area. She also visited Harvard and found out that students aren't chained to their desks for four years.

So the choice is now between Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and Harvard. Acceptance to Medill was a coup, she says, but she's concerned that if she doesn't like the profession, she'll be locked into the choice, whereas Harvard would give her a broader education. And, "Harvard is Harvard."

"It's such an honor to be accepted at all these places," says the daughter of a pre-school teacher and a mechanic at Pearl Harbor Naval Station. "Medill's journalism program is one of the strongest.... I'm reasonably sure that's what I want to do, so should I just take the opportunity and go for it? I'm extremely torn right now."

For Brooks Kincaid, who would like to get into international business, the decision is not so much about academic programs, but family ties to various schools.

A senior at Torrey Pines High School in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., he has a GPA of 4.72, is a four-year letterman in lacrosse, and has studied abroad. He was accepted at Virginia, Stanford, Northwestern, Brown, Duke, Berkeley, and the University of California-Los Angeles. (Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania politely declined.)

Brooks's mother went to Stanford as an undergrad, and both parents went to Duke Medical School. A brother-in-law went to Brown. His first choice is Stanford, followed by Duke and Brown.

"I'm about 95 percent sure I'm going to Stanford. My dad is actually being surprisingly open about the whole process. My mom is being the same way, but it's hard for her not to show a bias."

The affordable choice

Jessica Stoddard, a senior at Parkway West High School in suburban St. Louis, says her decision is almost entirely financially driven, and she's not overjoyed about that reality. With a 3.99 GPA, she was confident she was Ivy League material, but didn't bother to apply to those schools because her divorced mother, a junior high school teacher, could not possibly afford it.

Instead she applied to DePaul and Loyola in Chicago, the University of Missouri, and three schools in Indiana: DePauw, the University of Evansville, and Indiana University. She was accepted at all of them.

DePauw was originally Jessica's first choice, but only because a friend had gone there. After seeing DePaul's setting in a leafy neighborhood of Chicago, where extra educational opportunities would abound, she fell in love. DePaul offered her a financial-aid package of some $10,000 against annual tuition of $22,000, but it wasn't enough when she factored in loans she might accrue later in medical school.

"I'm very disappointed.... It just doesn't seem like all the hard work I put in in high school is paying off," she says. "I'll probably end up going to Mizzou [Missouri]. It's fine - a lot of my friends are going there - but I really wanted to try something different."

While seniors are making up their minds, the colleges and universities that admitted them are hardly sitting still. There's an old adage that in just about every business relationship, someone is buying and someone is selling. But for seniors and admissions counselors, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference.

Last fall, swamped by applications, admissions officers were the buyers. But now, as they seek to persuade admitted high-schoolers to actually enroll, they have become the sellers.

The resulting dance takes many forms. Letters and more letters, e-mails, phone calls from administrators, professors, or graduates in a high-schooler's presumed career field, maybe even a phone call from a superstar graduate in business, entertainment, or sports. Colleges host fun visit weekends, and admissions officers travel to large metro areas to host gatherings of admitted students near where they live.

It's only in recent years that college marketing efforts have reached Madison Avenue heights.

"When I started here, it was an era when April was considered by admissions officers to be a quiet month," says Ellen Goulding, associate director of admissions at Colorado College and a 30-year veteran of the office. "We weren't supposed to 'bother' students: We made our admissions decisions and then gave them the quiet luxury of making their own choice about what was best for them. The climate has changed dramatically. Kids expect - and I think want - to be wooed."

Acceptances with a personal touch

Colorado College's strategy begins with an impressive "admit" package. Along with some snazzy new brochures, for the first time this year the school has included a personal note, usually drawing on something from a student's application essays.

Although a minor touch in some respects, personal notes to 1,550 admits - aiming for a class of 490 - is a significant administrative challenge. "I just had a mom in my office this morning who confirmed what we suspected," Ms. Goulding says. "She said, 'The personal note was wonderful.' Eighteen-year-olds want to know that writing those essays has made a difference, that someone knows who they are as an individual."

Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., has conducted phoneathons, but officials there are careful not to be invasive, considering how many other schools may be calling the students as well.

"Ideally, we'd like to get as many admitted students to the campus as possible for a visit," says Richard Nesbitt, acting director of admissions at Williams. "The level of enthusiasm among current students is quite high, and it rubs off."

Such attempts to find a prospective student's comfort zone may be as important as academics and other factors.

They appear to be for Kanoe, the Hawaii senior. "In the end, I think it will be a gut-level decision," she says. "I have to go where I think I'll feel most comfortable.... If I just weigh all the factors and try to make a purely rational decision, I worry that I'll end up somewhere that isn't quite right and think about what it might have been like if I had gone somewhere else."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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