Six tips for making the most important decision of your life

This is it. The most important decision of your life. Mess this up and your whole future is…Stop right there. Take a breath. It’s going to be OK. And probably even fun.

Sure, choosing a college is important. But it doesn’t need to cause hyperventilation. Like most overwhelming projects, applying to colleges is best managed through small, obtainable steps.

Watch your time
Quick. Look at the calendar. How many months before you start college? Junior and senior years can fly by. Make a calendar and note application deadlines. Work backwards and set incremental deadlines for parts of the process such as visiting campuses and writing essays.

Do your homework
First, meet your guidance counselor. As Albion College says, it’s their “job to help you succeed. Put them to work for you.”

Then gather information about colleges from anywhere you can – alumni, teachers, former students, mailings, online, campus rankings. Be a sponge. Create spreadsheets. Use old-fashioned paper. Start drafting pros and cons of each college but keep your mind open to change.

See for yourself
Check out your top picks in person. Go on the official tour. Go on the unofficial one as well. Talk to students and teachers. Step away from the tour group and linger in bookstores or the quad.

Can you see yourself there? What are the people like? What does your gut say? Be mindful of everyday considerations – how far is it from home, is it in an area you like? But be open to possibility and wonder. This is a place you’ll be for four years. You will change.

Strut your stuff
Take advantage of colleges, such as Hillsdale, that allow prospective students to interview. Make no mistake: They are judging you. But it’s also an opportunity for you to judge them, tell your story in person and set yourself apart.

Prepare for a gut check
Aim high. But keep your feet on the ground. At some point, most must ask: Can I afford this school? When you do, look beyond advertised tuition and research actual costs that are reduced through financial aid and scholarships.

More than 90 percent of students at Michigan’s top 14 independent colleges and universities, for instance, get financial aid. That drastically reduces costs. Consider four-year graduation rates. Most public institutions typically require five years to graduate. That increases tuition costs by 20 percent — tens of thousands of dollars. The graduation rate is double at private colleges, allowing students an extra year of earnings and experience in their careers.

Find your bliss
Do your best. Meet your deadlines. Then remember: Everything is out of your hands. Some disappointment probably is inevitable. So is amazement, joy and pride. Be serious. But don’t take things so seriously. Things have a way of working out.

Bonus Tip: Be Different.
Consider Michigan’s top 14 independent colleges and universities, where students forge success by following their own path. The colleges are smaller and emphasize community over crowds.

Often less expensive than public institutions, the independents boast higher four-year graduation rates and smaller class sizes for a truly unique and affordable experience.

Be bold. Be different. Go independent.