National College Decision Day, May 1, is looming. Here are 5 tips to help make that final decision

Just ask any family that is struggling with making their final college choice how envious they are of the families where it was a slam-dunk easy decision.

It’s that time. A final college decision needs to be made, and a deposit check needs to be written and received by May 1, National College Decision Day, to save their spot for the freshman class.

Here are some tips for families suffering through sleepless nights, pros and cons lists, self-doubt and the agony of indecision.

  1. Shrink the list. Eliminate the colleges where the all-in price (tuition, room/board, expenses) makes you gasp loudly, i.e., where you just feel uncomfortable. Compare the financial aid packages of the remaining colleges on an apples-to-apples basis by creating a simple spreadsheet with the following headings: tuition, room, board and expenses (include travel and entertainment) equals Total Cost and then grants and work-study, with separate line items for subsidized loans and unsubsidized loans. Remember, loans are just deferred payment, and no one wants to saddle young graduates with a lot of debt at graduation, nor should parents take on more than is comfortable. Make sure the grants are applicable for all four years because some colleges attract students with generous merit aid that is only available for their freshman year.
  2. Network socially. Join Facebook groups for admitted students, read reviews and/or chat with current students on College Confidential, speak to friends and neighbors who have children or relatives attending the colleges you’re considering.
  3. Compare the soft stuff. If you’re interested in rooting for your sports team, the emphasis on sports matters. If everyone complains about the quality of the food, whether or not the meal plan options are palatable matters. If you need to have array of international cuisine within walking distance, the culture of the campus and the surrounding area matters. If you can’t stand the heat and the dorms don’t have air conditioning, it matters. Remember, you’re going to be living there for four years.
  4. Evaluate the academics. Which companies are recruiting on campus? What is the grad school acceptance rates for your anticipated area of study? What is the depth and breadth of your major?
  5. Think beyond the workforce or grad school. Your college years should teach you how to think critically. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and author of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” says, “Your college education should prepare you to thrive by creating habits of mind and spirit that will continue to develop far beyond one’s university years. Thriving means realizing your capabilities, and a liberal education should enable you to discover capabilities you didn’t even know you had while deepening those that provide you with meaning and direction.”

He also shares his thoughts on making the final decision. “Your college choice isn’t just about “fit” and “comfort;” and it certainly shouldn’t be reduced to the prestige of the school or the amenities if offers. Your college choice should reflect your aspirations, where you can imagine yourself discovering more about the world and your capabilities to interact with it.

“The college you choose should be a place at which you can thrive, finding out so much more about yourself as you also discover how the world works, how to make meaning from it and how you might contribute to it.”

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions