Choosing a college requires academic, professional, and personal considerations. However, some prospective students focus too much on a single aspect of college life, to the exclusion of other interrelated (and important!) factors.
Sure, you have your heart set on going to a private university with a strong lacrosse program on the opposite end of the country. But can you afford the tuition, and are your prepared to forfeit frequent trips home?
Maybe you want to avoid living in the city, but as an aspiring veterinarian, know some of the best undergraduate veterinary programs are at urban universities.
You might be someone who already has outside obligations, like being a parent or having a job commitment, and you need a convenient setting for getting your degree quickly without significant financial investment.
Transferring schools can be part of a strategic plan for getting into your dream college, but unexpected switching is costly and wastes time. Get it right the first time by asking yourself the following six questions when determining where to apply to college.
1. Where is my ideal location?
Is it important for you to see your parents every holiday? If you live more than a few hours away, you might not be able to get home for Thanksgiving. Conversely, if you want a situation where your parents can’t just “drop by” on a Friday night, don’t choose a campus 15 minutes down the road.
A good distance for many students is 3-5 hours from home–you are close enough that you can get back relatively easily when you need to, but not so near that you can run home every time you have a bad day.
Beyond proximity to home, think about whether or not you prefer an urban or rural-based campus. There are advantages to both: living in a city affords you more of an escape from the campus “bubble,” while the rural school provides a more insular college experience and tight-knit academic community.
2. What size school is best for me?
Consider three aspects of a school’s size when applying to college. First, look at the overall student body. Are there 50,000 undergraduates on campus? 1,200? Do you want to meet as many people as possible, or feel like you know most of your classmates?
Second, how big is the campus? Some people want to be able to walk to every class, and need a campus that is relatively easy to traverse on foot. However, most urban campuses will sprawl over a larger area, requiring students to be strategic about getting between classes quickly.
Finally, look at the teacher-to-student ratio. If it’s important for you to develop relationships with your professors or receive more attention in class, avoid enormous schools where your smallest classes still have fifty-some people.
3. Wait, how much is this going to cost?
You can’t put a price on education. But schools sure can put a price on educating you.
Public schools will almost always be less expensive than private colleges, and if you live in-state, your tuition could be even lower.
Work out a budget with your parents if they are helping you pay for school. If you’re on your own, figure out what you can afford to pay after investigating your options for external funding. Do the schools you’re looking at offer merit-based scholarships or financial aid? Are you willing to take out student loans? Perhaps you might consider a program like ROTC, where you make a service commitment in exchange for a college education.
4. Does the school serve my academic and professional interests?
Maybe you don’t know exactly what you want to do after graduating, but you want to strengthen your analytical and research skills. Look for high-ranking liberal arts programs. Or perhaps you are more technically inclined and want a hands-on environment or laboratory experience; in that case, apply to schools that have a reputation for strong science and technology departments.
If you know precisely what you want to do during and after college, look for colleges that will support your ambitions. For example, if you are intent on becoming a lawyer, find an undergraduate program with a high rate of graduating students who get into law school. Also consider whether the school’s alumni actively recruit current students for internships and jobs.
5. What kind of social life are you looking for?
Is studying abroad important to you? See how opportunities to travel and study abroad are folded into college programs.
If basketball, football, or rowing is a huge part of your life and makes you happy, look for schools where you might have an opportunity to play–even if that just means in an intramural league.
Or maybe you have a cause–feeding the hungry, working at an animal shelter, or doing volunteer work abroad. Investigate volunteer opportunities at prospective schools so you can continue doing something you value.
Not all schools have the Greek Life system, so if you’ve always wanted to join a sorority or fraternity, make sure they are available. Conversely, if someone couldn’t pay you to join a frat, look into the degree to which Greek Life permeates a prospective school’s social scene.
6. Can I see myself happy here?
What you want out of school will vary from person to person. If you’re living at home, maybe you need a place where you can still make friends and feel included. But if you are moving to another state to live on campus, it’s important that you feel comfortable calling the school “home” for the next 2-5 years.
More importantly, are there opportunities for you to grow, both academically and personally? If you change your mind about what you want to study or your intended career path, will it be relatively simple to switch tracks? You want a school that recognizes the value in letting students experiment with different areas of study, while respecting a healthy work-life balance.
Everyone is giving me advice. Who’s right?
While it is worth soliciting advice from a trusted parent, advisor, or friend, ultimately it is best to honor your own preferences and needs. You are the one who is going to be going to the classes, writing the papers, and taking the tests. So don’t choose a school based solely on where your favorite uncle went, or where your girlfriend is going.
Apply to schools you actually want to attend.
And choose a college where you will flourish, personally and academically.
How did you pick the right school for you? Leave a comment and let us know.
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