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College decisions: investments, game shows and mascots

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How do you make big decisions? Are you methodical, do you use a specific formula to approach your choice? Or are you a ‘go with your gut’ decision maker who taps into an emotional response to your options? Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle? Important decisions can be overwhelming, especially for many young people who have not faced important life choices. With little practice, some students come to the opportunity to choose a college and are stopped in their tracks. As of May 1, National candidate response date, newly admitted students must decide where they will enroll and some are still stuck between two (or more) options that seem equally appealing. And now?

Decision strategies

There are proven approaches to making a decision: throw a coin, throw a dart, shoot straws, or roll the dice. However, you may not want to leave this choice completely to chance – after all, college is a big investment and you want to be confident in your decision. Before you start to grapple with the choice, you may want to consider the actual process. It can be helpful to reflect on other decisions you have made in the past and how effective your approach is. If you haven’t been faced with important decisions, ask those around you about the processes they use. The following questions may be helpful:

  • What steps did you take to decide?
  • What information did you need and how did you do it?
  • Who did you involve, if any, in the decision-making process?
  • Were you satisfied with your decision?
  • What would you do differently now?

Old faithful

One of the most reliable approaches to making a decision is also the easiest. Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to two or three schools, take the time to point out the strengths of each school and the aspects that you want to be different. Make a list of the pros and cons of each school and write them down so you can see them side by side.

Then, think about the experience you hope to have in college. Write down any keywords that come to mind and indicate what your initial criteria were when you started researching colleges. Has any of these criteria changed, and if so, how? Compare these ideas with your list of pros / cons. Share your notes with a counselor, family member or close friend and talk about your impressions.

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Be a smart investor

Shereem Herndon-Brown, Founder and Director of Strategic Admissions Advice, encourages families to consider the significant investment they are making in a number of ways. He says, “With university costs ranging from $ 25,000 to $ 75,000 per year, a natural question to ask is,” What will be the return on investment (ROI) of my university education? He says, “To calculate ROI, total a student’s projected income for ten years after graduation and divide that total by the cost of his college education. The higher the return on investment, the better the school’s financial bet, on average. He adds, “When you are weighing your family’s choice of university, your job is to weigh both the real costs and the potential return on investment.” Herndon-Brown recommends that before making a choice, you compare these college characteristics:

  • Total cost of participation
  • Projected debt (if applicable)
  • Graduation rate (four years, five years, six years)
  • Cooperation or internship opportunities and salaries
  • Placement rate and mid-career earnings by principal
  • Default rate of new graduates, ideally by
  • Career counseling services and college placement efforts

The following online resources are helpful in determining ROI:

University Navigator provides an overview of a school’s graduation, placement and student loan default rates.

University scorecard provides information on how much money a school’s graduates earn, the average amount of student debt they have on average, and the number of graduates who keep their loans in good standing.

Career Outlook Handbook provides information on different jobs, projected growth, median wages and needed education.

Third Way Price-to-Earnings (PEP) provides a map of the institutions and information on the number of years it takes for students to recoup their investment.

Million dollar questions

Game show fans, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire be aware that participants have four possible answers to each challenge question as they ascend to the jackpot. Fortunately, they also have several “lifelines” to help them with their decision-making. What or who are your lifelines when choosing a college? Here are some suggestions from the show:

Call a friend: It can be helpful to have a trusted friend or family member who knows you well and who you can share your ideas with. Hire supporters who can help you think through your decision without being judgmental. Be clear about the role you hope they will play and don’t expect them to give you answers. Instead, allow them to ask you good questions.

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50:50: This lifeline allows candidates to suppress two of the four possible answers, which simplifies the decision. Leidy Klotz, professor at the University of Virginia, author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, found that less is more, the subtraction approach can often be the best solution. Just like you did when you took standardized tests, eliminate all possible options so that you can focus on the legitimate contenders. It is easier to choose between two colleges than six.

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Ask the audience: Think about crowdsourcing your decision. Do not give up real choice control, but interview a diverse representative sample of voters and solicit their views on each school. Talk to current students, alumni, faculty, staff, locals, and others with intimate knowledge of the college and the community. Pay attention to congruence in their reflections and look for common themes about the strengths and challenges of the school. Here are some questions you might ask yourself based on the experiences of your interlocutors:

  • Will I feel comfortable? Do the accommodation and food options meet my needs?
  • Will I feel safe? Is the physical and intellectual environment in which I will be safe and able to take risks?
  • Will I belong? Are there people out there who will challenge me, support me, stretch me and encourage me?
  • Can I be successful? Will I have the freedom and the opportunity to grow and excel?
  • Can I prosper? Will this college allow me to be the best of myself, achieve my goals and explore my interests?

Skip / Change / Cut question: These lifesavers simply avoid the issue all together. Ultimately, if you are crippled in making the decision, you may not be ready. Having multiple college options is a privilege, but maybe your inability to choose means you need more time to decide, or you’re not very excited about an option. If you need a few more days to put together the information you need to decide, you can often request an extension of the May 1 deadline. You can also delay your college plans and take a gap / intermediate year to better understand what you want. If you choose this approach, it is wise to drop off somewhere and ask for a postponement so that the college can reserve a spot for you.

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Put on your outfits

One of the best ways to test a decision is to live with it. This is why some car dealerships allow buyers to take the car home for a week. Even the mattress manufacturers allow you to sleep on your new purchase for a few nights without a return penalty. While it is not as easy with choosing a college, especially in a pandemic, you can replicate this experience to some extent. You might not be able to get to campus or spend a lot of time there before you have to make up your mind, but a little role play will help you a lot.

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, spend a few days imagining you’ve chosen each school and embrace your inner mascot. You might decide if you will be a Red Devil (Dickinson College) or a Saint (St. Lawrence University). Or maybe you choose between being Lord (Kenyon College) or Diplomat (Franklin & Marshall College). Dress up and tell yourself you’ve enrolled in this college, doing your best to get rid of your other options. If you have a chosen college sweatshirt, hat, mug, or other gear, wear it, use it, live it. Visit their website each day to see what news they are posting and what is happening on campus. Interact with other admitted students online. Check out the college and enrolled student social media feeds. After you have been “all-in”, repeat this exercise for the other colleges that you are seriously considering and then, most importantly, reflect on the experience. Some questions you might ask yourself are:

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  • What is my bowel reaction?
  • What turned me on?
  • What reservations or feelings of regret have I had throughout the week?
  • What made me nervous?
  • Did something specific make me uncomfortable?
  • What was I missing if anything?

You get to do it

While making a decision may seem overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. Remember, it’s not life or death, and the path to a college degree isn’t always linear. Choice can be empowering if approached with the right frame of mind. Seize the opportunity and be sure to celebrate the chance to have options. You choose your path. Once you’ve finalized your decision, be confident and get the most out of it. The community you join will be lucky enough to have you on their campus.


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