After years of building up resumes and months of filling out applications, high school seniors have reached the home stretch of the college admissions process.
With decisions from schools pouring in, students now have a few short weeks to make their college choice. But buffeted by the opinions of parents, peers and college rankings, that final step can be the most difficult for students, said Gardner Humphreys, the college and career specialist at Marshall High School in Falls Church.
Rather than see the deadline of May 1 - the decision deadline for most colleges in the country - hanging over their heads, students and families should try to break down the coming weeks into bite-size tasks, Humphreys said. These might include gathering financial aid information, making pro-con lists and visiting the final candidates before making a choice and sending in a deposit.
Before anything else, though, Humphreys advised students to get their own priorities in order.
“I try to make sure students determine what’s really important to them in making this decision,” Humphreys said. “And I help them deal with conflicting opinions, whether it comes from their parents or a college rankings list.”
Students need to take these weeks as an opportunity to look at a different set of criteria than they may have considered before, said Judy Hingle, the college and career specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools.
For example, few students compare schools’ programs and requirements in their specific area of study, but that is one of the biggest parts of the college academic experience, Hingle said. She also encouraged students to visit their top choices to get a feel for the campus environments.
“There’s no one perfect place,” Hingle said. “It’s about what fits your needs. Students, when they have their real choices in front of them, should look not at the rankings but instead what a school has for them.”
Still, it can be difficult for students to abandon preconceptions about or fascinations with certain schools, according to Kirsten Nelson, spokeswoman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).
“I’ve heard from people who stay wrapped up in specific schools from birth,” Nelson said. “That’s not good for you. Don’t rely on emotional baggage to make your decision.”
That baggage can have an impact even if the school it is attached to is no longer in the mix.
Every year, some students will be left reeling when they do not get accepted into their first-choice college. In Fairfax County’s competitive academic environment, with more and more students applying to top-tier schools, those golden tickets can be particularly hard to come by, Nelson said.
From 2008 to 2013, the University of Virginia had a 19 percent increase in applicants from the county, according to SCHEV data.
“Many schools have been increasing their spots for in-state students, but the demand just remains so strong,” Nelson said. “In Northern Virginia, there can be a hesitancy to accept that, but it is the truth.”
While rejection can be difficult to swallow, Hingle said, students and their families should recognize that they fall within a larger numbers game of balancing the incoming freshman class.
The average freshman this past fall at University of Virginia and William and Mary, two of the state’s most prestigious universities, had a high school GPA over 4.0. That means some students with similar grades will not make the cut, Hingle said.
“It might feel like it, but it’s not personal,” Hingle said. “It’s not a judgment of you as less worthy. Take a little time, get over that disappointment, and then move forward with what you’ve got in hand.”
Families should take time to clarify financial expectations and academic goals with their student. But after that discussion, they should provide some space.
“You’ve laid out all the information and identified what is important,” Hingle said. “Now give your child space for a week or so. Say, ‘We’re not going to talk about this for 10 days.’ This is a stressful time for everyone. You don’t need the pressure constantly hanging over your heads.”