Picking the Right School

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What is the point of going to a very expensive Ivy League school to get your undergraduate degree when you know that you are going to get your master’s degree when you’re done?

group of university students working on computers

I would like to go to Dartmouth, but I have a full scholarship to the University of Florida, so maybe I should go there and go to Dartmouth for my MBA. What is your opinion?

Ivy League schools offer students great education and prestige. Many students find these schools attractive because they are selective, and because a degree from such a school is impressive on a job application. Yet there are great schools all over the country that offer a wonderful education and are easier to get into.

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And, as you know, when considering the costs of public vs. private colleges, public schools such as the University of Florida are more affordable. The best way to decide what school is best for you is to consider all the angles. Ask yourself: “What schools offer strong programs in my major? How important is cost and will this scholarship make life easier for me in the future? Do I want to be close to home or further away on my own? What kind of college life is there?”

Do you prefer a large or small school? Would you be more comfortable in a traditional campus not close to a major city, or do you prefer to be in a large city? Are you looking for a certain student mix in terms of gender, religion, race, etc.?

All of these questions play a major role in the college decision. You are right—if you choose to attend the University of Florida, you can always pursue a master’s degree at Dartmouth or at another big-name school. But try not to think too far ahead. Base your decision on what each school can do for you right now as you pursue your bachelor’s degree.

I’m interested in a lot of different colleges and don’t know which one I want to choose. Please help.

students writing notes in notebook

The best way to narrow down which brick-and-mortar as well as accredited online colleges are best for you is to first ask yourself several general questions about college:

-What am I interested in pursuing as a major?

-What schools offer strong programs in my major? Does the school also offer cool college electives?

-How important is cost, and will scholarships be available at this school?

-Do I want to live at home or on campus?

-Do I want to be close to home or further away on my own?

-Will I be more comfortable at a large university or a small private college?

-Are my grades and test scores sufficient for acceptance?

Once you’ve answered each of these questions, make a list of the colleges you are considering and decide which ones best fit the criteria set by your answers.

The next step is to get specific information from each school left on the list. You may contact the schools directly or visit their websites to request catalogs, viewbooks, brochures, and anything else you think might aid the decision-making process.

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Finally, once you’ve narrowed the list down again, schedule campus visits to the schools you are still interested in. You can schedule a tour, see a dorm room, and perhaps even sit on a class. Many students base their final decision on a really good a campus visit. Then, once you’ve chosen the perfect school, begin the admissions process. Follow this process and you should have no trouble (or at least less trouble!) choosing the right school for you.

I am a junior. I eventually want to attend Harvard Medical School, and a friend of the family (a physician) said I should definitely try to get into Harvard for undergraduate work because those students have a better chance of being accepted into the med school.

Is that true (not only for Harvard but for most med schools)? My high school counselor says if my grades, activities and MCAT scores are great in college, it won’t matter where I get my undergrad degree.

girl student writing down notes

To a certain degree, both your counselor and your family friend are correct. Schools like Harvard do always select a few of their own schools for their graduate programs, but to be one of the students their medical school takes, you’ll need to be one of the top students in your college class.

Your counselor is correct, because if you work hard and excel at any school, medical schools will want you in their incoming class. So, if you want to be a doctor, don’t worry too much about whether you get into Harvard for undergraduate work.

There are many fine schools…and in determining the right place for you, you should take into account not only academic reputation, but also factors such as financial aid availability, size, location, student body mix, social life and clubs and activities. Ultimately, the school where you are the happiest is the one that will give you the most satisfying college experience…and will also be the one where you’re most likely to excel well enough to get into medical school.

Ultimately, both are correct, because both are saying that medical schools like Harvard want the best students. However, don’t get too hung up on going just to Harvard Medical School, as there are many other excellent medical schools and you’ll become a doctor if you go through any of them.

So apply to a wide range to colleges, Harvard included, and work really hard in college. Then, whether you go to Harvard or somewhere else, you should be in a good position to get into a great medical school. Good luck!

My son is awaiting the April 2007 decisions on colleges he has applied to. In addition, he has wanted to go on to medical school for years now.

So far he has heard early from two schools: University of Connecticut, where he has received a very nice scholarship, and Brandeis, but with no scholarship. Assuming we may see a mix of acceptances, with and without scholarship, from other private and public schools of different rankings, is it worth the higher cost for the higher-ranked schools vs. accepting (happily on our part) the scholarship at the other schools?

