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It's college decision time

The March Madness of NCAA basketball and college notifications may be over, but for high school seniors, April is the month for difficult decisions. "I have six acceptances, how do I decide where to go?" "I got wait-listed at my top choice, do I move on and forget about it? I don't want to go anywhere else." "I don't like anywhere I got in, what do I do?" "I received a lot of money at my safety school, that's good, but I got into my reach school, but of course with no financial aid. Is it worth it to take out loans to attend my dream school?"

These are some of the questions I've been fielding over the last few days. Parents and students report that while they anticipated the stress of the college admissions process with campus visits, college research, applications, test preparation, etc.; making the final decision is even more anxiety-provoking. Thankfully, for many others, the decision is crystal-clear.

Some decision-making tips:

You have until May 1 to make a deposit. You can't deposit at a school where you're wait-listed.

Accept that this is a tough decision and you can only put a deposit down at one college. If colleges find out you have "double-deposited," it can be grounds for revoking an admissions offer. If you are wait-listed and put a deposit down at one of the colleges where you were accepted and then get invited off the wait-list, this is completely acceptable.

Double-depositors cost colleges hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. There are other consequences as well: committed financial aid goes unused, faculty and staff are laid off, rooms go empty and schedules change. Students who applied through the Common Application signed a pledge they wouldn't double-deposit.

Make a list of college options: accepted and wait-listed. Rank each school on a 1-10 scale (10 is best) on how each of the following factors meets your specific needs: academic options, social fit, size, distance from home, location of school, setting (urban/rural/suburban) and final cost (after scholarships). Frequently there will be an obvious "financial fit" -- the least expensive option, but after all the time and energy you have invested in the process thus far, don't allow cost to overrule all other factors.

Let schools woo you. Revisit colleges, within reason, that make the cut. Spend the night in a dormitory, if possible. Attend a class and grab a meal with a freshman from your high school. Ask the tough questions about career placement, graduation rates, etc. Say "yes" to invitations for Accepted Student Days. Let the colleges woo you; the shoe is now on the other foot. Colleges can be very aggressive about encouraging you to accept their offer of admission. The number of students that do accept is called a school's "yield"; the higher the yield the better, and the yield is one of the factors used in the national rankings.

Map out the financials. Determine how much you'll need to take out in loans, if any, and what the monthly fee will be to pay back those loans post-graduation. Think about the likelihood of attending graduate school and what money will still be available. Many families encourage students to take the less expensive route for undergraduate school and save their money for a graduate program.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit