Choosing among the thousands of U.S. colleges available to students today is no small feat, and without a plan it can leave your head spinning. On the other hand, having a road map to follow can make this difficult decision much easier. These guidelines can help you navigate the college application and acceptance process and arrive at a sound decision about which school can best help you to achieve your dreams.
Step 1 – What Do I Want/Need?
The differences between colleges are as varied as the differences between people. In order to determine which college is the best fit for you, you must know your goals and interests. This is not as simple as knowing where you can earn the degree you need—it’s choosing the place you will live for the next four years or more, the culture that will shape your identity and the people who can most effectively help you to develop and succeed both personally and professionally. Some important factors to consider are your academic and extracurricular ambitions, financial and living arrangements and the type of school you’d like to be a part of.
What do you love to do? Have you chosen a major? Are you interested in a liberal arts school, a business school, or something more technical?
Consider the type of student you are. What level of structure do you need to achieve your goals? Can you flourish at a school that requires more self-motivation, or do you need more strict requirements? Do you prefer to work independently or with a team? Are you a hands-on learner or do you prefer to listen to a lecture? Some schools have done away with grades. Are grades a motivating factor for you?
Are there subjects you want to avoid, or subjects unrelated to your major that you feel your college experience would be incomplete without?
Calendars vary between schools. Do you need the longer summer break that comes with a semester calendar, or is it more important to you to gain exposure to the wider variety of courses available with a quarterly or trimester calendar?
When you’re not in class, what level of involvement will you have with the school? Are you hoping to be part of an athletic team, a performance group or a community service project? Would you like to join a fraternity or sorority? What social clubs would you want to participate in?
What do you like to do in your free time? What kinds of places do you like to go to relax and have fun? Different cities or areas of the country have different cultural settings. Would you prefer an urban, rural, suburban or small-town setting? Larger cities are great for concerts, museums, sporting events and clubs, as well as more frequent opportunities for social interaction. Suburban and rural towns are more likely to have access to wildlife/nature and opportunities for solitude. Are you likely to suffer from culture shock if you choose to live in a setting that vastly differs from what you’re used to?
The different regions of the U.S. display a variety of climates. These climates will determine the types of activities available to you when you’re not in class. Is there a climate you’d prefer, or one that you can’t deal with?
Do you plan to live on or off campus? Do coed dorms bother you or excite you?
Do you own a car? If not, you’ll need to make sure the college you choose is in a city that provides public transportation or an area that can be easily traversed without a vehicle.
Living away from family can be exhilarating, since being on your own allows for greater freedom. It can also be scary or lonely because the people you’re used to relying on will not be readily available if you need help. Would you prefer to be near or far from home, and how often do you plan to visit?
Public colleges are typically much less expensive than private schools, but the graduates of private colleges frequently earn more. It’s important to consider this trade-off when choosing your school and your career path. Attending a more prestigious school may or may not result in greater career or financial success, depending on what you’re planning to study.
Will you need to get a job? Choosing a college with on-campus jobs or a location with plenty of available off-campus jobs will be necessary.
If you choose to live far from home, how will you travel to visit? Flying is significantly more expensive than other modes of transportation, but it’s also much faster.
Some colleges have tens of thousands of students, while others may not be much larger than a high school, and their class sizes can range from the hundreds to only a handful of students. Do you prefer to blend in with the crowd or to stand out?
What level of political activism are you comfortable with? Some schools are more vocal than others when it comes to social and political issues. Is there a specific issue you’d like to be active in promoting? Do you prefer a liberal- or conservative-leaning campus culture?
How important is belonging to you? Do you love to cheer with the home crowd at football games and be a part of campus social clubs, traditions and history, or are you content to get your degree, begin forming a career network and make some friends? Do you need to feel surrounded by people who are similar to you and understand you racially, socioeconomically, religiously, or in other ways, or would you rather be challenged by people whose backgrounds are different from yours?
Would alcohol or drug use on campus make you uncomfortable?
