You can still use a step-by-step guide on how to choose a college — who doesn’t love a guide with handy tips? Here’s what to do in seven steps.

What’s the best way to choose a college?

The college search invites hundreds of questions, doesn’t it? You can’t figure out how to get your kid to make a decision.

And your student may be thinking, “How can I get Mom and Dad to relax about this?”

It’s a process, isn’t it? Trust the process. Unless it’s April and your kiddo still hasn’t taken the ACT, you’ll be just fine.

The all-important question about how to choose a college starts with one simple step: Make a list.

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Step 1: Develop your short list.

The short list! Or maybe it’s a long list. Help your child develop a list of schools that he thinks might meet his requirements. This list may be derived from hours of research. You might also come up with the list based on what you think you know about a college. Kids create their short list based on all kinds of reasons, from a great ski and snowboard club to the fact that his best friend goes there.

Step 2: Rank your priorities. 

It’s easy for your kiddo to throw up his or her hands and say you have no idea what you’re looking for. But deep down, you really do know one or two things you want in your ideal school. (Parents, your kids really do — even if he or she says, “I don’t know” a dozen times a month.) Maybe you only know for sure that you want a stellar cafeteria — that’s a great start! Here are a few factors you might want to use to position your short list

  • Size: Have you always wanted to go to a large state university or do you prefer the smaller feel of a private liberal arts college or community college?
  • Distance from home: Do you prefer to go to school in your hometown or on the opposite coast?
  • Cost: Of course this is a factor! What scholarships and need-based financial aid can you get from the schools on your short list? Note: It’s often better to visit a school to get an idea of how much it’ll cost you. You can’t always tell how much a school will cost from a quick internet search!
  • Majors: Can you find the majors you want? It’s okay if you don’t know for sure what you want to major in. At the very least, are there some that you might consider?
  • Athletic opportunities: Are you an athlete who wants to continue your athletic career in college? If so, the right coach, team, athletic trainers and other factors will be important.

Step 3: Visit schools based on your rankings.

Scheduling a college visit and visiting schools is next on the agenda. And this part can be so much fun!

Call Admission Offices

You can sign up for a college admission visit by calling the admission office. Most colleges have a campus visit coordinator who will answer the phone and schedule your visit.

You can also visit the college’s website to set up your visit. Just know that if you set it up online, you may not be able to get really specific requests. Let’s say you want to meet with an on-campus dietician. It may not be an option on the online visit form. However, the campus visit coordinator may be more than happy to make that meeting happen.

Visit Campuses

This is your opportunity to ask every question that comes to mind. Ask any question you can think of — don’t be shy. Remember, students, admission counselors, financial aid officers, professors and others really want you to ask questions. They really do!

Build Those Relationships!

Get to know your admission counselor. Building a relationship with the admission counselor at each school could result in a lot of advantages for you. What if an admission counselor knows you’re going through some financial struggles? Or knows you have a disability? He or she may be more apt to point out some scholarship avenues.

Building relationships in this day and age gives some high schoolers the heebie-jeebies. Shelve the shyness and remember that admission counselors are usually super-cool people.

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Step 4: Complete applications and count acceptance letters.

Note: You can complete applications before you visit campus, but you can also wait and do your applications after your visit. 

  1. Know your application deadlines. Some schools require rolling admission but you may also have schools that ask you to apply early decision, early action or more. Ask about admission deadlines during your college visits.
  2. Read the directions on each application. Then follow them.
  3. Include all information requested information. And be honest here. If you don’t have a 4.0 grade point average, don’t put it on the application. The school will find out eventually even if it asks for self-reported information. 
  4. Spend a lot of time on your college essay. This is something you’re going to want to get help on. Ask your English teacher, your next-door neighbor who happens to be an accomplished freelance writer, a college and career coach — you know who to ask. Don’t go it alone. And craft it oh, so carefully.
  5. Be choosy about who writes your recommendations. Don’t ask your football coach to write your letters of recommendation. No school will take you seriously — even if your football coach is a literary genius. Choose a teacher or other influential individual who knows your strengths and can write a stellar letter.
  6. Request official copies of your high school transcripts. Ask your school counselor to send in your official transcripts. Check in a week later just to be sure it’s out the door.
  7. Check with your admission counselor to be sure he or she has received everything. Your admission counselor at each school should be able to confirm whether those transcripts and letters of recommendation have arrived. (Have we raved about those rock star admission counselors enough yet?)
  8. Finally, the fun (and sometimes not so fun) part of the application process happens. You get acceptance letters (hurray!) and might even hear back about admission denials. Here’s the thing about rejection letters: It doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to attend that particular school in your life. You may just need to attend a different school for a semester or a year and apply as a transfer. It might not mean good-bye forever. You could also ask your admission counselor if you can craft an appeal.

