Making the decision about where to go to college is daunting. There are lot of factors, people to listen to, and research to do. It’s a big decision – both mentally and financially.
Frankly, it could determine your success in life.
That’s why you can’t take the decision lightly. Having seen over 45 college campuses (yes, my Mom literally pulled out the atlas on family vacations and we saw them all – regardless if they had my major or not. Plus, I toured my brother’s and twin sister’s schools, too – crazy).
Some were well-respected. Others, not-so-much. Some in the south – others in the north. Some large – some small. And with college decision day looming, I thought I’d but together a big list of things to consider before you send your letter of acceptance. Here we go:
Do you like big schools where you’re often just a number? Or, do you like small schools where you always see people you know walking to class and the professor knows your name? School size influences many factors in this list like depth of curriculum and majors offered, but it’s more of a personal choice here.
You want to learn, right? Of course you do! Learning starts with the quality of teaching – your professors. While you’re bound to get a couple duds in college, most of your professors should stellar. They should challenge you – push you to succeed. Working hard pays off. Good professors know this.
How could food not be on this list? For four years, you’ll be eating the same food, so it better be good. Go to the dining hall on multiple occasions – not just accepted students day when the food gets upgraded. Talk to current students to see if dining services puts on special events like late-night breakfast (my favorite thing ever), and dinners for holidays – or even themed events. Remember, you’re eating this food 3-4 times a day. Make sure it’s good.
This relates to #1 and #2 on the list. The size of your school is directly related to the number of students per faculty member. A bigger school has a bigger ration, say 100 to 1. Whereas a small school is usually 15:1. This has it’s benefits. You can actually meet with the professors (instead of a TA) for office hours when you need extra help and the conversations you have in class will be more dynamic than a simple lecture with 200 students.
Food on the table and roof over your head – those are two solid requirements throughout college. And housing, sometimes, isn’t guaranteed beyond your freshman year (typically with larger schools). This means you’ll have to navigate the rental market in a college town. That really means increased rents, six roommates, and broken heat. If this isn’t your thing, look for guaranteed housing all four years.
Some colleges just have that “thing” about them – you know, like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton? You know the type of student who goes there. They just say “Oh, I have a degree from Harvard” like it’s the greatest school on the planet (and it is in some respects). But, if prestige is important to you go to a well-known school – a school where you don’t have explain where it is or what they’re known for.
While some may argue this should be #1 on the list, for some cost isn’t an issue. But if it is, think about a compromise. Maybe the expensive school is your #1 choice, but it’s ok to settle for a school you (or your parents) can afford. Just imagine: if you go to a school within your means, you won’t graduate with thousands of dollars in debt that’s near impossible to get out of. Yeah – you don’t want that.
Many schools are working on this – and other schools are excelling beyond my wildest dreams. Do you want to interact with students from other countries – or even parts of the United States? Then head off to a school with a large population of international students.
How do you get kneed deep in your major? Do you have to take a whole bunch of core classes before you even get into the 101 of your major? Or, do you start with an upside-down curriculum where you take your major’s classes first, followed by your core in junior and senior year. The earlier you can get into your major means the earlier you can switch it (and yes, that could happen multiple times in 4 years).
What can you do on campus that isn’t class-related? Are there intramural sports? How about a campus newspaper or dance class? Schools with extracurricular help you get your mind of school and out of a textbook. Regardless of your choice, get involved. Make something happen on campus and take a leadership position. You’ll be glad you did when you start looking for a job after college.
A lot of students want to move as far away as possible from their parents. Like, other side of the country far. I’ve seen friends do this and come immediately back after freshman year. They missed home. They missed friends and family. Oh, and don’t forget Mom’s home-cooking. That’s what I missed. How far will you be from home? Within 20 minutes – or maybe a weekend trip home. My advice is to make it a happy medium. Distance yourself enough so that you’ll be able to become your own person – do your thing. And not hit your parent’s couch every weekend.
As a small-town Vermont kid, I dreamed of the “big city” so I put myself in-between two of them. It’s great to go to school in a small college town, but what about the city? Can you get there by train or bus in a couple hours and spend a weekend with friends? Or, are you stuck in the middle of nowhere (Alfred University, I’m looking at you)?
Related to total cost of college, it depends on how much financial aid you get. If you’re lucky, you may be able to afford a more expensive school with some debt. But, ultimately, the decision is up to you. I turned down a half scholarship because the school wasn’t right for me. Just proof it’s not all about the money.
Is your school accredited by a fancy organization? If it is, you’re heading to a good school. Most accreditations are listed on the school’s homepage or in the brochures you get when you enter admissions. Schools do a ton of work to keep those accreditations so you can be sure they’ll have them for years to come.
Did you take some AP classes in high school? If so, make sure your credits transfer. AP credits are a great way to get a legup on your coursework, skip a few required classes, and maybe even graduate a little early. That means you can dominate the world even sooner now – cool, huh? This is also important for when/if you study abroad.
How big is your school’s study abroad program? Can you travel to three countries or thirty? Studying abroad is one thing I regret not doing in college, but you have the chance. Hop the pond and study and Europe – or explore the beautiful Asia-Pacific. Study somewhere where you can travel to as many different countries as possible.
Are you able to live in a nice dorm or is it more like a prison cell? Check out all the dorms on campus – even the ones you won’t be living in for a few years. Where is laundry located? Is the furniture damaged? What about the size of the rooms? Will you be able to fit all of your clothes AND a mini fridge? If there’s no guaranteed housing, check out the rental market within a 5 mile radius.
You have no excuse to not hit the gym while at college. Chances are, it’s beautiful – and some of the best equipment you’ve ever seen. Colleges want to have healthy students (after all, you’ve got work off those giant burritos, right?) so they provide the necessary resources. Some schools even have health coaches/counselors to help develop a plan for you to stay fit. Now, that’s awesome.
Some students won’t have much flexibility outside of the classes required by their major to graduate. But, if you do, see if your school has a deep curriculum with some interesting college classes. I went to business school and never thought I’d take a class on African Pop Culture – yet, it was one of my favorite classes.
Can you bring a car on campus? What about parking – is it a pain? Some schools don’t even let freshman students have cars. But, that means public transportation better be amazing. Check with your school to make sure it’s easy to get around after class and on the weekends.
There’s no getting around it – students drink under-age. But, how much of an impact does partying have on the campus? Is it all people seem to do Thursday – Sunday? Do you want to be part of a rowdy crowd? Or would you rather head into down and grab a bite to eat or hey, maybe even go to bed early? The choice is yours, but be prepared for the consequences of an all-out party school.
I looked for a school with a great orientation. Why? Because I wanted to meet people right off the bat. And you know what? I’m still great friends with people I met that first day at college orientation. Great orientations set you up for a fantastic four years with a great group of friends.
Do students actually come back after their first year? Schools keep track of this number (because they want to keep it as low as possible) so find out what it is – and why. What’s the reason people don’t like going to school there? And chances are it has nothing to do with the food….
If you have friends or family member’s kids who go/went to a few schools you’re looking into, ask them what it’s really like. Get the behind-the-scenes-not-said-on-the-admissions-tour look at the school. For example, I nixed schools of my list when I found out they were heavy party schools or schools where the food was horrible (yes, it was a deal-breaker).
And that’s not even the end of it. But, it’ll help you make a better decision. Did I miss anything? What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments below.