The hard part is over for high school seniors: College applications are in, and most know where they've gotten accepted. Between now and May 1, National College Decision Day, they need to decide where they want to go.
How do you choose where you want to spend the next four years of your life? NBC News spoke to admissions experts and students to find out what the most important factors are for seniors to consider.
Financial aid considerations and scholarships loom large in this decision. Christine VanDeVelde, writer, journalist and co-author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, suggests that students “evaluate and compare your award letters and scholarship offers carefully to make sure where you go is affordable for your family."
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And, she adds, "pay attention to ALL costs, such as books, entertainment, social fees, and travel to and from school.”
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Experts suggest that even students who were fairly certain where they wanted to go to school last fall take another look at their options.
“While there is no one-size-fits-all rule, I encourage students who have some good choices to go and revisit at least two of the programs and, if they have the time and can afford it, potentially more than that," Parke Muth, a national speaker on college admissions who worked for 28 years in admissions at the University of Virginia, said. "Sometimes a student thought a school was merely as safety school and they go there and it just makes a huge difference.”
VanDeVelde notes that “If cost [of visiting a college] is a consideration, call or email the admission office to see if assistance is available. Some colleges sponsor fly-in programs for students who need financial assistance. Also, check for admitted student activities in your own hometown.”
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Dalton Smith, 18, of Ardsley, New York, had a clear favorite from the start, an Ivy League college that had a strong department in his area of interest: industrial and labor relations. As he compiled a college list, his counselor suggested he add Tulane. Smith agreed, but admits that even after he was accepted he thought of Tulane as his “safety.” When he was later offered a place at Cornell as a deferred admit for sophomore year, he was certain he would accept.
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“My mom said, 'You cannot make this decision without seeing Tulane.' It was the smartest thing my mother told me,” he told NBC News.
Between the fall he was admitted and late April when he visited, Tulane sent Smith information about campus organizations and applying for merit scholarships. They had held receptions for admitted students near his home and a professor in his area of interest reached out to him, suggesting a visit and offering an overnight stay with a student in her department. Smith’s view of Tulane changed and after his visited New Orleans and toured the campus on April 29, a mere 48 hours before final decisions were due, he walked straight into the admissions office and put down a deposit. Now a freshman, Smith is certain he made the right decision.
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Muth urges students to delve into colleges’ websites far beyond just the admissions page to explore academic departments and student activities.
“I encourage students that have a particular academic interest to reach out to a faculty member and ask any questions they have that are not answered on the website,” he said. Once colleges have admitted students, they are enthusiastic about providing more information, and admissions offices will often connect students with people on campus who can answer their questions.
“From what a college shows you, everything looks shiny and perfect. You never hear anything negative. I think this is the place to be, but how do I know until I am there?”
Alyssa Blum, 17, of Long Island, thought last fall that she wanted a large school far from home. But now, looking at her acceptances, she says, “I don’t really want to feel like I am in a big class of people that I don’t know.”
Social media, both accepted students Facebook groups and GroupMe conversations among students, have helped her learn more. While her interest in being a business major is unchanged, she finds that after visiting the schools that have admitted her, she prefers a school where classes are taught by professors and not teaching assistants, where the first two years will not be spent in massive lecture halls trying to complete general education requirements, and where online courses will not be part of her syllabus.
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Jamie Katz, 18, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, is also reevaluating the schools she had initially pictured herself at when applying.
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“The stress is in picking the right school,” she said. “From what a college shows you, everything looks shiny and perfect. You never hear anything negative. I think this is the place to be, but how do I know until I am there?”
Katz is focused on her financial aid offers, but now she is looking closely at five-year programs leading to a Bachelor's and Master's degree, and the athletic, Greek, and religious life at each college. She has not joined the accepted students Facebook group at the schools she got into, but instead has made contact with a student she knows from home at each of the schools she is considering to find out who has been happy with their choice and what the pros and cons of each college are.
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VanDeVelde urges students to take the time and “Go back to your original list of priorities and see what is important to you now. Teenagers change — a lot — between the beginning and end of senior year. You can make a list of pros and cons or talk it through with friends or your high school college counselor."
But, she said, you don't have to talk to absolutely everybody to make a decision for yourself. That can only confuse you further.
"You’re the expert about what you want,” she said.
Lisa Heffernan is a cofounder of Grown and Flown, a site for parents of 15 to 25-year-olds.