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How do you make big decisions? Are you methodical, using a specific formula for how you approach your choice? Or are you a “go with your gut” decider, who taps into an emotional response to your options? Perhaps you fall somewhere in the middle? Major decisions can be daunting, especially for many young people who have not faced significant life choices. With little practice, some students arrive at the opportunity to choose a college and are stopped in their tracks. By May 1, the National Candidate Reply Date, newly admitted students must decide where they will enroll and some are still stuck between two (or more) options that seem equally appealing. What now?

Decision Strategies

There are some tried and true approaches to making a decision: flipping a coin, throwing a dart, drawing straws, or rolling the dice. However, you might not want to leave this choice completely to chance—after all college is a big investment and you want to have confidence in your decision. Before you begin to wrestle with the choice, you might consider the actual process. It can be useful to reflect on other decisions you have made in the past and how effective your approach was. If you have not faced significant decisions, ask those around you about the processes they use. The following questions can be helpful:

  • What steps did you take to decide?
  • What information did you need to gather, and how did you do it?
  • Whom did you involve, if anyone, in the decision-making process?
  • Were you pleased with your decision?
  • What, if anything, would you do differently now?

Old Faithful

One of the most reliable approaches to making a decision is also the simplest. Once you have narrowed your choices to two or three schools, take the time to highlight the strengths of each school and the aspects you wish were different. Make a list of pros and cons for each school and write them out so that you can see them side by side.

Next, brainstorm about the experience you hope to have in college. Write out keywords that come to mind and list what your initial criteria were when you started searching for colleges. Have any of these criteria changed, and if so, how? Compare these thoughts with your pros/cons list. Share your notes with a counselor, family member, or close friend and talk through your impressions.

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Be a Smart Investor

Shereem Herndon-Brown, founder and director of Strategic Admissions Advice, encourages families to consider the significant investment they are making in several ways. He says, “with college costs ranging from $25K to $75K annually, a natural question to ask is, ‘What will be the return on investment (ROI) for my college education?’” He says, “To calculate ROI, total a student’s projected earnings for ten years after graduation and divide that total by the cost of their college education. The higher the ROI, the better a financial bet the school is, on average.” He adds, “as you weigh your family’s choice of college, your job is to weigh both the actual costs and the potential return on investment.” Herndon-Brown recommends that before making a choice, you compare these features of the colleges:

  • Total cost of attendance
  • Projected debt (if any)
  • Graduation rates (four-year, five-year, six-year)
  • Co-op or internship opportunities and salaries
  • Job placement rates and mid-career earnings by major
  • Loan default rates of recent graduates, ideally by major
  • Career services and job placement efforts at the college

The following online resources are helpful in determining ROI:

College Navigator provides insight into a school’s graduation, job placement, and student loan default rates.

College Scorecard provides information on how much money a school’s graduates earn, how much student loan debt they carry on average, and how many graduates keep their loans in good standing.

Occupational Outlook Handbook provides information on different jobs, projected growth, median salaries, and necessary education.

Third Way Price-to-Earnings Premium (PEP) provides a map of institutions and information on the number of years it takes for students to recoup their investment.

Million Dollar Questions

Fans of the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire know that contestants are presented with four possible answers to each challenge question on their climb to reach the jackpot. Fortunately, they are also provided with several “lifelines” to aid them in their decision-making. What or who are your lifelines as you choose a college? Here are some suggestions from the show:

Phone a friend: It can be helpful to have a trusted friend or family member who knows you well and who you can bounce ideas off of. Engage supporters who can help you, in a non-judgmental way, reflect on your decision. Be clear about what role you hope they will play and don’t expect them to give you answers. Instead, allow them to ask you good questions.

50:50: This lifeline allows contestants to remove two of the four possible answers, simplifying the decision. University of Virginia professor, Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less has found that the less is more approach of subtraction can often be the best solution. Just as you did when you took standardized testing, eliminate any options that you can so that you can focus on the legitimate contenders. It is easier to choose between two colleges than six.

Ask the Audience: Consider crowdsourcing your decision. Not relinquishing control of the actual choice, but polling a diverse cross-section of constituents and soliciting their perspectives on each school. Talk to current students, alumni, faculty, staff, locals, and others with intimate knowledge of the college and community. Pay attention to congruence in their reflections and look for common themes about the school’s strengths and challenges. Here are some questions you might ask yourself based on the experiences of those you talk to:

  • Will I feel comfortable? Do the housing and dining options meet my needs?
  • Will I feel safe? Physically and intellectually is the environment one in which I will be secure and able to take risks?
  • Will I belong? Are the people there those who will challenge, support, stretch, and encourage me?
  • Can I be successful? Will I have the freedom and opportunities to grow and excel?
  • Can I thrive? Will this college allow me to be my best self, achieve my goals and explore my interests?

Jump/Switch/Cut the Question: These lifelines simply avoid the question all together. Ultimately, if you are paralyzed by making the decision, it could be that you are not ready. Having multiple college options is a privilege, but maybe your inability to choose means you need more time to decide or that you are not considerably excited about any option. If you need a few more days to gather the information you need to decide, you can often request an extension to the May 1 deadline. You also can delay your college plans and take a gap/interim year to better understand what you want. If you choose this approach, it is wise to deposit somewhere and request a deferral so that the college will hold a spot for you.

Suit Up

One of the best ways to test a decision is to live with it. This is why some automobile dealers allow buyers to take the car home for a week. Even mattress companies let you sleep on your new purchase for a few nights without penalty for return. While this is not as easy with choosing a college, especially in a pandemic, you can replicate this experience to an extent. You might not be able to travel to campus or spend a lot of time there before you need to decide, but a little role-playing will go a long way. 

Once you have narrowed your choices, spend a few days imagining you have chosen each school and embrace your inner mascot. Maybe you are deciding if you will be a Red Devil (Dickinson College) or a Saint (St. Lawrence University). Or perhaps you are choosing between being a Lord (Kenyon College) or a Diplomat (Franklin & Marshall College). Suit up and tell yourself that you have enrolled at that college, doing your best to put your other options out of your mind. If you have a sweatshirt, hat, mug, or other gear from the chosen college, wear, use it, live it. Visit their website each day to see what news they post and what is happening on campus. Interact with other admitted students online. Check out the social media feeds from the college and enrolled students. After going “all-in”, repeat this exercise for the other colleges that you are seriously considering and then, most importantly, reflect on the experience. Some questions you might ask yourself are:

  • What is my gut reaction?
  • What made me excited?
  • What reservations or feelings of regret did I have throughout the week?
  • What made me nervous?
  • Did anything specific make me feel uncomfortable?
  • What was I missing if anything?

You Get to Do This

While making a decision can feel overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. Remember, this is not life or death, nor is the path to a college degree always linear. Choice can be empowering if approached with the right mindset. Embrace the opportunity and make sure you celebrate the good fortune of having options. You get to choose your path. Once you have finalized your decision, be confident and make the best of it. The community you join will be lucky to have you on their campus.