College “signing day” is around the corner and many of our TeenSHARP students have a big problem: they are struggling to choose between multiple great college offers.

Now, most people would gladly have such a “problem.” When I was applying to college I had a strong academic record but was severely uninformed about my options. I only applied to two colleges close to home – Temple University and Rutgers – and was fortunate to receive a full scholarship to Rutgers-Camden. My story is the norm for students of color and low-income students in America. They are much less likely to apply to and attend a selective school and tend to stay close to home with their college choices.

Our TeenSHARP students have a completely different experience with the college admissions process. The list of acceptances of our 2016 graduating class includes Williams College, Georgetown University, Swarthmore College, Emory University, Wesleyan, University of Richmond, Dickinson, Ithaca College, Morehouse College, American University, Carleton College, and more.

Our students are ecstatic about gaining admission into some of our nation’s most selective colleges. But after the initial excitement wanes, they are sometimes confused (and a bit overwhelmed) about how to choose between multiple great colleges with similar financial aid packages.

To help clear up some of this confusion, I’m sharing an email I sent to one of our TeenSHARPies a few years ago as she was deciding between full scholarships to UPenn, Smith College, Pomona College, and many other top colleges.

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Dear ______________

As we mentioned over the weekend, we’re so proud of your accomplishments and excited you have so many excellent options for your post-secondary education. You do have a tough decision to make, but I want to remind you that these are not “make or break” choices as we’re confident you will make the most of any university you attend. The various options do have pluses and minuses that you should weigh as you make your decision. Below I’ve listed some actions you should take to make the most informed decision and some criteria you should consider as you compare colleges:

  1. Don’t feel pressured or worry about other people’s expectations
    • Many would love to live vicariously through you as this opportunity and experience is one that few will have. Embrace the feedback, the “if I were you” recommendations, the excitement from family/friends/mentors, but know that you need not please anyone with your decision. After all the fanfare, you will be the one adjusting to life on a college campus and the rigor of work at a selective institution.
  1. Compare each school’s LBFO (Last, Best, and Final Offer)
    • Money should probably not be your sole criterion for comparing these colleges (especially since you have nearly a full scholarship to each of the colleges) but it should certainly be a preponderant criterion. The cost of college has increased faster than the rate of inflation and college students generally graduate with an average of $30,000 in debt. You will not have to worry about this (thankfully!) at any of your potential colleges but you do want to make sure you get the best offer possible. While one of your offers currently looks the best, you should be in contact with the other schools you’re considering and let them know you’ve received a better financial aid package at another school. If you are indeed interested in attending those schools and this is the main barrier, many schools will be willing to match the offer of a competing school. Make sure you’re comparing each school’s Last, Best and Final Offer (LBFO)!
    • As you weigh each school’s LBFO, also make sure you’re counting all of the costs of attending that school. It’s possible you think you have a better offer at a given college only to realize hidden costs make that school more expensive to attend. Here are a few to consider:
      • Move-in costs
      • Costs of traveling home between semesters and during breaks
      • Technology- some colleges provide laptops to all students as part of tuition or as a scholarship. If not, you might need to buy one
      • Scholarships–Some colleges reduce your need-based aid if you receive an external scholarship. Others will allow you to add your external scholarship to the aid you receive from the university. Check the university policy on outside scholarships!
      • Summer research/internship funding–some colleges offer money to students to take unpaid internships over the summer or engage in research with a professor. While all of the colleges on your list probably offer this sort of funding, is it offered to more students at one college than the other?
      • Study abroad–some colleges apply your same financial aid package if you study abroad and some might not.
  1. Compare the academic supports, resources, and opportunities
    • As bright and hardworking as you are, you will inevitably experience challenges as you transition to greater rigor and expectations at a highly-selective institution. So a college’s success with supporting students during this transition should be a major factor in your decision. All colleges have a writing center and tutors for various subjects. But does the college’s level of support extend beyond institutional structures to a culture that promotes “help-seeking” and concern for the success of all students? Find some students (preferably first-generation college goers, underrepresented students, or other students from your public school system) who can speak to the challenges they faced and the types of support they received. I have no doubt that you know how to seek help if you’re facing challenges but you also want a university that is proactive in recognizing where students struggle and reaching out to offer help. It shouldn’t all be student-driven.
    • As you evaluate the academic supports, resources, and opportunities, also consider the level of interaction you will have with your professors. You can build relationships with professors at any university but this is much easier at some universities. Will you be able to receive feedback on your writing and your work from professors or will you be working mostly with Teaching Assistants? What is the average class size you should expect to see? Can you engage in research with your professors as a freshman/sophomore or is this something reserved only for seniors and graduate students? Does the university provide funding for undergraduate students to attend academic conferences?
    • Consider the areas of research faculty at the campus are engaging in, the academic/research centers the campus offers, service-learning opportunities, etc. Feel free to reach out to any professors or directors of university centers whose work you find intriguing to learn more. You should also look at some of the classes that are offered at the college (and within your potential major). If they offer courses that really get you excited, then that might be the place you want to spend your next four years.
  1. Experience and assess the campus climate, culture, and diversity
    • You can compare opportunities and statistics all you want but how you feel on a given campus will play a big part in your decision. Try to visit all of the campuses and sit in on a few different classes. Talk to students, professors, and alumni about what they love about the campus but also press them to share what they do not like about the campus. Check out blogs/articles about people’s experiences on a given campus but be careful not to generalize too much from any one person’s experiences on campus.

Please let us know if you have any questions or if you need help with anything as you make your decision. We’re super happy for you and look forward to sharing in the fun the next few months will bring for you and your family.

***

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