10 Steps to Picking the Right College

Acceptance letters are out. Are you ready to make a decision?

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Michael Lopresti is facing the biggest decision he's ever made, as his mom, Mary Beth, puts it. A high school senior with hopes of one day becoming a surgeon, Michael followed the traditional college path: He visited campuses, applied to a range of schools—including the University of Maryland—Baltimore County (for the academics), the University of Mary Washington (for the campus feel), and the University of Virginia (for a reach school)—and was accepted to most. 

Now, armed with his acceptance letters, Michael has one month to select the college where he plans to spend the next four years, as his parents simultaneously balance supporting his choices with finding a way to foot the accompanying bills. The process is often laden with anxiety, says clinical psychologist Jerry Weichman. 

"Very rarely is there going to be a clear cut 'yes' when it comes to making a college decision," says Weichman, who specializes in adolescent counseling in Newport Beach, Calif. "It's a huge commitment and any doubt in their decision process often increases their stress [and] anxiety—and they begin to question whether they're making the right decision or not." 

But the selection process doesn't need to be overwhelmingly stressful for students or parents—it can even be fun, experts say. Take a deep breath and use these tips from college officials, coaches, and counselors to find the right college for you:

1. Revisit your short list: Accepted to more than one of your top choices? That's an enviable position to be in, though it might not feel like it. As you weigh several appealing options, think back to why you applied to each, counselors recommend. 

"It's always very key to bring them back to, 'How did you initially identify the schools that were a good fit for you; why did you choose this particular school; and how does this match up against schools B, C, and D on your list'?" says Erika Coplon, director of the College Admissions Coaching program at InsideTrack.

2. Rank your priorities: Make an extended list of pros and cons, Weichman instructs his clients. Identify several aspects of college life—the size of the school, for instance, or the strength of the athletic program—and numerically rank each by importance to you. When "you get a number out of it," he says, "You can see how much more it really weighs on their mind." 

3. Go back to school: Students and parents should have no unanswered questions by the time they send their deposit to a school, experts say. While an initial campus visit is a good time to check out the dorms, sample the food, and get a feel for campus life, students and parents should take a list of 10 to 15 additional, in-depth questions with them on a second trip, recommends Bob Roth, college and career coach and author of College Success: Advice for Parents of High School and College Students

[Use these 8 tips to make the most of a second campus visit.]

4. Focus on your endgame: For the Lopresti family, and many others like them, finding a school involves balancing cost, academics, and campus life. Though Mrs. Lopresti admits she is drawn to schools with bustling atmospheres, "my husband, the logical one, would say, 'Think about why you're going, and make the best decision for where you want to be four years from now,'" she says. "Keep your eye on the end: where you want to be in your career [and] where you want to be financially. That has to weigh into it." 

Ideally, a high school senior should have at least a vague career path, Roth claims. "In many cases, students go to college not knowing what they want to do," he says. "I think it's extremely important to try to narrow it down before you pick the college. We all know from any early age whether we're good in math and science, whether we're good at business—we have to begin to understand ourselves a little bit better, and I think many students don't take the time to think about that." 

5. Delve into the departments: Students and parents may look to college rankings to help make a decision, but don't forget that academic prestige can be examined on a smaller scale. A school that excels in biology, for example, may have a less regarded history department.