Challenge of Choosing

Challenge of Choosing

High school seniors recount trial of picking a college.

High school seniors across the country got a weight off their chests last week. The deadline for college registration was Monday, May 2, so the rising college freshmen have now made the often unnerving decision of where they will live, study and prepare for the future (and party) for the next four years (or so). Of course, many had made the decision weeks ago, but there are always those who are scratching their heads until the last minute — those for whom deadlines exist.

Madison High School student John Arturo found himself in a position of which many may be envious. Having applied to American University, James Madison, UVA, University of Texas, William & Mary, Mary Washington and George Mason, he had been accepted at all but UVA, where he had been wait-listed. However, that was his first-choice school, and it was the last school he heard from.

"Until then, it was all up in the air," said Arturo.

American, George Mason and Mary Washington had accepted him into their honors programs.

He had also decided that he needed a school close to home because of a current medical issue, so he had applied to a number of in-state schools, which he pointed out also makes sense from an economical standpoint.

On Saturday, Arturo finally decided that he would attend American University, where he can live at home, which has come to be important for the time-being and also saves money.

The $18,000 scholarship offered to him by American, the only private school where he applied, will also save money. "You can be very confident going to a school where you don't have to pay $30,000 a year," he said.

He also found that the school has a program that would allow him to explore his interest in film.

However, he is not taking himself off the wait list for UVA.

Arturo said his mother played a large role in researching schools, including looking into transfer possibilities. She found that it is more difficult to transfer into some schools than others. For example, William & Mary, where Arturo said he probably would have gone if not for health constraints, does not make transferring easy. "William & Mary is a state school, but they act like a private school," he said. "Bigger public universities are easier to transfer into."

Once he can live farther away, he may transfer, "preferably to UVA. Maybe Texas," he said.

ARTURO'S CLASSMATE Anne Williams said she did not want to go too far from home, so the most distant school she looked at was Fordham University in New York. She was accepted there, as well as at Loyola College, Dickinson College, Bucknell University, William & Mary, James Madison and Wake Forest University. She had applied to liberal arts schools because she would like to double major in art history and American studies, she said.

"My father is a very proud Virginian," said Williams, "and he continued to tell me that there was a very clear decision that had been made for me." That was William & Mary. Although she may not have appreciated the advice at the time, she did concede that the choice "made the most sense logically."

First, the school suits her interests, she said. "They have an American studies program that's very culturally focused," she said. "They have a renowned history program, costuming classes and a well-known theater program. They also have dozens of extracurricular activities that other schools don't." Among those, she said, is a ballroom dance club that competes up and down the East Coast.

She also made some consultations. "Everyone I've talked to seems to be very happy over there," she said.

And finally: "It was the cheapest one I narrowed down to." Her other two finalists had been Bucknell and Wake Forest, both of which are more expensive because they are out-of-state, and Williams said she liked the idea of smaller student loans.

Fordham had been nixed early on because of the price, but the school offered her a scholarship about a week ago, she said. "So we had to just ignore that because it was too late."

The decision on William & Mary was finally made last week, because Williams needed to concentrate on her part in the school play that was put on over the weekend. "I just couldn't think about it any more," she said. "It had to go away."

"I figured there would be a small difference between most colleges, so I picked the one that had characteristics that appealed to me more," said Jeff Coppola, also a Madison student. Coppola was one of those who had made his decision by early April. He had been accepted by Old Dominion, Virginia Commonwealth, Radford and George Mason and was wait-listed by Mary Washington.

Radford and George Mason had been safety schools, Mason because it is too close to home, he said. "I want to get away from home, but not make it impossible to visit."

From the beginning, he had been leaning toward either James Madison or Virginia Commonwealth, and since he did not get into Madison, he said, the choice was easy.

"I like the city setting, so I'm not stuck with just students," said Coppola. "It's not too big so you're a statistic, but it's not too small so you know everybody."

As an undecided major, he was not looking at specific programs, but he said he felt Virginia Commonwealth has some solid programs to choose from, including engineering and medical school.

He also said he thought Commonwealth may be poised to become a second-tier school in the next few years, whereas he was not sure about Old Dominion.

Coppola also noted that he was looking at Commonwealth as a springboard to grad school. "It wouldn't be too easy, so that there's no challenge," he said. "But it wasn't too hard, so that I would have mediocre grades and move on."

"NORTHERN VIRGINIA SEEMS to make a big deal out of undergrad school," agreed Jann Cassady, who runs Madison High School's career center. "The reality is, you have to start thinking beyond that." She observed that in Seattle, where she used to live, "you don't see people cruising around with college bumper stickers. It's an East Coast thing, I think."

Marian Kendrick, who runs the career center at Oakton High School, also expressed wariness about choosing a four-year school based on prestige. "Number one is not to look at the rankings," she said. "They want to find a school where they're going to fit, where they're going to be most comfortable. What school offers them the best place for them to succeed?"

Comfort factors include a school's size, setting, region, weather, programs offered and social activities available, she said. "They want a school to provide all the activities they're interested in at the high school level continuing into college."