It has been my contention that one is better off doing well in whatever school you attend, including on the MCAT, and that the pressure may be less in some of the “less competitive” schools (the big fish, small pond theory), especially when we are talking about all respectable schools. Do you agree, or am I letting the dollars sway my thinking? Thanks very much for your thoughts!

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First, congratulations on your son’s acceptances. You should be very proud. Personal finances and your ability and willingness to pay more for a school are subjective and something I can’t fairly comment on. That said, while it probably isn’t worth going to the higher ranked school just to get your son into medical school (since that decision won’t be based necessarily on tougher competition), you should consider factors other than rankings when helping your son choose a school: among these:

The school’s strength in your son’s intended major, the strength of the school’s premed program (if they have one, and if not, the quality of their science offerings), financial aid/scholarships (I know your son has gotten a scholarship from UConn, but he may get similar offers from other schools as well), student life (such as clubs, activities, athletics, etc.), the student mix (such as male/female ratio, religious and political leanings and socioeconomics of the student body), location, and size.

Your son may also want to consider the breadth and quality of other majors offered at the school just in case he decides not to go to medical school or if he decides to major in something considered “nontraditional” for premed students.

So what you need to figure out is what, if anything, you’re willing and able to pay for your son’s education and finding a school within these financial means where your son is going to be happy. After all, if he’s happy, he’s more likely to do well in school. Good luck!

How will I know what college is right for me?

two young students discussing project together

You’re in luck!  We happen to have just published an article in the brand-new 2010 edition of our magazine called “The Right Fit — Apply to Schools That Are Right For You.” Read it through right here.

I also encourage you to look at the section of previous questions I’ve answered under my section “Picking the Right School.” These resources will give you a great starting point. But I’ll say for the time being…I think you’ll figure it out. It will just take a little exploration…and what’s not exciting about that? Good luck as you begin your college searching adventure.

I have recently been admitted to Mississippi State University and to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Right now I would like to study meteorology. Mississippi State has a great meteorology program, and it’s the closest meteorology school to my home.

I have been on campus, and I really love the atmosphere there. However, all of my best friends that I’ve known my entire life are going to Chattanooga. I can’t imagine life without them, and I know we would have an amazing college experience together. I figure if I go to UT-Chatt, then I could study something in the medical field, since I am also interested in this.

Both scholarship amounts I would receive from each school are about the same. So I really don’t know which to choose. Can you help me? Thanks for this question. I have been thinking about it for a little while, and I have decided that instead of giving you an answer, I’m going to ask you two questions in return.

1) If you decide to go to Chattanooga with your friends, it’s possible that your group will start to drift apart a little (after all, the college atmosphere is different, and young adults tend to change the most in college). Will you still feel as though you will have a good college experience there, or will you feel resentful for going there and wish you had gone to Mississippi State?

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2) How much do you care about studying meteorology? Do you believe it is something you are completely passionate about, or do you feel about the same about it as you might a different program of study?

I encourage you to think about these questions, think about what your expectations are at present for college, think about what you value most, and talk to your friends and adult mentors about this dilemma. I wish you wisdom in your decision-making.

My son is a senior far away from his family at boarding school. Working in an architectural office this summer made him interested in architecture and industrial design. The problem is that all his art classes from middle school on had to do with music, and he has no works for his portfolio. He signed up for a drawing class now and his art teacher seems excited by his work.

Will he be effected with a sort of “thin” portfolio? Secondly, he and his adviser put some schools on his list like Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. We decided that because of his limited preparation in arts, but also as a practical advantage in the job world, he should go for schools with a technical approach and not completely arty.

Would Virginia Tech be recommended? What sites are available that give you insights to colleges (other than the facts on schools own websites)? Thank you very much for your help.

serious student doing homework

If you want more recommendations, I’d suggest you seek information from objective resources like architectural firms themselves. If you know of architects, ask them from which schools their firms frequently pull graduates. Also check out Architect Magazine online. It offers a wide variety of resources to aspiring architects, including its ranking of best architecture schools.

Also check with your son to see what aspects of architecture he is specifically loving. Is it the artistic aspect of creating something original in 3-dimensional form? Or is he more drawn to the technical and mathematical aspects of architecture? It doesn’t hurt to keep the options open, an art school isn’t out of the question quite yet just because of his “limited preparation” as you mentioned.

In addition, find out what specific kind of architecture your son likes. There are so many branches of architecture (for example, you mentioned Virginia Tech–it’s actually ranked number 1 currently in landscape architecture). Does your son like modern architecture? restoration architecture of old buildings? garden and outdoor parks architecture? Do a little research. Google is going to be your best friend on this journey.

