A Senior's Rite of Passage

Seeking the right college: this is the annual rite of passage for high school seniors. It is the beginning of a yearlong journey for them and their parents that can be an exciting, but stressful, time for both. The journey usually begins in the spring of a student's junior year (11th grade) and is not completed until the following spring of his or her senior year (12th grade). During the process student and parents are faced with many decisions in determining which college is the right one.

Spoilt for choice

The United States is an enormous country made up, as you probably know, of 50 States. And each State has many private and state- supported colleges and universities. These schools range in size from as few as 500 students to as many as 30,000. With thousands of schools to choose from, where do you begin the search? As a parent, I have been through this process three times in the past six years, and I can tell you it did not get any easier. You still have to go through certain steps in order to complete the process and try to make the right decision.

Beginning in the spring of their junior year, their mother and I asked them to consider how far from home they would like their college to be. All decided no more than two hours, which allowed them to be independent, but still close enough to come home on occasions. Once that was determined, the next step was to decide the size of college to attend. Since each had gone to a small school all their lives, they wanted to attend a college with about 2,000 students.

Handing them a book listing the thousands of colleges in the United States, with information about each, we asked them to find schools that met their distance and size criteria. A two-hour ride from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where we live, would mean considering colleges in five States: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and New York. We then listed the schools in these States that had student enrollments of 2,000 and began to research their strengths and weaknesses. Such things as their location, courses offered, student diversity, ratio of students to professors and student housing were all taken into account.

Your pick

After considering all these factors we narrowed the schools down to eight choices and then made appointments to visit each school. These visits were made at the end of the junior year and the beginning of the senior year. You are interviewed by an admissions person and taken on a tour of the college by a student. During this visit you are asked questions about what you are interested in, why you are considering this particular college and so on. You can also ask questions yourself about the college, which will help you to decide whether or not to apply. Once you have completed all the visits you must decide whether to apply to all or some of the colleges. With each application, you must include recommendations from high school teachers, as well as a written essay, your high school grades and scores from a national test. The college must receive all this information no later than the middle of January of your senior year.

Some students may choose "early decision", which means that they definitely know the college they wish to attend. In this case, if they are accepted, they must withdraw all other applications and enroll in the college they choose for "early decision". Early decision applicants must send in their application to the school at an earlier date so that the college can make the decision by December 15. However, most students are not so sure of their college choice and elect to go through the standard college application process.

Make-your-mind-up time

Then you must wait to hear from each college. Some or all of the schools may accept you, so then you must decide which college to choose. If you are accepted at the college you most want to attend, the decision is an easy one. Usually your choice has come down to two or three colleges, and if you are accepted at all of them, then you should go back to revisit each. To help you make up your mind, colleges have special visiting days for all accepted students to come and have a second look around. The school's daylong program helps students feel what it would be like to attend the college. This often finally helps the students make a final decision, although this can be the most difficult time for the student because each school is a good match. As a parent, you hope the choice is the right one. After all, it will be their home for the next four years. Come May 1 the decision must be made.

In my case the process was successful for my first two children. One has graduated and the other is attending her last year. My son has just made his college decision and will be attending his first year in the fall. His mother and I hope it will be a great experience for him.