“You’re In! Now What?”

By Peter Van Buskirk

The annual college admission lottery is finally being played out this week. After months of waiting, most applicants will find out where they have been admitted and by the time all of the mail is open, you should have options—quality options. Some will include scholarships or special recognition. Others will simply convey the invitation to enroll. In any case, congratulations! Your hard work has paid off and you get to make the final choice of a college destination.

You need to choose well, however, to ensure a successful experience over the next four years of college. Now, more than ever, you need to be attentive to the details. As you enter the final phase of decision-making, start by rechecking your priorities. What was important when you initially constructed your list of colleges? Has anything changed? Why? The answers to these questions will be your compass as you make decisions in the coming weeks.

The elements of a good college fit apply now more than ever. Even the “best” college (by acclaim) won’t help you reach your goals if getting through four years at that school is likely to be a struggle academically. Choose wisely. Stay within your ability to comfortably embrace the academic programs and achieve the educational goals you set for yourself.

Using your priorities as a guide, it’s time to examine more closely the colleges that accepted you, including those that might not have been at the top of your list. Return to their campuses where you can immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and overall culture of the places. How do they feel to you? The following are ten tips for getting the most out of these campus visits:

  1. Spend a weeknight in a residence hall; eat at least two meals in the dining hall and go to two classes in different disciplines including an introductory first-year class.
  2. Talk with professors from the academic departments that interest you as well as the appropriate pre-professional advisor for those programs. Ask them what they teach, who they teach and how they teach. Do they engage undergraduates in collaborative research or independent study? Look for evidence that they (and their colleagues) are invested in helping undergraduates achieve their goals. Do you see a home for yourself in those environments?
  3. Pull students aside in those departments as well. Ask them about the courses they take. Who teaches them? What do they like about them? What are their opportunities to apply what they are learning? How accessible are their professors? What would they do differently about their learning experience thus far? Can you relate to their experiences?
  4. Ask to see data reflective of outcomes. What is the graduation rate in four years? Five years? What happens to students in your major at graduation? What percent go to graduate school, PhD programs or professional degree programs? How many get jobs? What are the average starting salaries? Ask to see the data for the last five years. Colleges are obligated to give it to you—they just might not volunteer it!
  5. Hang out. Watch people. Listen to them talk. Ask them what they think about campus life, politics, sports, religion, or whatever is important to you.
  6. If you are a recruited athlete, meet with the coach as well as members of the team. These folks may be your support system for the next four years. Where will you fit best?
  7. If you have academic support needs, talk with the coordinator of the Special Needs Support Center or the Writing Center. Look for evidence that you will get the support you need.
  8. If you have financial concerns, make an appointment with the financial aid office. Take copies of your financial aid application AND your 2016 tax returns for reference. Document changes in your family’s circumstances. Don’t assume that troubling financial differences will be worked out after you enroll. By the way, borrowing is a choice families make—it is not a requirement. In comparing financial aid awards, ask the admitting institutions to project the likely student debt over four years. Colleges can provide this information as well. Student debt of up to $30,000 over four years should be manageable after graduation. Much more than that, however, could saddle you with an unreasonable financial burden as you attempt to become established personally and professionally after college.
  9. Ask to see safety information, crime statistics and campus escort programs.
  10. Use good judgment as you explore the social scene. Know your limits…

In other words, take in as much as possible during your campus visits. Allow yourself to get past the rankings, reputations and car stickers to a true understanding of what makes the most sense for you. Most students who emerge from this process acknowledge that much of the decision-making comes down to a gut feeling. Let your gut go to work for you. Make sure the college you choose fits comfortably and feels good before you commit yourself.

Finally, a word of caution is on order. Your life is about to change as colleges roll out the “red carpet.” You’ll be invited to acceptance parties and open houses in your honor. Prominent alumni will call to wish you well. Some schools may even offer to fly you to their campuses for the weekend.

In the midst of all the ego food being tossed your way, you need to stay focused. Do your own detective work and remain true to your priorities. Much of the activity over the next four weeks will be staged by colleges for your benefit. Now that you have been admitted, they want you to enroll—and that’s fine. Just make sure you sort through the excitement to find evidence that the school in question truly values you for what you have to offer and is prepared to invest in your success.

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