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Weighing college choices? Here are three factors to consider

Princeton University (Associated Press)
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College acceptances are starting to roll in for high school seniors, and for the next several weeks, much of the focus of the national media will be on those students vying to get into the three dozen or so most selective colleges and universities in the country.

By May, we’ll hear about schools such as Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton that accepted fewer than 1 out of every 10 applicants this year. There will be more records set for applications and for the number of students rejected, including hundreds of high-school valedictorians.

Although these elite institutions enroll fewer than 6 percent of American college students, you might conclude from these stories that it’s difficult to get into college in the United States. Not so. The vast majority of colleges accept far more applicants than they reject. The average acceptance rate nationwide last year? 66 percent.

But for some parents and students today, college admissions has turned into a game, where getting to Go seems to be ultimate goal rather than the education or degree itself. Because technology has made applying to college easier than ever before, students have expanded the list of campuses they’re considering. More than 80 percent of last year’s college freshmen applied to at least three colleges.

And while some students have already decided where they’re going next fall, the coming weeks will be full of angst for other high-school seniors lucky enough to have a few colleges from which to choose. I asked several admissions deans recently what they would recommend to students struggling with their choices. Here’s what they told me:

1. Look under the hood of the academic programs. When touring campuses for the first time, prospective students and their parents tend to focus on the bells and whistles that colleges emphasize: the fancy dorms, climbing walls and technology-filled classrooms.

Now is the time to really consider academic offerings. Does the college offer a range of majors and minors in case you change your mind or want to add another major or minor? How easy is it to transfer between majors and schools on the campus? Do they offer the classes you want to take and need to graduate? (And don’t just look at the course catalog, but actual course offerings from the last few semesters.) You also don’t want to discover two years from now that the summer courses you took at a different college won’t count toward your degree. Ask now about the percentage of transfer credits the college takes each year, and for those it denies, on what basis does it not take the credits.

Finally, if you return to campus this spring, sit in on a class or two and get a sense of how engaged students are. To find success after college, you want to be challenged in the classroom, to learn from the best professors, and spend extensive time on tasks such as reading, writing, and problem solving outside class.

2. Investigate ways to learn outside the classroom. Broadly defined as “experiential learning,” opportunities such as internships, research with faculty members, service learning in the field, and study abroad help students translate classroom learning to the real world and make a difference in getting a job after graduation. Not all colleges offer a range of experiential learning opportunities. Sometimes it’s not possible to take advantage of them in certain majors, or they make it prohibitively expensive and limit some options to seniors.

As the importance of off-campus experiences increases, consider the college’s location. If you choose a college in an out-of-the-way place, be prepared to spend extra time finding real-world opportunities outside of school and in cities. Often that means you’ll need to head off to a metro area for a semester or over the summer to get the most beneficial experiences.

3. Don’t forget about financial aid. By the time high school seniors have reached this point in the college search, they often have their hearts set on a particular campus. Yet they don’t know how much they’ll pay for college until the financial-aid offer arrives, sometimes giving them only a few weeks to compare packages and make a decision.

Financial-aid offers don’t follow a common template, so be sure to take a close look. Deciphering financial-aid letters is almost impossible for students and parents looking at them for the first time. They often use difficult-to-understand abbreviations and mix together loans and grants, blurring the lines between the two and creating confusion. They usually include loans, both subsidized (meaning interest isn’t charged while the student is in school) and unsubsidized before they get to the bottom line of what families are still expected to contribute. Often that contribution will require students and parents to borrow even more.

If you’re still undecided and weighing your options, try to make another round of visits to campuses in April. About a quarter of campus visits by prospective students occur in April, according to an analysis by VisitDays, a company that helps colleges schedule student visits. Of those students who visit in April, about half of them are stepping foot on campus for the first time after submitting their application.

For many Americans, college is the biggest investment they’ll make in their lifetimes. Colleges benefit from confusion in the marketplace: They know more about the prospective student than the prospective student knows about them. In these final weeks before placing your deposit, it’s in your interest to change that balance and learn as much as possible about the school you’re considering.