Prospective college students should expect to be getting acceptance letters throughout the next couple of months. By April, you should have a very good idea which schools have said yes, and you (or your kids) will have some big decisions to make.
Recent experience has taught us that paying for college has big, life-long consequences. Some students essentially signed up for mortgage-sized debt that sticks with them for life. Today’s incoming college students know they have to think very carefully before taking on debt for college, and which school they attend matters.
Here are some steps to take as the college acceptance letters start coming in:
Make sure you’ve gotten all of your letters
Whether it’s an acceptance or rejection letter, you want to know all of your options so you can make the most informed choice. It’s a good idea to have a spreadsheet listing every school you applied to, along with the dates you applied, and the dates they responded. Make sure every school you’re genuinely interested in gets back to you by the end of March.
If you are informed that you’ve been deferred or placed on a waitlist, consider writing a letter of continued interest. Do this if a school that you really like has waitlisted you — the letter should confirm for them that you are eager to attend their school, are capable of succeeding as a student there, and will say yes if offered a spot.
Research your top college options
You’ve probably already done your homework before applying, but now is a time to fill in any blanks. If you haven’t visited your desired campus yet, do so before you decide to accept. If you can’t physically get to the campus, find out if you can have a ‘virtual visit’ online.
As part of your research, ask the same questions of each potential school:
- How many first-year students drop out every year? (The national average is around 30% — do your schools measure up?)
- How many students graduate every year, compared to how many new students arrive? What percentage of those graduates attended that school for their entire time in college?
- Does the school offer a strong program in my chosen major? What is its reputation in the field?
- What kind of town is the college in? Is it a big city, or rural area? What kinds of activities are nearby?
- What kind of culture does the school have? What kind of on-campus events are offered, and what is the school’s public image?
- What is traveling to and from the campus like? Will you be able to come home easily a few times per year?
Read reviews from other college students and alumni
Talk to your family first, as they will be the most impacted by your decision. Listen to the experience of others, especially if you have friends or family who went to the school you are interested in attending.
If you can, connect with current or former students of the school. How did they feel about attending that college? What do they wish they’d known when they were in your shoes?
Talk to employees of the school, and locals if you visit the college’s town. How does the town feel about the college? Are there plenty of jobs available nearby for college students?
Be sure to talk to your current teachers and guidance counselors as well. Your guidance counselor might have some paperwork they need to do on your behalf, so don’t leave them out of the loop.
Compare your notes from each college
Now gather all of that research for all of the schools you’re considering and use it to make the right decision. Come up with a list of pros and cons for each school. As yourself, “what are my must-haves, and which schools offer those?”
Try to create a ranked list of your preference, and use your research to fine-tune this list.
A big point of comparison here should be the financial considerations. What differences are there in tuition costs? Which schools are offering the best financial aid packages? Use this tool from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to compare offers.
Also consider other kinds of financial costs, like dorm fees, meal plans, campus parking, supplies and textbooks. These costs will add up and can vary from one school to another.
Compare college acceptance letter deadlines
Your spreadsheet should include all the relevant deadlines. Mark these on a calendar (or in your smartphone’s calendar app), so you don’t miss anything important:
- FAFSA (Do this one as early as you can!)
- Financial Aid applications
- Sending transcripts
- Placement tests
- Acceptance (usually this is May 1st)
- Housing applications
- Fees due
Respond to all college acceptance letters
You’ll be sending an acceptance letter to the school you choose. Don’t forget to send decline letters to the schools you won’t attend, so they can move on to their waitlist and accept another student in your place.
You may need to accept any offers of financial aid separately from agreeing to the college’s letter of acceptance.
Some initial deposits and payments might be due early on, so start paying these as you are sending your acceptance letter. By the time you’re saying yes to your chosen school, you should have a good idea of how you’re going to be paying for college. Check out our StudentDebt.org site for more advice on planning financially for school.
Something you might think about as you make your final choice is starting small. There’s nothing wrong with spending your first few years of college at a small state school or even a community college, then transferring to your desired school for the last couple of years. The school you graduate from is much more important than where you spend the first two years.
That strategy can help you avoid high costs as you make a firm decision what field you want to major in. Like we said above, around a 1/3 of new college students drop out after the first year, so there are plenty of slots for Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors who want to transfer in, and in case you end up being one of the 30% who drops out, try to incur as little debt as possible during your first year.
Finish High School strong
Now that you’re close to moving on to college, don’t blow it at the finish line. Any sudden drop in grades could come back to haunt you as your school gets those final transcripts.
Also make sure you don’t make any big disciplinary mistakes. It’s natural to celebrate as you finish school and get accepted to college, but if you party too hard and get into legal or disciplinary trouble at school, you could hurt your college acceptance.
These days, your online reputation is taken into account by colleges. You already protect your privacy online by setting good passwords and securing your accounts. Treat your reputation as seriously as your privacy and protect it. Don’t post something publicly, even in jest, that you would be embarrassed to have your new college see.
Congratulations! You’re going to be a college student soon. That means a lot more financial responsibility and decisions to make. You may even start getting credit card offers. Be careful to establish credit the right way and use it wisely. Follow our advice on how to establish credit for new college students, and call us if this kind of debt gets out of hand.