It's Decision Season - I'm In, But I'm Having Trouble Choosing Which College to Attend, How Should I Decide?

Ah decision season.  This blog posting is the last in a series that tackles students' most frequently asked questions during this phase of the college admissions process.

D-day is almost here -- your deposit is due by May 1st.  You know that, but you're struggling with your decision.  I understand -- it is an important decision. Let me offer a decision making strategy that works well, especially in circumstances where emotion is high.  It is a strategy that forces you to take a step back and really evaluate what you want and what they offer.

  • Define your criteria. Go back to the criteria you developed for putting together your college list. Review it and update it with all that you have learned about yourself over the last year or so. Don't be afraid to include criteria that are very specific to you. After all, this is a decision about you.
  • Make a chart with the colleges where you have been accepted -- the contenders -- listed across the top and then the criteria down the side.
  • Rank the colleges on each criterion with the college that is best as #1, the college that is next best as #2, and so on. Force yourself to make choices - there should not be ties! Add up the rankings, and the college with the lowest total is the winner. See my example below:

 

College A

College B

College C

Has a strong Classics department.

3

1

2

Offers good study abroad programs.

3

2

1

Offers good opportunities for student & faculty interaction.

3

1

2

Students take studies seriously, but not a cut-throat atmosphere.

1

3

2

Has a good fencing program in which I can participate.

1

3

2

Most of the social activity is campus-based.

1

2

3

Is a beautiful campus and has nice dorms.

1

3

2

Places a lot of graduates in top Ph.D. programs.

3

1

2

TOTAL

16

14

16

In my example, College B is the winner.  But you aren't done yet.

Test that decision. Try it on. Does it seem right?  If it does, then you are done.  Accept the offer.  Pay the deposit.  Get the sweatshirt.  Tell the world.  If it doesn't seem right, you should take some time to discover why the decision doesn't feel right.  Here are a few questions to ask yourself in that discovery process:
  • Is my response my own or someone else's? Continuing our example: I actually do want to go to College B. But I dread telling my parents because they want me to go to College C where there is strong sense of community. I urge you to think carefully before you let them dictate your choice. At the very least, engage in a conversation in which you explain your decision-making process and your reasons for choosing College B. You might overcome their objections and persuade them that College B is really the best college for you.
  • Are there criteria I haven't named that are actually driving my decision? Example: I didn't say it was important to me to be near home, but when I ask myself why College B isn't where I want to go, the answer that I get is that I don't want to be far from home. If you discover additional criteria, add them to your chart and re-rank. See if the results change.
  • Do I prefer the college that is good but not great in all categories over the college that is great in some categories, but pretty bad in others? Sometimes this decision-making process ends up pushing you towards College B because it gets several 1s, but also a few 3s, over College C that has mostly 2s. If you lean toward College C, it means that you put equal weight on all criteria and College C is probably your best choice. Try that decision on and see if it fits.
  • Am I just carrying over disappointment from not getting into my first choice school? If you reconsider your decision and you discover that you aren't feeling particularly excited or good about any of the colleges on your list, then you have a disappointment hangover. You need to purge that disappointment and then come back to this task. One good thing to do is to find one thing that really excites you about each of the colleges that did admit you and really talk that aspect up with yourself. 

    Keep questioning yourself until you get to a decision that feels right OR until it is April 30th

If you still don't have a decision that feels right on April 30th, then you are probably suffering from the decision paralysis induced by a case of perfectionism.  You are worried about making the RIGHT decision, when you should be focused on making a GOOD decision.  As is often the case in life, there may not be one right decision here.  So you have to accept that and focus on making a good decision.  On April 30th, sit down and do the chart one last time, review it with a trusted advisor, and then accept the college that is the winner, resting easy that you've made a thoughtfully considered, well reasoned, GOOD decision!

Comments or Questions?

Here is your chance to tell the world your decision.  Post which college will be your alma mater and we will celebrate with you! 

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)