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Also, I wouldn’t worry about your son’s “thin” portfolio just yet. But make sure to gather what you’ve got. Be absolutely sure to mention his work in an architectural office when he starts applying to schools. And I would bet he still has time to put together some quality pieces, artistic or otherwise.

He should talk to the industrial tech and art teachers at his schools to see whether he could work on some specialized architectural design pieces on an independent basis. Or he could ask the firm he worked at to help in more depth with some of their projects on an apprentice sort of basis. Chances are, if he really does want to do this, he’ll love putting together that kind of work for his portfolio anyway.

Does it make you a loser if you go to a community college first?

group of students in a classroom

Of course not. Some very fine and motivated students come out of community colleges and are accepted into good four-year universities — sometimes because of financial choices, family obligations or other reasons. But we also typically encourage high school students to get information about four-year universities at the front end as well, instead of only applying to community colleges.

You never know … you might just get in … and sometimes students even receive more financial aid from four-year schools than they realized. Either way, I wish you well.

What kind of college should I apply to if I do not know what I want to study but I want to go to a good college?

That’s a great question. There are many other factors, besides intended major, that will play into your decision. For example, perhaps you’d like to try a college environment that is close-knit, small, and community-oriented? Many smaller colleges offer small classes, lots of organizations and events.

At smaller schools, you’ll get to know your professors and advisers well. At a larger school, though, there will be a wider variety of clubs and organizations and more majors to choose from. If you can narrow down your field of interests, you may have better luck picking the right school.

For example, if you don’t know exactly what you want to study but know that you love the arts, research schools in your area that have strong arts programs. Likewise, if you know you’re interested in the healthcare field, you might pick a larger school with more graduate and medical programs offered.

Start your research early, and even visit a few schools if possible. It’s alright that you don’t know your major yet, as you’ll be exposed to many new things freshman year and you’ll have many options in front of you regardless of the school you choose. Good luck!

I want to open an after school academic/athletic program, and I want to go to school to learn the best way to approach this concept within the next five years. What do I do?

What a fantastic goal! As with any idea, the first step is research. Are there any similar programs in your area? If so, find out if you can meet with a founder or director to understand what it takes.

Often, those who want to open a particular kind of business gain experience first by working for someone else. Then, once you know the ropes, you’ll be able to take your experience and set out on your own. In terms of education, it sounds like you’ll want to study both education and exercise science or physiology. Also, you’ll want to make sure you take some core business courses to understand business management.

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Find out what programs are offered at your area schools. You may, for instance, be able to study education with a focus on physical education, and double major in business or finance. But you’ll only know what exact path to carve out once you research area schools and find out what programs are offered. Good luck! Keep asking questions, and don’t be afraid to approach others who have achieved this goal and pick their ears for advice.

My daughter just received early admission to Cal State Sacramento. She has also applied to four University of California campuses.

Will attending Cal State instead of a UC school affect her chances of getting into a “good” law school later on (such as USC, Stanford, Georgetown, or even a UC law school)? Cal State would be less expensive and I think her grades would be higher there. Also, she would have more time to become involved in extracurricular activities, internships, etc.

Would sending her to a UC school enhance her chances of getting into a good law school?

two students working on assignment together

First of all, its not clear from your question if your daughter was admitted early decision or early action. If early decision, then it probably is binding and she is obligated to attend Cal State. If it was non-binding early action, then she would be free to attend a UC school.

I don’t think graduating from a UC school will give your daughter any significant advantage in applying to law school. It might even hurt her chances if she doesn’t do as well at a UC schools as she would do at Cal State as the competition might be stiffer. That’s not to say she couldn’t do just as well at a UC school.

However, I would recommend evaluating which school to attend on all the factors other than the “reputation.” For example, you should look at things like strength in intended major, financial aid availability, size, location, social life, cost, etc.

Since you say that her grades would be higher at Cal State and she would have time for extracurricular and other activities, it sounds to me as if she’ll have a better overall college experience at Cal State. Even if a UC school has a better reputation, I don’t think it will help enough and appears to be more than offset by your view that she will get better grades at Cal State, have more time for other activities and the cost will be less.

What are the three top art schools in the United States? And, what are the three top art schools in Ohio?

Rather than researching this for you, I’m going to give you a much better tool. If you’ll check out the US News and World Report college rankings, you can do much more than find the “top three” of any type of school. You can find rankings of schools based on a variety of factors, such as financial aid, program prestige, and more.

