Whether you are the parent of a high school senior trying to make the final decision among schools or the parent of a junior trying to narrow down options before working on applications this summer, selecting schools is challenging.
Finding the right college can seem a little like finding a needle in a haystack. With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the US, students have many possibilities that could be right for them.
How can you balance your college list to make sure you will have a handful of quality schools to choose from? Once admitted how can you compare options to make your final decision? What should you look for when you make final campus visits in the spring? What elements should be considered “deal breakers”?
The good news is that there are some key factors that can help you narrow down the list and make it easier to find the right college.
Suitable Level of Academic Rigor
Look for a college that is academically challenging, but not overwhelming. Some schools are welcoming to hardworking students who may have struggled in some high school classes. Other colleges have courses that move quickly at high levels, so students who are not adequately prepared will fall behind. The admissions process seeks to match students with schools where they are equipped to succeed, but families should look for the right level of challenge to avoid boredom or overload.
Consider the academic challenge of each college and ask, “Can I successfully keep up with the work at this school?” Some high achieving, hard working high school students need to give serious consideration to the issue of burn out. Will this particular college allow for a challenging level of work while helping you take care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally? Will the pressures at a particular campus be too much and lead to burn out, depression, or anxiety?
Available Majors / Academic Courses
Many high school students are unsure of what they want to study in college, but others have very specific ideas for their college major. Not every college has every major and majors at different schools might approach the subject matter differetnly. Common majors such as business, English, psychology, biology, and history are found at most colleges. If a student has a more specialized interest, the number of colleges may be limited.
Look at the major and minor options at each school. Is one school more limited in its options? What classes do you have to take? How large is the department? Will you have the flexibility to change your decision? Is there a chance you might not be approved for / admitted to your choice of major?
Seniors need to take a close look at the academic plan for each college they are still considering. Does the school focus on the practical applications in your field or more of a theoretical approach? Compare core requirements, prerequisites, and classes within your chosen major / minor.
The Right Extracurricular Activities
Extracurricular activities can be a deciding factor in choosing the right college. Potential college athletes may select schools exclusively based on which coaches and programs recruit them to play sports. Other students seek out colleges where they can continue to participate in activities significant to them; for example, a debate team, campus TV station, ROTC, drum line, campus newspaper, gospel choir, robotics club, or ski team. The more specific one’s extracurricular requirements are, the more limited the choice of potential colleges will be.
Seniors who have specific interests in sororities and fraternities should examine Greek life at each of the schools. Some campuses start rush before classes begin in the fall; others have spring rush. If you want to join a particular Greek organization, make sure they have a chapter at that college.
Every college seems to mention their plentiful clubs and organizations on the campus tour. “We have 300+ clubs and if we don’t have the one you want, you can start it.”You might not have eliminated schools from your list based on activities, but for admitted seniors trying to make a final decision, taking a closer look at the membership (size), calendar, and activities of a particular club or organization is a good idea.
Some students want to go to college close to home; others want to leave the state or region. Geography plays an important part in finding the right college. Be careful to avoid stereotypes! Students sometimes reject potential colleges because they think schools in Iowa will only have cows and corn, Texas will be filled with cowboys, New Yorkers will be rude, or Kansas will be boring. Schools shouldn’t be judged based on regional reputations, but if a student wants to remain in-state or go to school in a college town or large city, it is helpful to identify location limitations.
Seniors seriously considering schools more than three hours from home should talk through location logistics with their families. How will you get to and from school? If you need to fly, how much does the typical airline ticket cost? Will you have a car? Will you be able to come home for long weekends, Thanksgiving, spring break, etc.? Will mom or dad be able to visit for parents’weekend? How will you transport and store your belongings for move in or between school years? Attending a school far from home can add additional expenses.
Speaking of expenses…
Cost is a realistic factor in most students’college plans. When four years at a private college can cost more than $300,000, ignoring the price tag can leave students and parents overwhelmed with debt upon graduation.
Every family’s approach to money is different; just like some people buy expensive cars and others spend more on vacations or experience, some families will choose to spend more on college than others. There is no right or wrong answer for how much you should spend, but I will caution you if you are trying to manipulate the numbers to attend a school you really can’t afford. It is ok to turn down a great school because the money just doesn’t work for your family.
While financial considerations may ultimately eliminate some schools, don’t rule a school out before understanding your possibilities for scholarships or aid. Spend some time researching realistic options for scholarships and your family’s expected annual contribution.
Parents of juniors—if you know your child won’t qualify for scholarships or financial aid at a particular school and the total cost is more than you are willing to pay, please remove that college from the list. I have more than a couple friends this year who allowed their kids to apply to schools they have decided are not worth the cost. Two of the moms have confided in me that they are secretly hoping the schools rejects their children, so they don’t have to say no. It is a lot easier to say no before the student invests time and energy in the application, waiting for a decision, and dreaming about possibilities.
“Fit”is a general term that refers to a student’s overall match with the college’s culture—academically, socially, and personally. Just like finding a pair of shoes that fit, a student may find a college that meets all of the above criteria, but when he or she visits the campus, it just doesn’t feel comfortable.
The campus may not be as welcoming to students of different backgrounds, or the social, religious, or political climate may clash with one’s personal beliefs. A college that looks good on paper may not be the right school if a student feels out of place or unwelcome on campus. Visiting college campuses helps determine fit, just like trying on shoes does. