How to Decide between Two Colleges

How to Decide between Two Colleges

Sarawut Aiemsinsuk /

Trying to decide between two (or more) colleges is a good problem to have. It means you have options, and you probably have a couple of good ones. If you’re excited by more than one of the possibilities within your reach, if you have to decide between two colleges, making your final decision can be difficult. In fact, the days leading up to May 1, National Decision Day, may be filled with dread, second-guessing, and nervousness.

I remember that anxiety. In 2008, to my amazement, I received acceptances from two of the schools at the top my short list. Both of them were small liberal arts colleges, and they both offered to meet 100% of my family’s financial need, which meant that their costs were the same, right down to the penny. Their enrollment statistics, endowments, and academic strengths were similar, too. I probably would have been happy at either school, but in the end, I had to decide between the two colleges, and in doing so, I picked up some tricks for students who find themselves in the same situation I was in.

Compare your financial aid packages.

Money helps many students decide where they want to attend college—in fact, it’s so important that it may make the decision for you. How much will you have to pay each year? How many loans do you need to take out? Do you need to find a job or work-study placement? Be sure you can answer those questions about both schools you are considering. If you filled out the FAFSA, you should receive a financial aid decision letter shortly after receiving your acceptance letter. Pay attention to the details (e.g., loan amounts; work-study assignments; federal grants), but keep your eye out for your total family contribution. That’s the amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket (remember, it may change annually due to changes in your family’s income or increasing tuition costs); how does that amount compare between the two schools?

The bottom line is that if School A is offering to meet 100% of your financial need and School B is only meeting a small part of it, it’s usually a good idea to steer yourself toward School A. A college’s commitment to meeting most or all of their students’ financial need also means a commitment to serving a student body that is socioeconomically diverse.

If you don’t qualify for financial aid, you won’t have financial aid letters to compare, but you’ll still want to look at each school’s total cost. Perhaps you qualify for in-state tuition at a public school in your state but would need to pay $47,000 a year to attend a private school. Keep that in mind if you’re concerned about your ability to pay (and remember to apply for financial aid again next year).

Make a campus visit or return for another one, especially if it falls during a weekend for accepted students.

Like I said, the financial aid at my two favorite prospective schools was the same, so I couldn’t decide between the two colleges based on which would be cheaper for my family. Instead, I had to look at the details, but I wanted to dig deeper than their websites permitted.

Most guidance counselors recommend that high schoolers plan their college visits before they decide where to apply. I visited a few schools as a junior and a few more as a senior, but I couldn’t visit either of my top choices because they were too far away from my hometown. So, when I was accepted to both of those schools, I realized I needed to know what they were really like.

I visited both schools during their accepted students’ weekends in April. Many schools will have these: They’ll invite all the accepted students to campus to stay with current students, attend orientation-like events, and meet each other. To say that I found the weekends worthwhile would be an understatement. In fact, it was the weekend I spent at the second school when I decided to accept its admissions offer. I fell in love with the campus at first sight, and I got along with the students I met, felt challenged by the class I observed, and didn’t mind the dining hall food. My decision was made.

Get in touch with your prospective department.

If you have already developed a specific academic or artistic interest, compare the departments of the two schools. If your potential major is in the sciences, look at the labs, research opportunities, and faculty. If your interests lie in the humanities, what are the department’s resources like?

Of course, the best way to answer those questions is to make a campus visit during which you sit in on a class in your prospective department, meet with a professor, and talk to students. If you can’t make it to campus, ask the admissions office to put you in touch with someone in a specific department. Make a list of questions before you call or email, but be sure to ask that student about his or her personal experiences, too.

Consider the locations.

You’re likely making a decision not just about where you want to study but also where you want to live. So, unless both schools you love are located in the same neighborhood, look at the big picture. Sure, you’ll want to see what their campuses are like, but take time to investigate the towns in which they are located, too. Is the neighborhood walkable? What’s the crime rate? Is housing affordable if you decide to live off campus?

You probably have bigger concerns, too. If you prefer a hot climate to a cold climate, here’s your chance to make the move that’s best for you. Similarly, do you want to be near the mountains, the ocean, etc.? You’ll likely live in this town for four years, so be sure you can make the most of its location.

Ask yourself which school will open up more professional opportunities.

Part of finding the school that will be the best fit for you is thinking about the doors it will open for you in the future. While you may not know what career you’d like to pursue after graduation, you can still consider the general resources each school has. Is there a career center? Does it offer free career counseling, résumé review, mock interviews, and networking events? Look at how those resources stack up between both schools.

An open door in between two closed doors symbolizing choosing a college.

Sarawut Aiemsinsuk /

This is also the time to consider a school’s prestige and reputation, if that’s important to you. If both of your schools are accredited (and you should make sure they are), you may want to ask yourself whether the degree from School A or School B would look better on a résumé.

Go with your gut.

If your decision is this hard, it probably means you’ve received two wonderful offers. By all means, make an effort to visualize yourself at each, to explore the differences between the two schools, but the truth is, if you think both offers are amazing, they probably are. You’ll likely find happiness at either school.

About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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