Student preparing to choose a college


Congrats—you got into college! All that hard work paid off, but if you have multiple acceptances, the job isn’t done yet. Citizens and The Princeton Review teamed up to help you narrow down your options with five steps to help select a college before decision day! We’ll walk you and your parents through comparing aid packages, understanding the total cost of attendance, and keeping track of important deadlines. Read on to get closer to making your big decision!

Step 1. Can you afford it?

  • Closely review your financial aid award letter to understand the total amount of financial aid being offered, and the types of aid. Your aid may include federal work-study (which means you’ll be working part-time), a grant or scholarship (which does not need to be paid back), or a loan (which must be paid back with interest). Federal student loans are the most common type of financial aid awarded, but you can learn more about loan types herePay attention to whether your award letter accounts for the full cost of attendance, or just tuition, room and board. (See step 2.)
  • Explore ways to bridge the gap between what you're offered and what you can afford. If your EFC, or expected family contribution, seems like a real stretch for your family, you're not alone. The awards may fall short of what a family is willing to pay over four years. Finding more money for college takes some time and commitment, so make sure you explore scholarship opportunities starting from your local community all the way to national organizations.
  • Get creative about how you can reduce your costs. It can be expensive to live alone, so consider living with roommates to help split the cost of housing. If work-study isn’t an option, look for a part-time job.

TIP: Leave no stone unturned when hunting for scholarships! Did you know there are scholarships for everything from being tall or short, to creating your prom outfit out of duct tape? You may be pleasantly surprised by your search results.

Step 2. Consider the costs beyond tuition.

  • When comparing colleges, tuition is only one piece of the puzzle. Make sure to factor in room and board, books and supplies, travel costs, and personal expenses.  Some financial aid letters account for all of these, others do not.
  • Make a list of activities you’re interested in and see how much they cost in your school’s area. Movies, sports, restaurants—these prices vary, and they do add up. If you’ll need a car (or bus fare), do your best to account for that.

TIP: Costs vary by region. Want to live off-campus in NYC? That cost will be very different from the cost of housing near a rural campus. Other expenses might vary as well. If you plan to travel home from college regularly, do you only need to cover the cost of gas for a short trip, or are you booking a flight every time? Seeing concerts downtown or catching your university’s football games may cost more at some schools than others.  

Step 3. Account for the long-term costs of a loan.

  • You may be able to take a private loan to fund any gap between your financial aid offer and the total cost of going to college, but that’s not free money. Interest rates determine how much that will cost over time.
  • Adding a co-signer to your loan could help to get it approved, increase the amount you can borrow, and lower the overall interest rate. If you choose to go this route, make sure you don’t have to pay a penny more than is necessary. 

TIP: If you take a private loan, read up on how interest rates work, and what factors affect interest rates, which is covered in more detail in this Citizens article.

Step 4. Visit campus, especially if you haven’t already.

  • It’s one thing not to visit the campus before applying. It’s another not to visit before committing to at least a semester, if not four years, at a particular school. Many colleges offer Admitted Student Days or Weekends. Consider attending if you can, at least for your top choice school, to help confirm your decision. You will likely get a chance to eat the food, walk the campus, and hear directly from faculty, staff and students about majors and programs. The in-person visit is an effective way to confirm whether you want to spend the next four years at that school.
  • When on campus, listen to your gut! So much of your decision about where to go to college might stem from how you feel when you visit the campus, and your emotional connection to the school. During or after your visit, ask yourself:
    • Does the campus feel diverse and inclusive?
    • Do you feel connected to the surrounding community?
    • What’s the food scene like?
    • Could you picture yourself in any of the buildings or common areas around campus?
    • Were you excited to tell your friends or post about your visit on social media?
  • If you can’t visit in person, don’t stress! Find out if the colleges are hosting events for admitted students in a city near you. These local events can be a great way to ask current students or alumni for specifics. You can also browse the school’s online presence to see whether the things it takes pride in resonate with you.

TIP: Make a list of your must-haves and nice-to-haves—everything from majors and class size to cafeteria offerings. Make a checklist of your must-haves and nice-to-haves for your ideal college, then compare your schools side by side to see which college offers more of what you're looking for. When visiting colleges, be sure to check for these 11 things to look for on your college visit.

Step 5. Keep track of deadlines, deposit dates and amounts.

Note Decision Day Deadlines and deposit amounts. Work with your parents to understand payment methods, and make sure you set reminders and calendar deadlines so you make your deposit on time!

Deadlines might be different for each school, so make sure you keep track of things like:

  • Accepting admission (and paying an acceptance fee, if required)
  • Submitting your final high school transcript
  • Applying for housing
  • Signing up for orientation

It’s important to celebrate your college acceptances, and it’s normal to feel both excitement and anxiety about which school to choose. While you have a lot of people rooting for you (and curious to know your final decision), taking these critical steps gives you a solid foundation to make a more informed choice that fits you best.

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