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It's Time to Choose a College, But How to Decide?

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It's that time of year when college decisions are looming large. And while it was fun watching your son or daughter receive multiple college acceptance letters, the time has finally come to decide. But how?

The flurry of information coming your way probably feels like a maelstrom, and you might have the nagging fear that your child's entire future rests on this one decision. Needless to say, it can be very tough to cut through the confusion and come to a decision.

As a new college president, and the parent of two college-age children, I've been there. So, I'd like to offer five pieces of advice on how to choose between those final few colleges on your family's list:

  1. Relax. I know, that probably sounds impossible. But it's important to realize that you are deciding between good options. The United States has the best system of higher education in the world. College presidents don't say this very often, but the truth is that there are lots of strong colleges that offer outstanding educations.
  2. Take the "unofficial" tour. Most likely, you've already visited the colleges on the short list. You learned a lot, and the official admissions tour was chock full of great information. If possible, visit again. This time, go off the beaten path. Wander around the student union, and ask students about their experience. Stop faculty and staff as they walk across campus, and ask them about the college.
  3. Read the fine print. It's important to understand the details. If you have financial aid offers, do they extend across all four years? If study abroad is important, what cities and countries are available to students? Make sure you understand the subtle differences between the colleges on your short list when it comes to the issues that are most important to your family.
  4. Remember the breadth of a college experience. It starts in the classroom, but learning takes place across the campus as well. Step back and talk to your child. If he or she has a passion for something, make sure it is offered at that college. Also, make sure the college encourages its students to develop new passions.
  5. Most important, let your son or daughter make the decision. Offer advice about each college, but don't share "your pick." Tell them the decision is theirs and they should go with their gut. "Fit" is everything in college (read Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath, chapters 1-2). If your son or daughter goes with what feels right, he or she will likely maximize the chances of a great college experience.

When it is all over, affirm and celebrate. Your child needs to hear you say, "You made a great decision." And mark the occasion. Go online, order your student a T-shirt from the bookstore -- and get one for yourself, too. Or go out for a meal at their favorite restaurant. And, if all else fails, see point No.1.