Marta Daniels recalls the day when her son Will received his first college acceptance letter.
“He was thrilled,” she said. “It was a huge relief to know that he had been accepted somewhere.”
But elation soon turned to stress when Will learned that he’d been accepted into all five schools to which he’d applied. “We went from being relieved that he would be going off to college next fall to panicking over whether or not we would choose the best school for Will,” said Daniels.
As the May 1 national college decision day looms, the day students must shell out hefty deposits to secure their spots at colleges and universities, students like Daniels are feeling pressure. Most college counselors agree that it’s important to make sure the school is a good fit for the student academically, financially and socially, and local counselors share ideas for making the decision less daunting.
They urge students to do a thoughtful assessment of who they are and what they need to thrive in an academic environment. “From community college to the ivy leagues, every school has success stories,” said Mike Canfield, director for undergraduate admissions at Marymount University in Arlington. “You can be successful at any school if it is the right one.”
Brie Jeweler-Bentz, Psy.D., a psychologist at The School Counseling Group encourages students to ask, “Where to I want to be geographically? Do I need a large campus or a school with an urban campus? Will I go crazy in a small town? Do I want to paint my face and cheer on my Division I sports team?” The school’s political and religious climates matter, she said, as does the local weather.
She also stressed that a school must be a good fit both socially academically. “A big rah-rah school is great, but academically will the student get lost in a big lecture hall with 400 other students?”
Michael Carter, Ph.D., director of college counseling at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, said that fit and balance also matter. “Does the student mesh with the school’s programs academically and extracurricularly? Is there a good blend academically, socially and extracurricularly so that the student can have balance?”
One way to answer these questions is to spend time on campus. “Sit in the cafeteria, have lunch and look around at the students,” said Jeweler-Bentz. “How do the students dress and talk? Do they have piercings, tattoos and nose rings? Does the school click for you? Does it feel like home?”
Randy Tajan, director of college counseling at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, Md., said students should look at colleges through a new lens, that of admitted student. “What is student life like? What about access to professors? Can you be a student and an active citizen? They should think about again why they applied to those schools originally.”
A school’s atmosphere should not be underestimated, said some counselors.
“Given that our environment often affects us, for better or worse, is this school a good fit for my goals and values?” asked Michael Hude, college counselor at The Heights School in Potomac, Md. He said that students should also ask, “Does it foster an environment that will facilitate the type of growth I’d like both to experience [in college] and take with me for the rest of my life?”
Hude said that the cost of the school is an important consideration: “Will I be going into debt? Does the quality of the education and the school’s reputation justify the expense and debt?”
Meg Mayo, director of college counseling at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Md., agrees. “I think any type of scholarship money if awarded should play into a decision,” she said. “I really worry about kids coming out of college loaded down with debt and not finding work right away.”
Jeweler-Bentz adds the prospective students should take a look at those who have graduated from the institution. “Some schools have amazing [alumni] networks that can hook graduates up with job opportunities,” she said. “It's also important to look at statistics on job and graduate school placement to see how good of a job particular colleges do with their students post-graduation.”
Canfield said that once a student has selected a school, the next step is to connect. “Plan for orientation,” he said. “Learn the process for registration. Check out the school’s fan page on Facebook. Some schools host invitation-only closed social media sites.”
Students should also start planning for life on campus. “What [activities are] they going to join when they get to campus? Students who are involved in campus activities or have a job on campus that is limited to 10 hours a week are significantly happier and do better in their classes than their counterparts who have neither,” said Canfield.