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As college admissions decisions are received and the deadline to commit to a particular institution is just around the corner, the start of Spring can be filled with a wide range of emotions for high school seniors and their parents.

Whether faced with indecision about which school to attend, disappointment resulting from a dream school rejection, and/or uncertainty associated with being placed on a waitlist, soon-to-be college students may need more support than ever. Tack on parental emotions about their teens soon venturing out on their own and concerns about the financial implications of choosing one school over another, and heightened levels of stress may seem inevitable.

Here are seven steps to help families with college-bound seniors sail as smoothly as possible through the final phase of the admissions process:

  1. Embrace the Moment
    Take a moment to recognize the many years of effort that have been put in by your student, yourself, and others who have had a hand in getting you to the point at which you now find yourselves. Celebrate how far your student has come and envision the path ahead to be a bright one, no matter which direction it ultimately takes. As you begin this final phase of the admissions journey, take a collective deep breath as a family, leverage those within your circle of support whose perspectives you trust, and have confidence that everything will work out.
  2. Closely Review and Compare
    Take a careful look at correspondence received from target schools and make certain you fully understand exactly what is being offered and any conditions that may apply. Compare financial aid award letters from finalist schools to understand exactly how much you will have to contribute out of pocket each year and whether and to what extent student loans will need to be taken. Don’t make the mistake of focusing narrowly on year one since funding for the entire course of study will be required. Request clarification on anything that is not fully understandable. If your financial circumstances have changed since applying for financial aid or if additional financial assistance is needed to be able to attend a particular school, contact an admissions or financial aid counselor as soon as possible to set up a meeting to discuss.
  3. Lift the Hood
    If resources, proximity, and/or timing permit, visit one or more finalist schools that are of greatest interest. Even if you’ve visited previously, a fresh look may provide additional insight. Many schools offer special events for admitted students and some even offer the option of an overnight stay to better experience the school and get acquainted with the surrounding area. Not able to participate in an in-person visit? Most schools offer the option to participate in a virtual tour and many enable prospective students to connect remotely with one or more current students. Many schools are also willing to facilitate discussions between parents of prospective students and parents of current students. Now is the time for you and your student to take a deeper look and to resolve any unanswered questions before a final decision is made.
  4. Keep an Open Mind
    While admissions decisions may not have been in line with what was hoped or expected, keep in mind that there is no one path to the life your student envisions. In fact, alternative paths may turn out to be much more rewarding than the one that was originally desired.
  5. Keep Reason in the Driver’s Seat
    When it comes to evaluating your family’s ability to cover costs, keep a level head and don’t allow emotion to get in the way of sensible decisions. After all, higher education is one of the most significant investments you will make in your lifetime. When comparing suitable institutions that differ in net cost, step back with your student and envision the quality of life they may have with or without significant student loan debt following college graduation. Likewise, if parental loans are under consideration, envision the impact they may have on your financial wellbeing in later years. Having candid financial discussions at this juncture will lead to less stress in the long run.
  6. Share with Care
    While well-intentioned persons outside your immediate circle of support may be very interested in the route your child is likely to pursue, sharing less versus more at this juncture may serve your family well. If you or your student are feeling overwhelmed with inquiries or unsolicited opinions, politely thank others for their interest and ask them to refrain from offering further questions/comments at this time. You and your student should decide exactly how much you want to share with a broader audience and when.
  7. Prepare to Pay
    Once a decision on which school to attend is ultimately reached, make sure you understand the deadlines for initial deposits and subsequent payments. If you have a 529 college savings account, consult your 529 plan well in advance of payment deadlines to get acquainted with the withdrawal process and to allow plenty of time for your payment to arrive at your child’s school of choice. If you have a financial advisor, schedule a consultation to discuss a strategy for withdrawals and other considerations.

As school choices are narrowed and final decisions are made, gear up for a well-deserved celebration.


Patricia A. Roberts is a motivational speaker, writer, and veteran of the college savings industry. She has led college savings initiatives at premier financial services organizations like Merrill Lynch and AllianceBernstein, and has authored Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans. In her current role as COO at Gift of College, she promotes 529 plans as a financial wellness benefit in the workplace.