My son is a senior this year. He is interested in nuclear, chemical, or petroleum engineering careers and he has the background, aptitude, grades and test scores to do well in those fields. He would like to be able to get into his field after a bachelor’s degree without further education right away. Do you have any suggestions for universities that have good engineering degrees in or near California?

The first place I would point you toward is US News & World Report, which provides rankings for schools featuring particular majors and fields of study.

The site has a page particular to engineering schools (linked above) and you can isolate those located in California. These schools will likely have strengths in particular areas of engineering, so it might be worthwhile for your son to speak with the admissions offices to discuss the various tracks and career paths they offer.

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It sounds like you’re in the right place, because three of the top five schools on the list are located in California! Good luck!

I don’t know if I’ll like attending a big university or medium-sized school better. I don’t want to be just a number, yet I love the idea of going to a college like USCC and being a part of the big football culture and the sororities. How should I choose?

group of students taking exam

It sounds like you’ve already started weighing the pros and cons of both, which is a great step. As you consider campus culture, think about academics, too.

A larger university might have more offerings. Yet, a smaller school might have some interesting fields and specializations you can pursue. Also, at a large university, you’re more likely to have large classes, whereas at a smaller school you can often get to know your professors one-on-one and enjoy individual attention in smaller class settings. These are generalizations, though.

Many large universities do offer small classes, and smaller schools still have survey courses with more than one hundred students. So, as you narrow your list, plan some visits! See how you feel on campuses at both medium-sized and large schools, and try to visit during a time when classes are in session. This will help you understand what you’re looking for in the experience. Good luck!

I’m very conflicted. I’ve been checking out colleges and I’ve narrowed it down to two. College A is basically my dream school. It’s in a city environment but surrounded by nature up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. College B is a gorgeous school in Michigan. My issue is, College A doesn’t offer my major.

Could I go to College A for the general education, and then transfer to College B for my major-specific classes?

Many students have trouble choosing between schools they really love, and you’re right that it’s a hard decision. The straight answer is that yes, you could do this. But, if you are certain of the major you want to study in college, you should definitely go to a school that offers that path, especially if you are certain you’ll want to transfer if you don’t.

Transferring schools is a common practice, but can be difficult and expensive. If you can pick the school at which you’d like the complete your degree from the beginning, you’ll find it easier and more efficient to complete those credits. Plus, it’s important to build a network and community at your chosen college, and transferring can sometimes mean starting over in that regard.

My instincts tell me to encourage you toward a school that you know offers your major. Good luck!

Hi, I have recently applied to UCLA with a 3.9 GPA. I am a transfer student majoring in theatre. When I applied to UCLA I was not aware that I had to attend an audition in order to be considered for this major. I chose an alternate major which is political science but I have only completed one course in that area. Do you think my chances to be accepted into UCLA are low?

Students doing homework together

Hi there! I am curious what is holding you back from the audition…would it be challenging to get there? Otherwise, I would make every effort to perform an audition. You also can find out if they would consider one via video or on Skype. If geography is an issue, they might be willing to work with you.

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If it’s that you think you might have a better chance of being admitted as a poli sci major (i.e. you are not sure the strength of your audition), then I would think that you would still have a good shot, based on your excellent  GPA. Every college looks for something different and you could stress to the admissions staff and in your essay that you have only recently begun to consider a new major — which is why you only have one course in that area. Many students switch majors and so that should be something that doesn’t surprise them.

Good luck!

I’m a junior as of now, and I want to go into psychology. I would like to get the best degree there is in that field, but I’m not sure where to start. I would like for the college to be in Texas, but I’m open to everything. Please help!

female student listening to class discussion

Congratulations on already feeling confident about what you want to study! Sometimes that is the hardest part of choosing a college, but having a course of study in sight makes it considerably easier to narrow the choices, as does a preferred geography.

You are wise to be willing to keep your options open, though, as you might discover the perfect college for you in a different region. The college search can feel overwhelming, but it’s exciting.You’ll want to pay attention to factors such as its standing in your major, small town vs. large city ambience, GPA and test scores suggested, financial aid available, etc.

We have a huge section on our blog devoted to all aspects of researching colleges, from how to determine financial aid, to making the most of college visits. Also, be sure to stay in touch with the college counselor at your high school. They will let you know when colleges are making visits to campus, which is a great way to find out more without leaving your hometown.

Once you have identified a few that interest you, reach out to their admissions office to schedule a visit and find out if there are students or alumni in your town. Reaching out to them will also offer additional valuable insight into the school.Good luck in finding the perfect college for you!

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.