by Zach Miners

Supposedly, the pressure is off. You've suffered through the arduous college application process, you've survived the waiting game, and now (hopefully) you've got some fat envelopes to sort through. But if you don't have a clear first choice, your final task -- actually choosing a college -- can be pretty nerve-wracking.

Missy Sanchez, the director of college counseling at the Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga., has spent 30 years advising more than 4,000 students, and here is what she has to say about choosing a college.

What should be at the front of seniors' minds when they're trying to pick a college?

The feel of the school is important. It needs to be an atmosphere that you're comfortable in, with people of like minds, and where you feel you can do your best work. And I think kids are happy when they can make those friends, or find that niche, at the beginning of their freshman year.

How can students determine, at this point, which school will give them that fit?

Go back and visit your top two or three picks one more time in person. Really focus on them. See if you can sit in on a class. If the class sizes are larger than what you wanted, did you feel comfortable? I don't think it's necessarily the size of the school that matters as much as the size of the classes. For some kids, not being able to have personal attention from teachers bothers them because they're the type of students who really participate in class. But some large schools make up for that by having either labs or small group discussion sessions.

Is it a good idea to make a list of pros and cons for each school?

Instead of identifying "the one," try to eliminate the list to two, then go from there. To narrow it down, ask yourself, "Which schools don't fit as many of the categories that I want? Which ones don't feel as comfortable to me?" And scratch those off. Once you get it down to two is when you can use a spreadsheet and really compare the schools.

For instance, does one have a particular major that you might be interested in? Look at the course catalogue and see what the course offerings are. But try to ascertain what their focus or direction is also. A history class might be focused on the Far East or the Middle East. Is that something you'd want to study? The history department might have 60 courses, but if the focus is on areas you're not particularly interested in, then having a lot doesn't really help you any.

When deciding, are there certain types of information about a school that students should pay more attention to than others?

If you have broad fields of interest, see if the school will allow you to do a minor, or get a certificate, or do a double major. In this day and age, I think having multiple skill sets on your transcript might give you a lot more flexibility later on in life.

The pressure is off the students now, and it's up to the schools to sell themselves. But should students be wary of schools coming off as a little too self-promotional?

I haven't seen very much of that. A lot of times, the kids already have in mind what they like. It doesn't seem to be anything that persuades them.

But colleges do sponsor an "admitted students day." Those are good things for accepted students to attend, because schools will put forth their best effort to showcase what they have to offer. The problem is, students aren't going to be able to attend more than one or two, because they all tend to fall around a two-to-three-week period in late April.

Have those events actually helped indecisive students make up their mind?

I once had a student who traveled by plane to the admitted students days for his top two schools in the same weekend: Brown and Davidson. I remember he told his parents that he was going to get off the plane wearing the hat of the school he was choosing. And that's what he did. He was able to compare his top two choices in the same three-day period. He ended up deciding on Davidson.

Many colleges today are including gifts and clothing with their acceptance packages to entice students to attend. How much of a role, if any, should incentives like these play in students' decision-making process?

It should not make a difference. But it does seem to work! It makes the students feel like the college really wants them. "You're a great kid." "You were chosen from thousands to come." But that shouldn't be the decision maker. I think once the glow wears off, students get a grip. But initially it feels like, "They want me. This is where I want to go!" It's a smart marketing tool for a college, no doubt.

Do you have any anecdotal stories of students not looking into something they should have and then regretting their decision?

I had a girl last year who, as a junior, only had large state schools on her list. And I asked her if she had considered other types of colleges. She said no, because that was what she wanted and because her brother went to a large state school. But now, she tells me her brother said to her that college, for him, was the loneliest place in the world, and he wished he had looked at some other schools. But the application deadlines have already passed for her now. So at this point, narrowing down your list of acceptances is key, but also try to stay open-minded. And be sure to ask that question, "Have you had a good experience at your school?"

If students are on the fence, is there anything they should be careful not to base their decision on?

If your total perception of a college is based on athletics, remember that that might be only five days out of the school year. If it's football that you love, then basing it on five Saturdays in the fall is not a good decision to make for all the many other days you're going to be in class.

Also, I think one of the worst mistakes kids make is listening to people who say, "You're going to love that school. That's just made for you." Well, how on earth do they know? Is it based on their own experience of the college 25 years earlier? Schools change, atmospheres change, and people are different. The best person to decide what is comfortable for a student is the student.


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Education: How to Pick the 'Right' College | Zach Miners

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