College Admissions Offers: How to Choose

By Scott Cowan, Founder of SF Creative Learning Solutions

As the end of April approaches, high school seniors near the deadline to choose which college they will attend. It’s a potentially life-altering decision. How can teenagers possibly decide what sort of adults they want to become and what college to attend? A story from a former student and two complementary ways to determine best fit, one more quantitative, the other qualitative, all found in letter I wrote to a high school senior facing this choice, might help others making this decision.

To a high school student, even a senior just weeks away from graduation who has visited several colleges, thought hard about options and future, and narrowed choices to just two or four, “college” remains a mythical land without parents or teachers who call home when you miss class or assignments, where one can start afresh, develop an entire new persona even, unburdened by childish mistakes, free from past associations, formerly held beliefs and goals, and, often, washing machines.

A senior I worked with from a rough start through a steady climb to academic maturity narrowed his choices for college to two nationally respected institutions from quite a few good schools to which he was accepted: the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where some close friends from his high school will attend and where he can explore interests in the major he desires plus minor in another, steps from the Pacific Ocean, in his home state; and the University of Indiana, where he was offered a scholarship to pursue intensive music studies as he simultaneously earns the business degree he desires.

B asks, “I know the Kelley School of Business at IU and the music department there are the best choice for my future …. but (you, gentle reader, saw that ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?) a few good friends are going to UCSB and I love the environment there.”

Dear B:

I can’t tell you what’s right for you. I can share some insights to help you decide.

Both schools have excellent reputations. Both have solid networks to support you through grad school and career opportunities/placements. Both also are large and will provide distractions if you let them. You’ll need to be wary of these, particularly the huge pull of fraternities* that can seem so alluring and often lead to more problems for students, especially those more socially inclined, than they do supports. More especially, still, freshmen.

Re: friends. Don’t worry a single second.

YOU, B, will make fast friends in college for sure. You have top-notch friends-making skills. Even those of us who did not have these skills in high school discover them in a college that fits us as well as either of these two does you. A college that fits one person fits others for reasons that overlap in many ways and those ways create intersections where friends meet. One or three (or more?) will surely become lifelong friends and others will become parts of your professional and social networks who prove important in your life at key junctures. Just as you have found strong friendships in H.S., so will you at either U. And you can keep your high school friendships with students who attend different colleges. Remember how few people you knew when you started high school and how you quickly made friends? That will happen again in college, wherever you go. Remember too, that some of your friends from freshman year later went one way when you went another…and, while some core friends remained, you developed new friends as you matured and your interests changed. Yeah, that too will continue wherever you attend college. And, again, your deepest friendships will continue if you and your friends want them to. You’ll stay close via social media and during visits home and maybe even on trips to one another’s campuses.

Given what you’ve said about feeling IU is a better fit for you for several reasons, I think you’ve really answered your own question. But, it is a big decision and deserves deep reflection.

One good way to reach a firm decision: create a spreadsheet of pros and cons and rate each for pro/con for importance, 1-10. Then total all up ( positive points for pros; negative points for cons).

It is hard to quantify subjective things. So, “qualify” your findings: imagine your future self. As forty-year-old B, write a note to your high school senior self.

First, get in touch with your desired future self. Close your eyes, take several slow, deep breaths and become this person. Where are you living? What sort of home? Who is around you at home? Pause and really think deeply about this. How much does material comfort matter to you? Social status? Family? Do you think you’ll prefer independence, travel, exploration…over security and a more stable career? Yes, you can do anything you set your mind to, B. No, you cannot do everything. You really must say “no” to many things in order to say “yes” to what you most desire.

Now the hardest part of all: what, realistically, day by day, week by week, month by month, year after year after year after year…. will it take to get to this most desired personal and professional, physical and emotional, public and private place when you are 40. Remember, you will encounter setbacks. The more ambitious you are, the more failures you will have to overcome to reach your goals. You will celebrate triumphs along with huge disappointments. What will sustain you through the rough times and what will be your markers for success?

Slow down. Return to this exercise tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep. Let your subconscious do its magic with all the conscious thoughts you’ve had.

