Approximately 56% of high school graduates choose to attend colleges, and as there are literally hundreds of colleges to choose from, deciding which college to attend is becoming a loaded question for an increasing number of people. Your prospective choice of schools will face pressures on all fronts – your friends and family, your teachers, your job – and this can be a constant source of anxiety and indecision for months. Fortunately, these pressures are optional. Your school is mostly a personal decision, and by keeping in mind a few key concerns, you can cut through most of that unnecessary anxiety and be confident in your choice.
1. Which schools can I get into?
This is the first question you’ll need to answer, and it will determine your range of ‘safe’, ‘standard’ and ‘reach’ schools. While your high school grades are the baseline measure of your undergraduate options, don’t worry if your grades are slightly lower than the average for your ideal school – your grades won’t always predict whether you’ll be accepted to a school. There are a number of factors considered by college admissions offices, namely your extracurricular involvement, but also your high school, your community, and your background (although these last three are of debatable merit). Were you on a sports team? Did you play in the orchestra? Anything from art fairs to volunteering during your free time will pad your application, and by showing that you have diverse and active interests, you could have more appeal to a school than somebody who had great grades but few extracurriculars.
Of course, different schools value these extracurriculars differently. If you’re a good athlete with a slightly lower GPA, you might be more interested in applying to schools with prominent sports teams. Similarly, if you’re a great musician or an avid painter with a slightly lower GPA, you could orient yourself towards liberal arts schools that look upon those skills more favorably than others. It has a lot to do with your preference, but by taking these factors into account, you could specialize your applications to maximize your chances of acceptance. For resources on schools and the extracurriculars they favor, I recommend researching the school online, asking your high school guidance counselor for literature, searching for alumni to talk to, or attending college fairs.
2. What fields am I interested in?
This is the second question you should ask yourself. It’s important to know that you don’t need to know your specific major prior to going to school – after all, you haven’t even gotten a real taste of the courses yet! Leave that decision until after you’ve gained a bit more experience into the different academic fields. However, I recommend having a sense of which fields you’re most interested in studying when choosing schools. If you’re passionate about pursuing an art career, you may not interested in attending a school known for its mechanical engineering programs. If you’re looking to be an astrophysicist, a liberal arts school probably won’t help you much along that path. It’s good to keep your options open, but knowing your preferred academic fields can help ensure that you’re getting the best education most suited for you for what you’re paying.
As an additional bonus, you’ll have a much better chance of meeting people who share your interests if you attend a school that’s known for programs in your preferred fields. However, you may not want to specialize your decision too much, especially if you’re really unsure – but in that case, you may want to attend a less expensive community or state school to get your bearings, and by keeping your grades up, you can transfer to another after the year is up.
3. Where do I want my school located?
Ideally, a student chooses a school based on their academic aspirations – but we all know that comfort and security plays a large role in the learning process. For instance, statistically speaking, a student from a sunny hometown has a greater chance of becoming depressed at a school in a dreary climate than would a student accustomed to it. While you shouldn’t make this the determining factor of your decision, it should definitely be taken into account according to how you think the weather would influence your college experience. Do you love to wear shorts and tank tops? Perhaps the northeast isn’t for you. Or maybe you thrive when bundled up with snow around, in which case you might get uncomfortably hot in the south. This is why visiting colleges is important when deciding where to attend, because not only will you get a feel for the campus, but you can also get a brief taste of the atmosphere.
It may seem like excessive caution, but you may want to take account of the culture of the schools you’re considering. While it’s negligible to many people, some students simply feel more secure around people that share their background – for instance, if you’re from the south and you’re considering a state school in New York, you may feel out of place where service is generally faster, and it’s considered polite to move quickly and people may get impatient if you don’t. However, as I feel that college is a great place to test your boundaries and expand your mind, I recommend taking a chance on matters like these – sometimes moving out of your immediate comfort zone, culture wise, can have great results.
4. What setting do I want my school to be in?
This along with the next question are tied for the fourth and fifth most important questions you need to ask yourself. While your college experience is largely what you make of it, and there are always different ways you can use your downtime, the surrounding city outside of your campus will play a large role in your social activities. Are you surrounded by a big city? A college town (a town in which the school and the students play an integral role in its sociopolitical livelihood)? A rural environment? Again, while I recommend extending the benefit of the doubt in decisions like these, sometimes a drastic community change can have a negative impact on your academic and social life. Moving from a small town to a big city can become intimidating; moving from a city to a pasture will likely leave you bored, and loathing your school. Not only can the adjustment be tough, but if you’re noticeably affected by the change in scenery, it could impact your ability to make friends with people who are from that area, and like it.
