It’s May 1. Do you know where your student will be this fall? Both of mine committed to their top choice several weeks ago so the excitement in our household the last couple of days was more around learning of friends’ decisions.

So, what did we choose? My son is going to be attending the University of Arizona. He applied there and to our in-state school, University of Oregon. Although our initial impression was that UofA would be considerably more expensive even net of his scholarship, the actual cost difference ended up much smaller, especially when projected out over four years. Here are some key learnings from his process:

  • UofA guarantees tuition rates for all four years; Oregon’s tuition, by contrast, is likely to go up by 5% or so each year for the next four years.
  • Room and board costs vary considerably, not just by school but by what’s quoted in the admissions packet’s cost of attendance. Typically the COA figure reflects a high room and board cost since financial aid is based on total cost. He was able to choose a dorm option that cost several thousand dollars less per year but that was comparable to a higher-priced room at Oregon. Many schools don’t publish the full range of housing prices publicly, so it’s worth asking about the options at schools you’re considering.
  • Perhaps most importantly, there is a scholarship for most every student. Alex had a terrific ACT score but a less-than-stellar GPA which led us to think he was unlikely to be a merit aid candidate. He wanted to attend a big school but we didn’t want to pay a big price tag, so we assumed he’d end up in-state. He did his homework, though, and found that UofA had substantial scholarships that are based solely on test scores.

My daughter will attend the University of Chicago. She applied to eight schools and was accepted at six. Fortunately her top choice was also the second-least-expensive and she received a combination of need- and merit-based grants. She applied to four schools with single-digit acceptance rates and was accepted at two of them. Knowing that getting picked in those pools is as much a function of luck as of process, I would highlight a couple of things she did differently at the two where she was accepted compared with the two where she was not:

  • She wrote essays for the schools that accepted her earlier than for the ones that did not. I think the earlier essays were fresher and better written than the later ones where there was a decent amount of “just get this over with” in her approach.
  • She interacted with actual people in the admissions offices of the schools where she was accepted. In both cases, this involved attending a presentation at her high school and then sending follow-up questions to the person who came. This may have to some degree made her a “person” rather than just an “application” to the admissions officer reading her application. They do, after all, offer business cards and encourage students to reach out, and she had actual questions about how to fill out portions of the application. (She visited and did “official” campus tours of all four schools as well, and had interviews with two of the schools, one of which accepted her and one of which did not.)

Whether either of those had any impact on her admission is an open question, but if you’re like me and like to feel some degree of control over a process where you have none, you can try that.