Good morning! Now, it is time to return to the spreadsheet. Look a bit different? Change your answers as appropriate.

Do the “math” again.  I bet things add up clearly now.  

Key:  Graduating with the smallest debt possible is worth a VERY great deal!

Now that you’ve decided where to go, I’ve got a true story that will help you prepare for success there. A wonderful student I worked with over a decade ago, was one of the most balanced people I had ever met. I came to know L well when she became a junior and sought help with the SAT and college applications. Since long before high school, she knew how to maintain excellent friendships, complete tough course work efficiently, excel on the swim and cross country track teams…study for ever-higher test scores… She did all these things as we worked together and wrote stellar applications at the same time. Throughout all the demands set by her ambitious goals, she even got enough sleep! She earned well-deserved scholarships many places and chose a top UC for several excellent reasons: a rare and coveted scholarship made it an incredible value, the swim coach impressed her, their marine biology program, which she loved, is tops, and the location was Goldilocks-just-right for her: far/close enough from home in SF to provide cultural + climate differences and desired independence while allowing her to visit family without huge expense.

I followed up with L during her college years as I try to do with all my students. Spoiler: she enjoyed her time in college very much, graduated brilliantly, and even completed two years of service in the Peace Corps before excelling with graduate studies and beginning what has already turned into a rewarding career.

Why did L excel?

One word that’s been mentioned before:


Here’s the story she related freshman year: L shared a trio dorm room with two quite different dorm mates. Unlike L, these women had not mastered the art of balance. In fact, each exemplified the dangers of opposite extremes. One of her roommates found her first time away from home and the daily guidance of parents and nurturing private school teachers super exciting. She felt, as she put it, “liberated” at a big university with little “adult guidance” and wanted to explore everything all at once. She said “YES!” to all the wonderful opportunities before her: parties with the most interesting people she’d ever met: “artists and intellectuals and ‘real individualists.’ And the clubs – oh, so many worthy clubs to join! And so many courses to choose from that she “window shopped” twelve before selecting five on the last day to add classes. She became exhausted from doing so much all day and all night and putting off boring things like sleep or healthy meals. But did she slow down? No, she did not. College was so much fun, so intoxicating. She was learning so many new things and making so many interesting friends. What could go wrong?

Lisa’s other roommate was rarely in the dorm room either. However, she could be found in just one place, reliably, from the moment her classes ended through late into the night. This woman felt she had to study, study, study without surcease. She did, indeed, earn very good grades this way. She even took an extra course and was starting down a track to graduate early or to double-major, with honors. The downside? She complained over and over, “I have no life; I’ve got to change this.” Her self-confidence plummeted even as her GPA soared. She felt lonely and lost and questioned her purpose and goals. The last I heard of her at the end of freshman year, she had fallen into a depression. She didn’t know how to make the changes a part of her knew she needed.

And that first roommate? Ah, she was put on probation her first semester and, when she failed to raise her GPA the second — because she’d fallen too far behind and had not practiced the college study skills needed to catch up — she was not allowed to return the following year at the U.

B: Let me know what you decide is the right school for you. You worked hard to earn excellent offers from excellent schools and have narrowed your choices to two excellent places. Certainly, the question of what you do at either university will make a much bigger difference in your life than will which of the you two you decide to these things.

I wish you all the very very best, now, as ever.

*Hint: be aware of all the reasons you will feel sure you really want to join – and resist them freshman year. Yes, you can join as a sophomore; even if told this is not so. In fact, the more pressure, however subtly, alluringly, even, disguised, the more you should recognize that a frat is not for you. (Gentle reader: I hold no grudge against any particular Greek societies and have many clients who’ve found their involvement in sororities or fraternities decidedly positive. This particular student, however, had a high school career that offered more than one red flag re: rushing a frat.)

As ever,


Scott Cowan is a college counselor, tutor, and academic mentor, and one of San Francisco’s premier education professionals. He is also the current president of the Bay Area Tutoring Summit. Learn more about his work at or his Yelp page.