Choosing a College – What to Consider Before Making the Big Decision
Choosing a college might seem, at first glance, like choosing whom to invite to a party. Send out a ton of invites (or, in this case, applications), and then see who’s actually interested in spending time with you. But spamming the country with transcripts can be really overwhelming and counterproductive. Instead, narrow down your list of schools and send carefully completed (and somewhat customized) applications to a handful of schools that you really, truly like.
One of the surest ways to start narrowing down your college choices is to consider your own criteria—what you personally are looking for in a college—along with some larger, more general factors. We’ve rounded up advice from college admissions experts from around the country to give you some tips on what to consider as you finalize your list and ultimately make your Big Decision.
MAJOR STRENGTHS: HOW TO IDENTIFY QUALITY ACADEMICS
While many college students choose not to declare their major until their sophomore year, you probably have a few areas of interest that you’d like to explore. Check that all of the colleges on your application list offer majors in these areas, and then dig deeper to determine the strength of the program.
“A few key indicators of academic program strength are graduate program placement and job placement rates,” says Jamie Zugelder, director of undergraduate admissions at Palm Beach Atlantic University (FL). “You should also ask about the types of research opportunities that exist in the undergraduate academic programs and the format of the college courses.”
Gareth Fowles, vice president for enrollment management at Lynn University (FL), says that in addition to finding out about the availability of internships, work-study placements and study abroad opportunities within the department, “you should also get a clear sense for the overall philosophy of the academic program.”
Not sure what you plan to major in yet? Then seek out larger institutions that offer plenty of majors. John S. LaBarbera, director of undergraduate recruitment at Queens College (NY), says that many prospective students don’t know their intended major yet, but that’s OK. If you’re undecided, he recommends selecting “a larger school with around 50 majors to choose from. This way, you won’t waste your time and have to transfer if you decide you want to study something that’s not offered.” In addition, he advises that undecided students seek out schools with plenty of liberal arts offerings so they know they’ll have a strong academic foundation, no matter their declared major.
COST MATTERS: FINANCIAL FACTORS TO CONSIDER
The impact of finances on college choice varies greatly from family to family. For some students, focusing on the academic program before considering cost is a realistic approach, one that Zugelder recommends. “I suggest that the primary focus of the college search should be the academic programs and the outcomes of the graduates over sticker price,” he says. The idea here is that with the right academic fit, colleges and families will work together to fund an education.It’s also important to use caution, says Fowles. “We don’t want to give students a sense of false hope. Reality can set in when students realize that their financial means don’t allow them to attend the institution of their choice. It’s easier and more realistic if students are aware of what they’ll be expected to pay early in the process.”
To help you determine if a college may be affordable for you, check out its net price calculator. You can find these calculators online at www.collegecost.ed.gov/netpricecenter.aspx.
A stellar-looking school might actually be a slouch when it comes to giving students one-on-one time with professors. Take a careful look at the stated student-teacher ratio, and ask about the average class size for upper-level courses. “Every student is very different and will go through their college career at a different pace,” says Fowles. “Some students will thrive with constant faculty interaction and other students don’t need that. We believe that, in general, the more a student can interact with faculty members, the more a student can grasp the materials.”
So how can you tell whether your school offers the level of accessibility that feels right? “If you are scheduled to meet with a professor during your campus visit, you can almost guarantee access will be very easily attainable while you’re enrolled,” says Zugelder. He also suggests that prospective students email professors with specific questions about their academic department. “If you get a response within a few days, it shows that they are mindful of their duties to assist current and prospective students in a timely manner.”
THE X FACTOR: STUDENT LIFE AND FINDING THE RIGHT “FIT”
Weighing academics and financial concerns are important, but you also should make sure that the schools you’re seriously considering seem like, well, places that you’d actually enjoy attending! No one can tell you what to look for in terms of student life and fit; it’s up to you to decide whether you’d like a small-town feel or an urban center, and if you’d prefer plenty of Greek life or an active arts scene. It’s also important to note that these factors are often best experienced in person. Says Zugelder, “There is no substitute for visiting the schools that interest you.” LaBarbera agrees, advising students to try and “narrow down your list to five or six, and try to visit all of those, if possible.”
So what do you do when you visit? “One tip is to create a spreadsheet with ‘what you’re looking for in a college’ as rows and ‘the schools you’re looking at’ as columns,” suggests Zugelder. “When you visit each school, gather information on everything you’re looking for in a school and mark those boxes with checks. When your visits are complete, the three schools with the most checks are those where you should consider applying since those have met all of the parameters that you set.”
Being choosy about your applications can take time, but this selectivity can pay off once you end up with a small, strong list of schools that match your interests and abilities. After all, shouldn’t the hardest decision of all be choosing which “yes” to accept?
Barry Flowers is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Wisconsin.
SHOULD THE “TOP” SCHOOLS BE YOUR TOP PRIORITY?
A recent article in The New York Times reported that elite colleges and universities are now rejecting 95 percent of students who apply. This may come as alarming news to students who have their hearts set on the Ivy League but the article also can serve as a stern warning against “scattershot” application techniques.
The admissions officers interviewed for the piece made it clear that students and schools are stuck in a vicious cycle: applications to elite colleges have increased dramatically which leads to lower admission rates which leads to students assuming they must cast a wider net.
Once again the key is to focus your college search on schools that are the right fit for you and working hard to communicate your interest and unique qualifications through specific and thorough application materials. And remember that you don’t have to attend a “top-ranked” school to get a great education and have a successful career whatever your field.
For the full story visit www.nytimes.com and search for “Best Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%.”