How to choose a college
The best college for you is not always the one with the most recognizable name. It’s not always the biggest or most popular. The best college is the one that fits your personality and career goals — the one where you can get the education you need in order to succeed, while feeling the most at home and comfortable. Do not underestimate the value of feeling “at home” during your investigation of college, because the place you choose will literally be your home for the next four years. You need to enjoy being part of the daily campus life.
Finding the one that most closely matches you involves doing some homework — and a little bit of legwork.
When thinking about choosing a college, start planning early. It takes time to gather the information you need, plan visits, apply for admission, and secure housing. While it might all seem like a big adventure (and it is), looking at the process very logically, you are moving into a new phase in your life and literally moving to a new place. You need to be sure you make the right choice so you do not regret your selection a few weeks or months into your first year in college.
You should begin applying to any colleges in which you might be interested as soon as you have your SAT score. That way you know early which ones have accepted you for admission and which ones haven’t, allowing you to continue toward making an informed selection.
What are your interests?
While many students are unsure about what they want to do for a career and many change their minds while in college, you still need to think about the kinds of careers that might appeal to you. Explore your interests by visiting your counselor’s office and by asking professionals you know about their careers. You might even visit a career center at a college near you. They have written or computer-driven tests to help you pinpoint the kinds of jobs that will help match your strengths and desires.
Narrow the search
Once your general or specific educational goals are in mind, study brochures from colleges you would like to consider. You’ll find plenty of information to help you narrow your search. Virtually every college has a web page. Explore what each offers. E-mail the admissions staff for more information or to answer your questions. You should find the staff eager to help you and quick to respond.
Ask about accreditation. Keep in mind that every school strives to have its programs recognized by accrediting agencies. It’s their seal of approval from the professional world, showing that they offer the kinds and quality of courses you need to be successful after graduating.
Ask about housing. Would you live in a dorm or an apartment? Is the campus spread out, making it tougher to get from place to place, or compact, so you can easily get to classes, meals, and recreational activities?
Find out about the size of classes. It’s important that they are small enough so you can get to know your professors, and they can get to know you. Are they willing to work with you during office hours or after class if you need help? Does the college offer tutoring, if you need it?
How accommodating is the college? Can you get in and out of buildings easily and find your way around campus?
Explore financial matters. Talk with your parents about the cost of college and how much they can help. Then investigate what scholarships or loans are available to help you. Don’t forget that the cost of college isn’t just tuition and fees.
Look and listen
After narrowing your choices to two or three colleges that seem appealing, it’s time to take a first-hand look. Contact the admissions office to find out when their tours or visitation days are scheduled. You’re going to learn much more with one visit than from all the brochures in the world. Check out the atmosphere of the campus. Is it attractive? Are the people friendly and helpful? Or are you treated like a stranger or an intruder?
Be sure to take a look at the town in which the college is located. Is it geared toward students? Are shopping and entertainment easy to access? These issues might not seem so important at first glance, but they can have a dramatic effect on your college life.
Take lots of notes! Bring along your camera or camcorder so you can relive the experience a few days later. You might not think so, but even two or three visits to places as complex as a college campus can get confusing without good notes about each school. Write down your impressions of everything as you experience them.
The college visit should give you a reasonable feel for what it would be like to live on that campus. Ask yourself if you and this college are a good fit.
Finally, when your decision is narrowed, team up with your counselor for some help applying for admission and financial aid, if needed. Apply to more than one school, if possible, always leaving your options open, just in case your first choice doesn’t work out.
College is a great adventure! Start it with good preparation, and it will be among the most exciting and rewarding times of your life.