Step 5: File the FAFSA.

What is the FAFSA? Get started by creating an FSA ID — one for a parent and one for a student. It’s fairly easy to fly solo from there.

Still in the dark? You can get help on the FAFSA application at college financial aid offices. (While you’re at it, you can ask, “What is financial aid?” to people trained to guide you.)

Granted, not every financial aid officer is free to help you right now, so ask your child’s school counselor about other resources available to help with the FAFSA if you don’t feel comfortable filling it out on your own.

Step 6: Compare financial aid awards.

After you file the FAFSA, you’ll get your financial aid awards. Once the financial aid awards come rolling in, it’s time to compare the awards you’ve received from all schools. Note: They’ll all come in at different times. Here are a few things to ask yourself about each award.

What is the Cost of Attendance?

Most financial aid awards will include the cost of attendance for one year on the financial aid award. Most schools publish it directly on the financial aid award letter. However, some don’t. You might need to look back at your visit materials or look online to find that published cost.

How Much am I Getting in Grants and Scholarships vs. Loans?

Figure out how much of what a school gives you is free money. Scholarships and loans = free money that you don’t need to pay back. You’ll have to pay loans back — with interest. Some schools may not distinguish the types of aid and you’ll have to figure it out.

What’s the Net Cost?

The net cost is different than the cost of attendance. The net cost tells you how much it will actually cost you to attend a particular institution. It’s the total cost minus any gift aid. You may need to calculate the net cost on your own. It might not be broken down for you on your award letter.

Did I Get Work-Study?

Work-study is a federal program that gives your school money so you can work while you’re on campus. Schools all receive different amounts and may award work-study amounts differently.

Don’t be surprised if you get $1,000 in work-study at one school and $2,000 at another.

Didn’t get work-study at a particular school? Ask the school’s financial aid office if it can put it on. It just might happen.

How Much is Left?

There may be a gap in the total cost minus what you’ve received in financial aid — and that’s common. It also might not be printed right on the financial aid award. You may have to calculate it.

Do you have savings to cover the remaining gap? Will you need to take out loans? This is the part where you figure out how much you and your student can contribute.

Step 6: Do the heart/gut test. 

You may know exactly which school you’re planning to attend after all your financial aid awards. Sometimes, it’s less clear.

It’s time to apply the heart and gut test. This is a test where you figure out which school draws you in. You might not be able to put your finger on why — it just does. 

Trust that inner voice. So many students have said, “I chose College X because it just felt right.” It happens more than you think. What feels right at gut-level for you? If you still can’t decide, do another visit. Maybe it’ll take an overnighter to help you make your decision.

Step 7: Make your decision.

It’s officially time! Hurray! Congratulations — you’ve decided which school you’re going to attend. The next step is to tell the college you’d like to attend the great news.

And please, oh, please, tell the other colleges that you applied to that you’re not going to those schools. Don’t assume they’ll stop contacting you. An admission counselor must keep bugging you until he or she knows you’re no longer interested.

Send your admission counselors at each school an email. Don’t be surprised if they ask which school you’re attending and why. They often need to know for their own research purposes — they’re not just being nosy.

Finally, the last step is to send scholarship thank yous. Sincerely thank anyone who has given you a scholarship. Here’s more about how to write a scholarship thank you letter if you’ve got writer’s block.

Choose the Best Fit College

Listen to that inner voice — it knows a lot. And if you’re a student, listen to your parents! They’ve got some life experience that can help drive your decision, even if they didn’t go to college themselves.

Take a deep breath, tackle each step one-by-one, and pretty soon, it’ll be May and you’ll be graduating from high school.

Oh, and enjoy the ride. You’re about to go on the best adventure.

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