Image Credits: UW Seattle
Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions a 17 or 18 year old will make. Now that the New Year is upon us, college acceptance letters are clogging our mailboxes and it is going to be time to make that big decision soon. Many of you might have known where you wanted to go since you were ten years old or earlier, if you’re anything like me. Some of you, on the other hand, may still need a point in the right direction. There’s nothing wrong with being in either position, but there are a a few things you need to keep in mind before you commit to what I hope is the college of your dreams.
With talks of college loans and crippling student debt all the rage, affordability is one of the most important factors in choosing the right college to you. Even if it is the college of your dreams, it will soon be a nightmare when you see that tuition statement and have no way to pay it, or pay off your loans. Many schools offer amazing merit scholarships, and the best schools in the nation are known for the generous financial aid that makes attending a number one school a major possibility. Keep your eyes on the price tag when you’re school shopping and you won’t regret choosing a school that is the perfect fit for you and your wallet.
2. Acceptance rates
I am the queen of stalking college acceptance rates, as most high-achieving students are. It is a necessity when you have your eyes on the sky. I always advocate for reaching for the stars, and the college of your dreams, no matter how much of a reach it may seem. That being said, you have to be realistic with yourself. A college with under a six percent acceptance rate may be your dream school, but it shouldn’t be the only school you apply to, no matter how great your test scores are. Safety schools are a necessary evil, though you should never settle for a safety school you wouldn’t be comfortable attending. The college admissions process involves a lot of pure luck, and you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one, elite basket.
3. Graduation rates
The average 6 year graduation rate in the United States is under 60%. Schools sell you a promise of a degree in four years, but when applying to colleges, you have to keep an eye on their graduation rate. It speaks volumes, and often says things the school admission counselors would never admit aloud. Check out a university’s graduation rate before you sign anything. You’re probably going to college because you want to graduate from college, so you should pick a university where it is more likely than not. If more people don’t graduate from a college than do, you need to stay clear. I am a big advocate of choosing a college with a graduation rate greater than 90%, but that’s just me.
4. Size of campus
Whether you’re a country two-stepper or a city slicker, college is going to be a major change of pace. If it isn’t, please share some of your magic. For some people, the adjustment is too much, and a lot of that has to do with campus size. There are schools across the country that range in size from under a thousand undergraduates to over 60,000 students. Choosing a campus size that you feel comfortable with is key to making your transition into college manageable. Going from a one room school house to Arizona State University is going to be a major eye-opener, and one you’ll need to mentally prepare for. Before settling on a big city or a tiny college town, talk to yourself about what you want out of your college experience. Do you want to know your professors individually or do you want to meet a dozen new people every day? Do you want to live on campus all four years, or find an apartment in the nearby city? These are all things to keep in mind when looking at how big or small the campus is.
5. Possible major
You in no way have to have your major locked down going into your freshman year, and I actually recommend that you don’t have it locked down without the ability to change. Your freshman year is all about learning what you truly are interested in, but that is not to say you shouldn’t keep your possible majors in mind when applying to colleges. It is really hard to major in comparative literature at a school that doesn’t offer it, or physical therapy, or theater studies, etc. Some schools, like the one I call home, don’t offer certain “practical” majors like communications, physical therapy, nursing, etc. Some other schools focus on these practical majors and don’t offer more liberal arts minded majors such as comparative literature, religious studies, or art history. Keep your general interests in mind while you’re browsing preliminary course catalogs, so you don’t end up with a major bowl of regret for dinner one night.
You know what they say on Home and Garden Television: Location, location, location. That is only partially true, but location is definitely something you should keep in mind when choosing a college to call home for four years. This goes hand in hand with campus size, since most big campuses are adjacent to big cities, and many college towns are home to quaint, smaller liberal arts colleges. Another aspect of location is distance from home. Some people can stand being hundreds of miles away from their family, and some cannot bear to leave home behind. You need to figure out where you fall on that spectrum, and how far away from home you are comfortable living for nine months out of the year. Of course, there is also the weather to keep in mind.
While college classes may seem like they will consume your life, you’ll be spending a lot more time in your housing than you might initially think. On college tours, I really liked to stay overnight to get a sense of how housing really worked. I toured colleges with dorms like hospital wards, rooms lined up down the hall. I visited colleges where most students lived off campus, in apartments or townhouses just a few blocks away. I finally chose a university with a residential college system, where I lived in nice suites with the same group of people, and I plan to stay here all four years. The only way to find out the housing situation is to ask. You don’t want to wait until you’ve already written a check to find out that you’ll have to find an off-campus apartment as a sophomore when you weren’t expecting that. As with most factors in the college admissions process, the best way to get the inside scoop is from other students directly, not flashing websites and brochures designed to lure you in.
8. Post-career plans
While many say that college is the best time of your life, it will definitely not be the most profitable time of your life. If you’re normal, you’re planning to graduate from college and find a job in your desired field. College is supposed to make that easier. It is imperative that you find a college that actually will make the job-search process easier for you. Look at the statistics available readily on the web about post-grad plans at the school you are interested in. How many students graduate with job offers? How many head off to graduate school? You want to be able to achieve your dreams with your college degree, so don’t choose a college that doesn’t have a good track record for student employment. Of course, the prestige of your university and your chosen major will play a factor in those rates, but a school with good averages won’t let you down.
Be smart in the college admissions process, and I promise it will serve you well.
Photos courtesy of the amazing campus I call home.