Now It's Up to You: Choosing Your College

It's decision time. For some of you -- those with a clear first-choice or an early admission -- your choice of which college to attend may be straightforward. For others -- those with no clear first-choice and multiple admission letters -- choosing will require further thought. Today we're pleased to welcome guest blogger John Carpenter, author of Going Geek: What Every Smart Kid (and Every Smart Parent) Should Know About College Admissions, who's here with some advice for seniors on priorities, cost, and owning the decision about the college where you'll spend the next four years.


Making decisions is something people do every day--hundreds of times a day actually, and yet it is a concept that we as humans often freak out about.  When you’re making a decision about something as big as where to go to college, it’s natural to experience some anxiety or doubt--after all, you want to be sure you’re making the best choice possible, right?

In the last week I have spoken with dozens of kids who are struggling a little bit about choosing which college to attend.  Now that the decisions are in and you know what your options are, it’s up to you to choose which school to accept and which ones to reject.  In a way, that’s pretty cool--the shoe is suddenly on the other foot, and you’re the one with the power now.  The colleges all want you to choose them just as you wanted to be chosen when you submitted your applications.

But I digress.  So how should you make a decision about which college to attend?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Figure out what your priorities are and be honest.  Is the academic program what comes first for you?  Or is it more important to you to attend the highest-ranking school, one with a big name?   Or is it about beautiful the campus is?  School spirit?  Athletic reputation?  When you think of college, what do you think of?  What is it that you care about the most?  It’s okay to make this decision based on what YOU want your college to be.  Identify your priority and then choose the school that best matches that priority and then see if that choice feels good. You might actually change your mind, but that’s okay, too--you have until May 1. 
  2. Cost can be a very big deal.  For many of the kids I know, the overall price of attending college will be the primary factor in making a decision, and that’s a perfectly acceptable reason to choose a school.  Think about things such as your financial aid package, the amount of loans you might have to pay back after four years or five years, the cost to travel to the school, the money you or your parents will be handing over month after month--are these things that you are comfortable with?  There is no financial sense in choosing a college that is out of your family’s price range, so talk to your parents about what is realistic and what isn’t.   That will help you narrow things down for sure.
  3. Another way to look at this decision is to view it through the lens of personal values.  For example, if you care deeply about a particular social issue, make your decision based on which school provides the best opportunities for you to be surrounded by people who also care about the things you care about.  If you value diversity, be sure you choose a school known for its multicultural complexity.  If you care about volunteering with the poor, pick the school that has demonstrated commitment to outreach.  If your faith is the most important thing, choose a place where you can be surrounded by faculty and students who share that faith.
  4. Finally, I always ask students to think about the last time they made a big decision.  What is your usual pattern for making decisions?  Do you make a list of pros and cons, do you go with your gut, or do you let other people influence you?  Whatever method you routinely use, think about that and if you’ve been happy with most of your big decisions.  It helps if you can identify the strategy you already have been using, and then you can use it again.

I’ve had kids put the college decision off until April 30, and I’ve had kids make a decision right after receiving the last admissions notification.  There is no right or wrong way to choose as long as you stay true to yourself. 

My point in all this is to caution you to spend time thinking about what is really important to you.  Identify that and then it will be easy to choose your college.  The mistakes come when we focus on the colleges and not on our own values and priorities--and those can be money, prestige, social issues, dreams, or academics.  If you can pin down what you care about, you won’t have so much trouble choosing which college to attend. 

And last, don’t make this a bigger deal than it really is. Sometimes we make decisions and then they turn out differently than we thought they might.  That is also natural.  So, if your college decision turns out not to be the best choice you ever made, guess what?  You can make a new decision and that is perfectly fine, too. It’s called transfer.

Good luck!


John Carpenter is Director of Admissions and University Counseling at UWC Costa Rica. He also works as an independent college counselor and is the author of Going Geek: What Every Smart Kid (and Every Smart Parent) Should Know About College AdmissionsYou can find John's blog at





As a private college counselor, I am helping students with the college decision process right now. I agree that it is important for students to focus on their original priorities and how well each school measures up. Often, as we discuss the pros and cons, one school does emerge over the others as the right fit.

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