THE BLOG

And the Winner Is...

03/17/2014 07:57 am ET | Updated May 17, 2014

It's time. The college acceptance letters -- distributed via the web or in "fat or thin" envelopes -- are beginning to trickle out as we move to the formal notification date of April 1. Those who have applied to American colleges and universities are experiencing some mix of optimism, consternation, anxiety and resignation.

Now is probably the best time to speak directly to these students.

First, congratulations on your acceptance letters. You worked hard and thought about who you are and are likely to become. At many places, you made a convincing case for acceptance. For many of you, this will be the first "adult" decision of your lives, brokered by the input and well-meaning suggestions of family and friends. Be prepared for the cacophony of voices and find your safe harbor.

To choose wisely, you need to step back and ask yourself this question -- "What does my gut tell me?"

Don't diminish the importance of your decision. It's your life. And the voice that matters most is the one inside of you.

Second, there are likely to be some "thin" rejection letters in the pile of papers that you receive. What's the best advice here? It's really deceptively simple. Get over it.

At your aspirant schools, you may not have reached successfully. But you tried, and in the end, rejection is an important early experience. You must have enough confidence in the experience both to accept their decision and believe in yourself. In some cases, it was as much a failure of the institution to see your potential as anything that you did to diminish your candidacy.

Now, what's the next step?

Here's a secret. The game now shifts in your favor. You have moved from supplicant to the enviable position of a formal courtship. You must consider those colleges that accepted you. But there is another basic fact -- these colleges have tipped their hand to indicate that they want you as part of their next admissions class.

Enjoy the open houses and calls from well-meaning alumni recruiters and faculty in the disciplines in which you are likely to enroll. Smile at the admission updates and personal connections made with the admissions and alumni office. It's nice to be wanted.

Then, there is the question of financial aid. For wealthy students, this means little, unless merit money is made available to sweeten the pot with "bragging rights." But for most students from middle or working class families or with independent status, the financial aid package is a critical consideration.

The facts are simple here. Most of the media frenzy about rising debt reflects legitimate concerns that average four-year undergraduate debt stands at $29,000 in total over the four years. This is the number upon which you should focus. It has risen some, but the larger numbers usually bandied about actually include graduate and professional debt, especially in professions like law and medicine. Don't get the numbers confused with one another.

Your first questions should be: "Is this college worth incurring debt about equal to paying off a fully loaded mid-sized car, paid back at very favorable rates over many years?" Second, ask yourself if the salary likely earned will include the capacity to pay off this debt based on the financial aid terms negotiated. Finally, if your discipline includes graduate or professional school, can you justify this additional debt load?

You may not have figured out yet what your specific professional plans will be but you should know yourself well enough to assess your range of interests and what it might take financially to fulfill them.

Start by taking a hard look at the financial aid package. If you feel you should qualify for more aid, contact the financial aid office and ask them to review your application. Look at the mix of grants to loans and seek good advice from the college about how and where to find the best solution. It is in their interest to take some time to assist you.

If the numbers don't work, try opening another door. It may be that beginning a college career at a two-year institution makes sense, especially if money or field of study remains an open question for you.

Once you have a sense of the numbers, look at the college's outputs. How many freshmen persist into sophomore year, for example, indicating generally happiness with the learning experience? Do most four-year academic programs graduate students in four years?

Separate out the noise over starting salaries often heavily misrepresented by the media taking numbers from colleges with large business and engineering programs whose graduates start with higher entry level salaries. In your likely field, are graduates employed at decent salaries within six months of graduation?

Finally, remember why you applied to your list of schools. If you want a large flagship university experience, for example, do not go to an elite national liberal arts college. Don't be afraid to turn down the best -ranked school. And most important, don't confuse the highest ranked college with the best school for you. They are often very different.

In the end, remember that there is no "perfect" college for you, but there are many colleges and universities that will engage, excite, and fulfill you. In the last quiet moment for reflection, close your eyes and trust your gut.

Congratulations on your admission to college. The ride had its bumps and the pathway wasn't always clear. But once the decision is made, embrace your new home. Buy the sweatshirt. They gambled on you. It's your job to be certain that their gamble paid off. You earned your chance to imagine the possible.