shaun-85You all have long imagined receiving your Golden Ticket in the mail: the “Congratulations!” letter from your Dream School, whether that be Yale, Tulane, Scripps, or University of Kansas. You envision yourselves proudly wearing a Dream School sweatshirt, and hanging out on the gorgeous campus reading dense philosophical essays with friendly fellow Dreamers. You have worked so hard, and now your hard work is about to pay off.

But reality is often much more complicated. 2011 is the most difficult year statistically to gain college admission, let alone a Golden Ticket from your first choice college. And even if you do gain admission, financial aid, both need- and merit-based, is tougher to snag than ever. Here are a few things to consider before making your Big Decision.

First of all, keep an open mind. Even though you may have your heart set on one institution, realize that you have many options. There are several schools that fit your aspirations, whether your focus is in athletics, small class sizes, diverse student organizations, or academic prestige. Just because a school is not in the Ivy League does not mean you will not have a meaningful and valuable college experience. When making my decision, I was worried that my education at Washington and Lee would not be as appreciated by my peers, family, and future employers because it was not as well known in the north, but since then I have come to realize the extent of W&L’s prestige and influence around the country, and I am proud to be a General. Plus, if worse comes to worse, you can always begin at one school and transfer to another after two years or reapply to your Dream School’s graduate program.

Secondly, do not take on more debt than you can handle. At an undergraduate level, it is not smart to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans every year. If it is between going to your second choice (or even third, fourth, or fifth choice) school and leaving college with $150,000 in loans that you are expected to start paying off immediately, then try and make the more rational financial decision. Moreover, be careful to note which loans are subsidized and which are unsubsidized, because the building interest could amount to additional expenses. Even though I was accepted into my first choice school, Wellesley, I knew that it was a poor financial decision to turn down a full ride scholarship to W&L to go almost $100,000 into debt by the age of 22. Remember that you are just becoming an adult, and you do not want that financial pressure hanging over your head.

I hope that these tips cover both the mental and emotional aspect of deciding on which college to attend, and also the financial realities. Ultimately, the college experience will be WHAT YOU MAKE IT, not just the name of the school or the price of tuition. I know that wherever you go to school, you will do wonderfully! Good luck!