6 ways to pick a college

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(MoneyWatch) For high school seniors stressing over where they will be going to college in the fall, time is running out.

The national college decision day is May 1. That's the date when many colleges and universities expect their accepted students to put down their deposits. Making that final decision can be stressful, so here are six concrete steps that teenagers can take to help them make up their minds.

1. Talk with current students. Whether you'll be able to visit a campus this month or not, be sure to arrange to speak with a college's or university's students. Some suggested questions:

1. What do you like about the school?
2. What would you change about the school if you could?
3. What prompted you to attend this school?
4. If you could have a do-over, would you attend this school again?

Ideally you should also talk with students who share your potential major. Just because a school enjoys an excellent reputation doesn't mean every department is chock full of good teachers.

2. Check other student opinions. College Prowler and Unigo are two popular websites where you can find unvarnished opinions of what students think about many schools.

3. Check graduation rates. It's mind-boggling how many students select schools without ever researching graduation rates. An excellent source for four, five and six-year graduation rates is the College Completion microsite within The Chronicle of Higher Education.

4. Measure how happy the freshman are. You can get a sense of this by looking at each school's freshman retention rate. The more freshman who return for a second year, the better. You can obtain any school's freshman retention rate by visiting the federal College Navigator or College Results Online.

5. Head over to RateMyProfessors.com. At RateMyProfessors.com you will find millions of professor ratings courtesy of current and former college students. You can find the composite teaching score of the teachers at a particular university. (Five is the highest score possible.) You can also check professor ratings of any teacher at a school.

6. Make sure you can afford the school. It can be heartbreaking when a dream school is too expensive, but it is important to walk away if the financial cost of attending a school is too high. Take a good look at your financial aid packages before making a final decision.

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