College Decision Day: Questions to Ask Before You Commit

Last updated: Mar 18, 2020

May 1 is dramatically billed as national College Decision Day. It feels a little like the final rose ceremony on a certain TV show, doesn’t it? If you’re not exactly head-over-heels for any of the schools that want you, or you think they’re all equally dreamy, it’s time to break the tie. In the weeks leading up to College Decision Day, you’ve got questions to ask before you commit to a school. You might discover your final choice isn’t just a smart decision; it’s true love.  

A male student wearing headphones reads a college decision email on his laptop at a table surrounded by other students

Why Is College Decision Day Such a Big Deal?

High schools – and, it goes without saying, Instagrammers – unquestionably hype May 1. Seniors wear the T-shirt of the college they’ll attend in the fall. There might be an assembly for teachers to make a joyful fuss about where their students are headed, which is nice if you made your match during early decision or your top-choice school said yes months ago. But if you are indecisive, still on a waitlist, or choosing between so-so safety schools that were low on your college search list, May 1 looms over you like the due date for a final paper on a book you haven’t read.

But why all the noise about May 1? It’s simply (though significantly) the deadline for you to send in your deposit, locking you in to enroll at that school next academic year. Some people even call it national College Deposit Day. It allows schools to firm up commitments so they can finalize the incoming class and offer spots to waitlisted or deferred students as they become available May 2.

College administrators and Instagram aren’t the only ones who benefit from College Decision Day. Stressful as it can be, it helps students, too. That May 1 deadline requires you to arrive at your final choice early enough so that your spot (if you choose to let it go) can be offered to another worthy student who has been waiting patiently.

It also helps you get on with it. Handwringing and hoping for a better offer at the last minute is no way to kick off your college career. A deadline can get you from the worrying stage to the I’m-really-doing-this stage, which helps you and your family put your college plans into motion.

Questions That Can Help You Commit by May 1

There are worse problems to have than competing offers of enrollment from multiple colleges, but it is still a bit of a pickle for you, especially if you really aren’t leaning one way or the other. Take a cue from small-screen bachelorettes and put each of the schools vying for your commitment in the hot seat. And by that, we mean do a side-by-side comparison and ask some serious questions to see whether you’re ready to take it to the next level.

How Much Does It Really Cost?

Prestigious schools have price tags to match, so think long and hard before committing to a school that is a financial stretch for your family. Tuition is not the only cost for college.

  • What are the comparative costs of my housing options?
  • What about a meal plan?
  • Will transportation be an extra expense?
  • Are there additional costs, like lab fees?

After estimating the net price of each school you’re considering, estimate how much you’ll need from financial aid, scholarships, family contribution, work-study, and loans. A useful guideline for student loans is to research how much you can expect to make in annual salary the first year after you graduate from college, then abstain from taking out more debt than that figure. Consider eliminating any college that requires more debt than you can reasonably repay. 

Will I Fit in There?

Campus culture matters because most of your time in college is not spent in a classroom. It’s being part of the community, having fun, and learning to be an adult. The right environment makes all the difference. Ask the questions that matter to you about the right “fit.”

  • Do the schools in contention have students who look like me, share my interests, offer me a challenge (in a good way)?
  • Does the campus have activities that appeal to me, nearby areas to explore, new experiences to expand my horizons?
  • Is it a politically active campus?
  • Does it rely mostly on the Greek system for socializing?
  • Can I see myself making friends there?

Are the Academics a Good Match for Me?

You don’t want to burn out in the first semester, but you also don’t want to be bored by remedial classes. Learn more by researching the academic elements that matter to you:

  • What percentage of students return after freshman year?
  • What is the graduation rate?
  • How long do most students take to graduate?
  • Will I be able to get the classes I want for my major?
  • Will I be able to minor in or take courses outside of my program?
  • Will I have access to academic advisors when I need them?
  • What is the student-faculty ratio?

How Much Does Location Really Matter to Me?

Even if you have been counting the days until you could hotfoot it out of your hometown, homesickness can strike unexpectedly. How far is too far away?  

  • Do I want to live in a city, rural area, or suburb?
  • Do the great outdoors matter more to me than a metropolitan night scene?
  • How much does housing factor into my decision?
  • Will I have a way to get around easily — car, bike, bus system?
  • Will the weather be an issue?

Will I Have a Support System There?

Although choosing a college because your best friend or significant other also got in is not the worst way to decide on a school, it certainly is not the best. The comfort of a friendly face on campus doesn’t necessarily need to be your BFF from grade school. If connection ranks high in importance for you, find out about each campus’s resources.

Is This What I Want?

Parents, extended family, bosses, teachers, and friends will likely weigh in on your decision as May 1 approaches. Listen to their input, but focus your pros and cons on your own expectations, needs, and concerns. You’ve been analytical about your applications, attentive on your campus visits, and rational as you eliminated colleges in the early rounds. Now it’s time to let your emotions be your guide. Ask yourself how you feel in your core about each finalist school.

  • Do I feel safe on this campus?
  • Does it make me happy to picture myself there?
  • Will I feel a sense of personal pride in my choice?
  • Does it just feel right?

An female high school student writes makes notes to help her college decision

I Made My Choice — Now What?

You asked all the right questions and came to a conclusion that works for you. Congratulations — you’re going to college! Here’s what you need to do next:

  • Accept the offer. Instructions will be on your acceptance notice and also on the college’s website. All of it is usually accomplished online, but call admissions if you need assistance.
  • Make the deposit. The deposit is usually less than $500, a portion of which could be waived if you receive financial aid.
  • Notify the schools you’re declining. If there is no online form, email the admissions office to announce your spot can go to another student. Courtesy is a good thing.

Um, What if I Still Can’t Decide?

After asking focused questions, researching the answers, and staring down your true feelings, if you still feel dissatisfied with your choices, you may have some options. They’re not optimal, but they’re options, even if the May 1 deadline has passed.

You Are Waitlisted at Your No. 1 School

Sometimes you just can’t let go of a dream. Contact the college right away to let them know that you’re still interested. Rally your high school’s college counselor to see whether there is space available at your top school. The demographics of the incoming class, including your potential need for financial aid, will inform the admissions team’s decisions, and there is no sure thing.

Like the bachelor sent home in a limo with no rose, you may find yourself without a college acceptance from anywhere if the deadline has passed and the classes are full, so beware of this route. Ask yourself:

  • Is this just fear of commitment?
  • Am I better off accepting a yes from a school I considered a hard maybe than waiting around for my dream school to have a change of heart?

You’re Holding Out for More Financial Aid

Playing schools off each other is risky business, and tactics like double depositing pose ethical questions, but you should know that you are not required to enroll even after you have accepted a school’s offer and put down your earnest money. If you don’t attend the school, however, you will lose your deposit.

Before doing anything final, reach out to the schools that have accepted you. It is possible to appeal your financial aid award and receive more assistance than was offered originally. It’s no rose ceremony, but an extra grant or scholarship could make for quite a dreamy ending to this heart-racing season of college decision-making. Ask yourself:

  • Can I make it work financially with the package already offered?
  • How much financial aid would my second-choice school have to offer me for me to make the big commitment to it?

A female student sitting at a table in the library working on college decisions on her laptop

USF Is Here to Help

If you have questions about College Decision Day, financial aid, or college life (but likely very limited opinions on reality TV dating shows), the USF Office of Admissions is ready with answers. Contact the team online or by phone at 813-974-3350.