April is college decision month for high school seniors who have until May 1 to decide which college to attend. The brutal process of applying to college and waiting for acceptances is over. Now, seniors get to decide which college's offer of admissions to accept. While many adults and students often get attached to college names, they should both realize that colleges are so much more than their names.
Here are some tips to guide undecided high school seniors and their families through these challenging, yet empowering weeks of decision-making.
- Accept and allow. We need to help seniors understand that while they may feel disappointed and even devastated by rejections, they need to be proud of the offers they receive. With competitive colleges accepting anywhere from 5.9 percent to 28 percent of students, huge numbers of students will be disappointed with rejection letters. But, we need to help them see how talented they are despite these rejections and understand that acceptances are powerful and can open the doors they need to be successful. So we need to help seniors focus on the colleges that accepted them -- the amazing schools with programs and communities that will offer them the same, if not better, opportunities as the schools that rejected them.
- Appeal and move through waitlists. If students are still determined to attend a college that rejected or waitlisted them (the often longer road to rejection), help them. Gather stats -- how many kids are on the waitlist and what percentages typically get admitted? Does the college accept appeals? Students need to feel they have tried, but then they must move on, as they have to find happiness with a college that accepted them. Adults have to guide seniors through this process and help students focus on the future.
- Make sense of financial aid packages. High school seniors will get many complex financial aid packages. We need to help them understand their offers by creating comparative charts with columns for grant and scholarships, loans, and outright payments. Last week, I spoke to two students who didn't understand that several of the colleges that admitted them had left them with large portions of uncovered college costs. Using their charts, students can call colleges and ask them to match other offers. Seniors need to make hard decisions that don't leave them irrevocably in debt or at a college that doesn't offer all that they want. Don't forget to have kids budget in costs for computers, clothing, and other intangibles.
- Apply for additional scholarships. There are many scholarships out there for under-represented and other students. Many deadlines are coming up now -- in April and May. Students need to continue applying for them. They can call colleges they are considering attending or accepted, and see if there are scholarships for incoming freshmen.
- Visit, visit, visit. In April, every college has programs for accepted students. Students can sit in on classes, stay overnight in the dorms, and talk with current students. Parents can also attend special sessions. Amtrak just introduced a companion fare for college visits. It is so important to show students what the colleges look like. Often colleges will cover travel expenses of under-represented students. It can't hurt to ask for travel assistance.
- Talk with current and former students of accepted colleges. If students can't visit in person, there are other options. Alumni organizations in students' hometowns often have accepted student functions. There are also current students in your area that will meet or speak with your students.
- Compare and compare and compare. Students often have so many choices -- that they need to narrow down their lists. Some colleges, despite their names, are not right for many seniors. Seniors need to look at access to classes and majors, special resources, alumni networks, and more. Students need to prioritize their key needs and make difficult decisions. Help them decide what is really best for them.
- Flip a coin. Ultimately, students may narrow down their choices to two colleges and get stuck. So I often recommend they flip a coin and decide to accept whichever college they assigned to that side. Their gut response to that decision may help guide them.
- Be supportive at all costs. High school seniors do not have fully developed frontal cortexes. They are making huge decisions about their futures, and they are going through this process for the first and hopefully only time. Please understand their confusion, and do whatever you can to help them make the right decisions for them.
- Speak with families and advocate for match colleges. Many families may not want their students to leave home, live in dorms, or go to match colleges. Please do what you can to help these students and their families make decisions that benefit their students -- it is the student's (not the parent's) time to grow and achieve what's truly possible.