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What You Need to Do Before National College Decision Day

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National College Decision Day is right around the corner. On May 1, high school seniors around the country will be making what's arguably one of the most important choices they'll ever make—where they'll spend the next four years learning the skills that will serve them as they embark on their careers.

Sifting through acceptance letters can be a daunting task, especially with the deadline fast approaching. If you've yet to settle on which school is right for you, though, you can rest easy. We're breaking down everything you need to know before National College Decision Day.

Decide what your deal breakers are

Every student is different. For some, being in a big city with lots of networking and internship opportunities is a must. For others, schools that offer the most competitive academic programs or the best financial aid packages are going to reign supreme. In other words, selecting the right college is anything but a one-size-fits-all approach.

Begin the process by making a list of all the colleges that have accepted you, then jot down the key factors of each. (Think: location, intended major, costs, relevant notes from a campus tour, etc.) After seeing it all in black and white, are there any schools you can weed out from the get-go? For example, you may have originally had your sights set on a university that doesn't actually offer the most robust program for your major.

The takeaway here is to get clear on what's important to you and identify your deal breakers. Then let these things help guide your decision.

Contact current students and alumni

Holding a stack of acceptance letters is a good problem to have, but that doesn't necessarily make the decision-making process any easier. The best way to make an informed choice is to get a read on what your life will look like at each school. This is where networking comes in—a vital skill to sharpen before you jump-start your career.

Just as job hunters schedule informational interviews with people working in their dream roles, high schoolers are wise to connect with current students or recent alumni. Think of it as a brain-picking session where you can ask the big questions. Frame the conversation this way:

  • What was their experience like?
  • What do they wish they knew?
  • What would they have done differently if they had the chance?
  • What do they like/dislike about their school? The town?
  • If their course of study is the same as yours, how do they feel about it?

The idea is to gather insights from someone who's already in the trenches (or recently was). A casual coffee date or candid phone conversation could make you see these schools in a new light. To connect with current students or recent alumni, begin by asking around your own circle of friends and family, putting some feelers out on social media, and leveraging LinkedIn. Another great resource is each university's alumni relations office.

If you haven't found anyone and it's coming down to the wire, schedule a meeting with your guidance counselor for some last-minute advice before Decision Day.

Determine what makes the most financial sense

A number of factors go into ferreting out college expenses, but location is a biggie. Opting for a private, out-of-state tuition translates to a much bigger financial commitment than attending a public, in-state university. On average, the latter runs about $9,410 per year, according to College Board, but that number jumps to $32,410 for a private education. After tacking on additional expenses like housing, food, transportation, books, and the like, it isn't long before sticker shock settles in. For those who need a hand filling in the blanks, here's a handy guide for accurately ballparking the price tag.

Before making the big decision, run the numbers with a side-by-side comparison of all the schools that have accepted you. After tallying up the final costs, check in with how much you've currently got saved. Is it enough to cover the bill? Have you been awarded any grants or scholarships that'll ease the burden? Will you be leaning on student loans to see you through? (If so, make sure to cross these important tasks off your to-do list before applying.)

These aren't small questions. If you answer honestly, paying attention to your responses should bring some things into focus and help you narrow down which school is right for you.

Remember the most important things

Making the right choice isn't always easy, but it's more than possible to make it a little less agonizing. Begin by clarifying what's important to you in a college and identifying your deal breakers, then compare how each school measures up. Connecting with current students or recent alumni can also provide a realistic snapshot of what life is really like at each school. And of course, be sure to weigh the financial pros and cons before pulling the trigger.

With any luck, your College Decision Day will be easier than you think.

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