Step 2 – Research
Once you’ve considered your needs and interests, you can begin to zero in on the schools that have what you want. In the internet age, anything you need to know about a college is just a click away. Besides official school websites, there are myriad resources to help you easily compare schools, such as CollegeNavigator, Unigo, Cappex and CollegeBoard. These tools allow you to research and sort schools based on the criteria of your choice, including major, school size, demographics and test scores.
It’s likely that there will be a number of schools that adequately fit your needs and interests. As your list becomes shorter and shorter, remember to take time to deeply consider the factors that matter to you, while being honest with yourself about what you find. Some truly excellent colleges just aren’t a good fit for your needs, and these should not make the cut. It’s not worth it to sacrifice personal and professional happiness or success in exchange for bragging rights or an unrealistic vision of your college experience. Ideally, you should be able to taper your list to about ten schools: a few dream schools, a few realistic target schools and a couple of safety-net schools.
When it comes to getting a feel for the culture of a college, there is simply no substitute for a campus visit. You may be able to take a peek at the campus online through a virtual tour or photos on the school’s website, but to really experience the atmosphere, you need to survey it in person. Eat in the dining hall, talk to students and faculty, visit a classroom and check out the dorms. A campus visit will also give you a chance to explore the school’s surroundings and gain a better understanding of the area’s culture.
When you’ve made the cuts that narrow the field from thousands to just ten or so top schools, it’s time to apply. The application process can be expected to further shrink your list, as you may not get a positive response to every application you submit, but hang in there—you’re not quite done yet.
Step 3 – Once You’ve Been Accepted
With acceptance letters in hand, there is still much to consider. Many students feel an urge to decide as soon as possible after receiving an offer of admission, but this can be a serious mistake. There are typically three to four weeks allowed in which to make your decision, and this is the time to dig deeper and take an even closer look at what each school has to offer. You may want to reexamine some of the factors you explored in step 1. Perhaps there are some choices that are no-brainers, and these can help you eliminate some options. For the harder choices, the following questions can be useful.
Which schools present knowledge in ways that are best suited to your learning style?
Is the material presented by an assistant or adjunct instructor, or a full-time professor? How available are the professors when students have questions or concerns, and are they sufficiently qualified?
Did the classes you attended during your first campus visit hold your attention? Is examination of the subject matter multifaceted, or is it based on rote learning? Are critical thinking and opposing perspectives welcome, or does discussion take place in an echo chamber?
Will you be able to begin forming a career network there? Does the area around the school provide opportunities for internships or other learning experiences in your field?
While it’s true that the practical and cultural aspects of college are important and should be weighed in your decision, the education you’ll get is obviously your primary reason for attending and should tip the scale.
Which schools are offering better financial aid packages? Scholarship offers and the ratio of grants to loans can influence your decision or even mean the difference between the possible and the impossible. You’ll need to consider how much debt each option will saddle you with after graduation and whether it will be worthwhile.
Which schools allow for living arrangements that you can afford? Some may provide everything you need on campus, and others may enable you to live off campus at a lower cost. Some cities or campuses may make it possible for you to get by without a vehicle, but others may make it necessary to have one.
A second campus visit can go a long way toward turning your head one direction or another. This visit is a great time to address anything you may have missed the first time and to go beyond the school’s presentation of itself on the tour—when they know prospective students are on campus. Aim to discover the un-staged. Visit a dorm without a tour guide, find out where the best coffeehouse or restaurant near campus is and head back to campus on a weekend night to see where students are and what they’re up to. Do you feel safe there? Talk to students and faculty. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions or the “stupid” questions. Remember that you’re not just considering where to get an education, but where, and with whom, to spend the next four years of your life. Can you see yourself living there? Can you become a well-rounded individual there?
Though friends, family, and others will express opinions about where you should attend college (and their opinions should be taken into account), the decision is ultimately yours. The essential question is not whether a school is good, but whether it’s a good fit for you. Only you can decide which college is the best fit for your goals and interests, your personality, and your financial situation, and whether it’s the place in which you are most able to grow and thrive.