Choosing a college is a lot like choosing a husband or wife — there’s no single right way to find the perfect spouse, but there are a lot of wrong ways to go about it. And the ideal mate (or college) for your best friend might be completely wrong for you.
Ideally, each student should attend a college that offers that student an excellent education in a field that interests him or her in a place that feels just right among people whom that student can feel challenged by but comfortable with and taught by professors who are knowledgeable, on top of their field but approachable and interested in each student’s progress. How hard can that be?
To accomplish such an “easy” task, there are dozens of books, too many articles, and several ranking sites about how to choose a college.
Since I wouldn’t give the same advice to two different people, I’m not going to tell you how to pick the college that would be perfect for you.
But I can tell you some really awful ways to choose a college. So please DON’T do any of these:
Only look at colleges you’ve heard of. You probably have heard of about 20 colleges. Your parents have probably heard of about 20 colleges. Even if your lists don’t overlap, that’s 40 colleges out of the thousands in the United States. Just because you haven’t heard of a school doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a stellar reputation among those in your field. And just because you have heard of a college doesn’t mean it deserves its notoriety or that it’s necessarily a better fit for you.
Decide you want a really big college (or a really small college) without looking at one first. Some big schools feel really big. Kids generally feel lost, disconnected, not focused. But some really big schools do a great job of making kids within a certain major or within a certain housing unit feel like they belong, like the faculty cares about their progress, like they have pride in their school. The same with small schools. Some have limited choices. Others are creative and open to designing the perfect curriculum for you. You don’t have to visit every school you apply to, but you shouldn’t make a blanket decision about a type of college without visiting a school of that type and a school of the opposite type.
Pick a school based on the dorms or the cafeteria or the weather. If the freshman dorms are cramped, remember that you won’t be a freshman forever. If the senior housing is nothing special, you might be living off campus by then anyway. Don’t decide whether you like a school based on the unimportant externals. Don’t decide you don’t want to go to school in Connecticut or Massachusetts because it’s colder there. It’s not. Don’t decide you want to go further south because you like the warm weather. You’ll be in classrooms, your dorm, and the library most of the time anyway. If your campus is lovely but you can never take the classes you like because seniors get priority and the classes are filled before you can register, you’ve picked a pleasant vacation spot but a crummy school.
Expect your guidance counselor or parents to help you choose a school. As well as your parents know you, they aren’t you. You’re the one who has to live at that school for four years (at least). You’re the one who has to take those classes, interact with those students, learn from those professors. Don’t be lazy. Do some work yourself as you build a list of colleges to apply to. Visit colleges when you can. Look carefully at dozens of college websites. (They all look good initially. You can only differentiate between them when you’ve seen many.) Don’t stop at the admissions page of the college websites. Poke around on the “majors” pages. See what research the professors are doing. See what sub-majors each school offers within your general area of interest. Count how many professors each college has in your major. Look at the online course catalog to see whether you’d really like to take the required classes in your field. Email the admissions office if your questions can’t be answered by the website — or email a department or professor directly. By all means show your list to your guidance counselor; guidance counselors have excellent resources at their disposal and know which schools are well liked by previous students. But they may not know you well enough to know whether you like to get friendly with your professors or would prefer to talk to a teaching assistant, or whether you’d prefer a school where the university provides a lot of entertainment or you’re expected to explore the surrounding town or city on your own. Do your own background research as best you can. Parents are (sorry, moms and dads) a bit less reliable, especially when it comes to advising their oldest child. A school that was up-and-coming and quite selective 30 years ago might be much less prestigious now (or more to the point, may not be right for their child), and a school that was no great shakes 30 years ago might be truly amazing now. (I remember when I was in college that Syracuse was a safety school for many solid B students. Colleges change over time – for better or worse.)
Rely on the ranking reports. As this New York Times article explains, there are many college ranking lists, most from prestigious institutions. Each emphasizes different aspects of college statistics from future earnings of students to student satisfaction to peer review to percentage of applicants who are accepted and more. And the lists disagree with each other quite a bit. There really aren’t any indisputably “top schools,” even within a particular field. If you check several lists, you’ll get an idea of whether a particular school generally is toward the top, middle, or bottom of the list of similar schools, but choosing a school because it’s ranked #10 over a school ranked #12 is like ordering vanilla ice cream because it’s more popular when you really love pistachio.
Wait until senior year in high school to start thinking seriously about which colleges you’d like to know more about. To return to my previous analogy, you wouldn’t plan a wedding and then a month before the wedding start looking for a potential mate, would you? Then why plan to go to college but not concern yourself with which colleges might be a good fit until just a month or two before you need to submit applications?
Choosing the place you’ll spend four very important years takes a bit of time, planning, and work. It’s not crazy to start gathering information at the end of 10th grade. Think about it: If you want to apply in the beginning of senior year, you’ll have to be looking at colleges by the end of junior year. And to look at colleges in the spring of junior year, you need to have a reasonable list by the winter of junior year. And to have a reasonable list by the winter of junior year, you need to start doing some serious thinking and research — NOW.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please send me a message through my website (which has plenty of good information including a link to schedule time with me): www.wendysegaltutoring.com .