Lots of options for Georgia students, but still a hard decision: which college?

Like many high school seniors this time of year, Erin Leydon has been grappling with a big decision: Where should she go to college?

In some ways, the 17-year-old Wheeler High School student had a head start. She already knows she wants to study aerospace engineering, and she had narrowed her list to three prestigious options: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, and Georgia Tech.

She’s pretty sure she’d be happy at any of them.

But that wasn’t helping her decide — something she and other incoming college freshmen must do by May 1. That’s decision day — the deadline by which many colleges and universities require students to submit a deposit.

Georgia Tech offered Erin more money, but it was her fourth campus visit to MIT that tipped the scale.

There was this one moment, Erin said. She was trying to climb to a rooftop (it’s an MIT thing, she explained, having to do with outlandish pranks or “hacks” that have become a hallmark of campus life) when she found herself standing on someone’s shoulders, using current students as a human ladder.

“There’s just that kind of supportive atmosphere where everyone is there to lift you up,” she said.

With the calendar sliding toward May, Erin said she was “about 90 percent sure, maybe a bit more” that she’d end up MIT.

Sometimes the right college just clicks.

“You just know if you feel like you’ve found your tribe,” said Amy Short, Roswell High School’s head counselor, who tells undecided students to visit campus.

But with the clock running out, some still find the decision daunting.

Students have more options than ever. In 1990, only 9 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges, according to a National Association for College Admission Counseling report that cites data from the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute. In 2016, more than a third did. (Erin applied to seven schools, which she called “relatively few” considering she’s heard of students who have applied to as many as 27)

We asked a handful of local experts and high school students for their best advice on picking the right college. Here are a few tips:

  • Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen: Look for a place that offers academic, mental health and other support. She tells Atlanta students, many of whom are low-income or first-generation college students, to think about diversity on campus. "I think feeling included is really important," she said. "If you really are the only minority or this is something the school does not have a good reputation at managing, I think you need to think about (that)."
  • Achieve Atlanta executive director Tina Fernandez: Understand the financial aid package. That means thinking beyond paying for the first year and knowing the full cost of attendance, not just tuition. (Books, room and board, transportation — it all adds up). Study each college's graduation rates. She recommends checking those stats and others online at collegescorecard.ed.gov/.
  • Grady High School counselor Shaketha Blankenship: Students who know what they want to study must make sure the college offers that program. "If yes, then what about the environment?" she said. "It is overwhelming for some of our students … going out into this huge, huge world, just kind of stepping out there is very frightening," she said. The good news: "I haven't had too many who have regretted going to certain places based on the programs."
  • Walton High School senior Taylor Helfrich: Don't get hung up on elite rankings. "It is important, but it is not the end of the world," said Taylor, who decided to attend Georgia Tech's liberal arts college. "Because you don't want to pay an enormous amount of loans just because of the reputation." And stop comparing yourself to classmates. "Having everyone go to an Ivy or like-an-Ivy, it is hard to compete with," she said. "A lot of people end up unhappy if they can't go to the one college they want to."