Also, if you’re planning to work or live off campus during your time at school, the surrounding locale will largely determine the available options. Do you have a car, or will you have to rely on public transportation? Is there a selection of jobs to choose from? If you’re going to need to work during school, not only will you want a job suited to your interests and strengths, but you also want to get paid enough to make it worth the time. These are all things you should take into account, and put into context.
5. How large a school do I want to attend?
To put it simply – you’ll get good grades if you work hard at whichever school you attend. However, there are aspects about large and small schools that make them appealing to different people, and these aspects will influence your academic experience, and to a lesser degree, your social life. For instance, while larger schools generally offer a greater number and variety of financial aid for their students, they’re also known for having large, amphitheater classes with hundreds of students and a professor who may also be preoccupied with graduate courses. You probably won’t get individual attention from the professor, even at office hours, and you could expect your grades weeks after you take the test. While this isn’t the case for every single class at a large school, generally there are so many students in each major that even the smaller classes (with 20-40 people) are standardized when it comes to teacher/student relations, and it’s rare to find a course that is tailored to your specific academic needs.
Meanwhile, a most classes at a smaller school have anywhere between 2 and 19 students. Generally, graduate programs are limited or nonexistent at a smaller school. As a result, not only are the professors are more accessible and less harried, but the overall college experience is tailored to the undergraduate and the individual, which helps students become accustomed to college life both academically and socially. However, most smaller schools are private, and have high tuition and housing costs – while they offer financial aid, the options are generally more limited than if you went to a larger institution.
Your social life would also be influenced by the population size at the school of your choice. At a larger school with thousands of students, there isn’t really much of a sense of a campus community – you’re essentially another face in the crowd, and you can go weeks without seeing the same person twice outside of class. The campus is pretty packed, and while the school likely puts a great deal of effort into keeping it clean, it still has a ‘transitory’ feel – most people are looking to live off campus as soon as possible, and the college itself feels more like an impartial academic institution rather than a temporary home that’s given life by an engaging administrative entity (such as at smaller schools), and a student body in which each individual has a voice.
On the other hand, a smaller school usually has less options for extracurriculars than does a large school, but because there are fewer people on them, you play more of an active role. In addition, as there are less people on campus, the school can spend more on beautification projects, and it has an overall feel that the campus ‘belongs’ to the students, rather than the students ‘occupying’ it.
6. What’s my price range?
Planning to go to school is a financial commitment that usually entails tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes more for brand name schools). It’s quite common to attend the school that gives you the most financial aid, because in addition to relieving the current financial burden, getting an academic grant mean that you’ll be paying off that much less money after you graduate. Public schools in general tend to offer more financial aid than private schools, and students that choose to attend state schools pay less tuition if they live in the state than out of it.
You know best how far your money can stretch. The best recommendation I can give is to look for the best value when it comes to schools – the highest quality education for the price. Usually state schools offer great deals when it comes to that, but if you’re appealing enough to a private school, sometimes they’ll go to lengths to enroll you.
Make sure you look around for scholarships. You can ask your guidance counselor about federal scholarships, and you can look around for local people or organizations that offer them within your community – which is a great option because the selection pool is smaller. In addition, in some circumstances, non-profit organizations can offer scholarships to qualified candidates as well as to any religious institution to which you may belong. If you or your parents belong to a labor union, all the major ones (AFL-CIO, ITUC, and others) offer scholarships as well. Search around, because the results are worth it!
7. Is my school’s reputation important to me?
Most brand name schools cost an additional couple thousand dollars because of their household recognition. While they do offer a fantastic education, deciding to attend one of these schools requires both an excellent high school performance as well as the fiscal flexibility to afford them. However, if one of your parents or relatives attended the school, you may have a greater chance of admission and getting financial aid to help alleviate the burden.
A school that enjoys a reputation for excellence can provide a competitive edge for students interested in entering particular fields. While this may be a factor in determining which school is the best for you, I urge you to research school rankings – while brand name schools carry weight, schools are generally are ranked in tiers (I think rankings 1-30 constitute tier 1, 31-60 is tier 2, and 61-100 is tier 3) and I recommend using this as a stronger indicator of quality than name recognition. You may discover that some brand name schools are lower in the rankings than you would otherwise expect.
While these are some pretty in-depth questions to ask yourself, they cut right to the heart of the matter and can help take the tension and edginess off a decision that will affect the next couple years of your life. After trimming the list down to a favored selection of ‘safe’, ‘standard’ and ‘reach’ (I had a list of 3 safe school, 4 standards, and 3 reach schools) I recommend visiting as many of them as is comfortably possible. It’ll give you a firsthand experience of the campus and allow you to talk with the students directly, instead of through the filters of websites and PR (but try to talk to the students who aren’t your tour guides!). It’s easy to get stressed during this time, but if you start early, stay rational about your educational needs, and keep your information organized, choosing which college is best for you will be a breeze. Good luck, and happy hunting!