Choosing a college is no small decision: After all, the path you take will play a huge role in not only your academic, but also your social and emotional future. But how do you even start to make such a huge choice? How do you process the countless mailed brochures, email newsletters, and social media opinions to weed out what’s wrong for you and hone in on what’s right? “The best way to get started on a college search is to sit down and think critically about what you are looking for in your college experience, and what elements of a college experience are most important to you,” Laura Smith, program manager for admissions consulting at Veritas Prep told Teen Vogue. And the easiest way to do so is by breaking the information up into smaller pieces, and focusing on specific factors you should consider in the decision-making process. As you start to get serious about your college search, ask yourself these seven questions and let your answers guide you in the right direction.
1. What did I like and dislike about high school?
When it comes to college, it’s certainly not one-size-fits-all. Some people thrive in massive state schools with upwards of 30,000 students; others prefer the mid-size range of perhaps 10-15,000 students; and others still love small, intimate campuses with 5,000 or fewer students. So how do you decide which will be right for you? Beth Heaton, the vice president of educational consulting at College Coach and former regional director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests asking yourself what you did and didn’t like about your high school experience and letting your answer guide you. “[You] might say, ‘I really love that all my teachers know exactly who I am, and I’ve known students I’m in class with since kindergarten, and I want something that’s maybe a little bigger but somewhat similar,’” Heaton said to Teen Vogue. Or, “[you] might say, ‘I like those elements, but I’m kind of sick of everyone knowing everything about me all the time, and I would rather go to a school where I can be a little bit more anonymous and possibly meet someone new every day.’” Though, chances are you didn’t go to a high school with, say, 40,000 people, your answer to this question will certainly help guide you in the right direction.
2. Where do I want to be?
Do you want to be close enough to your family that you can easily hop in your car and drive home on any given weekend? Or are you hoping to use college as an opportunity to spread your wings and explore a totally new part of the country (or world)? And though, yes, the main purpose of college is to further your education, it’s also important to think about the lifestyle you want to lead and how your location will factor into that. Heaton recommends thinking about things like your hobbies (are you a big skier who wants to be near the mountains?) and general travel or vacation preferences (have your Florida vacations inspired you to live near the beach?) when narrowing down potential schools. It’s also important to consider how the type of location (urban, suburban, or rural, for example) may affect your social life or overall college experience. “Are you the kind of student where you’re going to want to go to a big football game every Saturday, or [are you] really more [interested in] where the college is located, [with] lots of restaurants and shops?” Heaton asked. “There’s a big difference between going to college in New York City like NYU, where the city is really your campus, versus going to a very campus-centered college like UConn, where everything is pretty much happening on your campus.”
3. What is the culture like?
While a school’s location largely affects its culture, it’s not the only factor. Demographics, religious affiliations, sports teams, and extracurricular programs all contribute to the campus environment and culture, both in and outside of the classroom. Is it important to you to go to a school with like-minded people, or do you want to meet other students from a diverse cross-section of backgrounds? And what sorts of organizations are you interested in checking out or joining? Smith said high schoolers should investigate not only things like athletics, Greek systems, and campus dining, but also student services like offices for research and study abroad opportunities, job preparation and placement services, academic support services, and even emotional support services. “Colleges and universities invest a lot of money and time into creating supportive and engaging college campuses, but these student services are often overlooked by high school students during their college searches,” she said. “While culture, location, and academics may draw students to a specific school in the beginning, student services are what will keep them coming back each year, continually engaged and invested in their collegiate experience.”
4. What do I want to study?
Are you going into college with a strong sense of what you want to study, or are you hoping to get inspired as you go? If it’s the latter, you’ll want to look into options that clearly value independent learning and offer many various avenues to explore. If you already know what career you want to pursue, research schools that offer specialized programs or unique opportunities related to that field. Do you want to be a reporter? Perhaps there’s a school that has a strong relationship with the local news station, and a well-developed internship program. Do you want to pursue acting? Look at schools with robust theatre programs and multiple student shows each year. Regardless of the specific field you’re pursuing, though, consider the fact that you may ultimately change your mind — like 80% of college students — and it’s worth it to look into schools that won’t leave you at a dead end if you do. “A very specialized school is not necessarily the best fit for most high school students who are still 17 or 18 years old and apt to change their minds a few times,” Heaton said.
5. What can I afford?
Perhaps in an ideal world, college tuition would be free. But as it currently stands, it’s not — and certain schools cost far more than others. Do you have family who will fund your education, or do you need to look at schools that may offer you financial aid or merit scholarships? Are you prepared to take on student loans? Be sure to look closely at all of the financial implications of your choices, including any stipulations of aid or loans. The last thing you want is to be surprised by a massive monthly post-grad bill that may require you to change the path you worked so hard to follow.
6. Can I get in?
Before you start devoting time to applications, take a realistic look at your chances of getting in to the various schools you’ve targeted. “It’s very easy to fall in love with schools that everybody loves and that are super selective…so you have to take an honest look at your qualifications and really be thoughtful about [it],” Heaton said. “[Ask yourself], ‘Have I distinguished myself enough that I’m really going to be competitive at this school?’ There are so many different colleges that there absolutely are going to be places where you’re going to be a superstar, and then there are going to be places where you’re just not really going to measure up, unfortunately.” Heaton advises applying to at least two “safety” schools where you look better than the average accepted applicant (sites like Big Future can help you research), and three or four “match” schools where you look like the average accepted applicant, in addition to “reach” schools. And throughout the process, remember that what makes a school great for you depends largely on your own specific needs, rather than notable alumni or current students’ test scores. “If you can get away from the idea that just because a school is more likely [to] tell you ‘no’ it’s somehow better, there will be nothing better you can do for yourself in this college process,” Heaton said.
7. Can I see myself there?
Though this question may seem vague or intangible, it’s perhaps the most important one to ask yourself — and the best way to figure out the answer is by visiting potential schools. “Once you step foot on a college campus, you can immediately begin to imagine yourself living life there — walking to class, studying in the library, and eating in a dining hall,” Smith said.
And Heaton likened the process to online dating: While you can gather nearly endless information about schools on the Internet, you won’t know if you really fit with any of them until you visit in person. “If you do online dating and you see a profile for someone, [their] pictures may be great, [their] profile may [make them seem] perfect [for you], and then you go on a date with [them] and you realize, ‘Well, those were some really good pictures but they didn’t accurately show what this person really looks like in real life,’ or, ‘[they] seemed like [they] would be really interesting, but we don’t really click,’” she said. “While most people would never date or marry someone they had never met before, I think similarly, you have to be really careful about making decisions about colleges without having seen them,” she said.
Written by Emma Sarran Webster