Personal finance

College Decision Day is coming up: Here’s what to know before choosing a school

Students have just a few weeks to figure out which college they will attend ahead of National College Decision Day on May 1, which is the deadline many schools set.

But with a record-breaking increase in applications pushing acceptance rates to all-time lows, some college-bound seniors may have a tough decision to make, or pivot to back-up schools. 

If you didn’t get the news you hoped for, “keep an open mind,” said Connie Livingston, the head of college counselors at college counseling firm Empowerly and a former admissions officer at Brown University. There is absolutely a path forward, she said, although it may take a little more legwork.

To that end, experts share their best advice on how to frame your decision before choosing a school, including navigating a waitlist and, of course, factoring in financial aid.

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How to decide on a college

For starters, settle on a few schools among the list of acceptances, based on which are the best fit in terms of cost, academics, campus life and other factors. Then, hit the road.

For students who didn’t get accepted at their top choice, use this opportunity to revisit other schools, advised Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York-based consulting firm.  ”A lot of colleges have programs for accepted students and incoming freshmen, which can establish a comfort level.”

Keep in mind that you can still transfer to a school higher up on your wish list after a semester or two, he said. “Realize that you are really making a one-year commitment,” Livingston added. “This does not have to be the end all and be all.”

What to do if you’ve been waitlisted

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Waitlisted applicants have neither been outright rejected by a college nor have they been extended a formal offer of admission.

Instead, they may be considered for a seat between now and September, depending on whether there’s sufficient space for them in the incoming class, among other factors.

The first thing seniors who were waitlisted should do is write a letter of continued interest to the college to let them know why they want to attend, Greenberg said.

Then, provide an update since your application was submitted that demonstrates what you could bring to the table. For example, perhaps you took classes or completed a research project that helped solidify why that school is now an even better fit.

“You don’t want to rehash stuff; you want to bring in new information,” Greenberg said.

Factor in financial aid

Also consider the amount of aid available. Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, or from programs with limited funds. Students who were admitted in the first round tend to have first dibs on grants and other forms of aid.

“Waitlist students get last dibs on financial aid,” Greenberg cautioned. That may be the most important consideration, after all.

Most college-bound students and their parents now say affordability and dealing with the debt burden that often goes hand in hand with a college diploma is their top concern, even over getting into their first-choice school, according to The Princeton Review’s 2023 College Hopes & Worries survey.

Waitlist students get last dibs on financial aid.
Eric Greenberg
president of Greenberg Educational Group

A whopping 98% of families said financial aid would be necessary to pay for college, and 82% said it was “extremely” or “very” necessary, The Princeton Review found.

Key takeaways for future applicants

Finally, the hardest application cycle to date can serve as an important lesson for future applicants, according to Christopher Rim, president and CEO of Command Education. “It’s not just about having top grades and test scores,” he said.

“Decision letters from top schools are a reminder of the importance of crafting a balanced college list, honing their interests to convey a singularity of focus, and starting early in the process.”

Livingston advises high schoolers to take some of the focus off the prestige and name brand and research schools and programs based on other factors such as location, size, areas of study, research opportunities, sports, clubs and campus life.

“Visit schools and talk to current students,” she said. “The key is to make sure you can see yourself at all of those schools.”

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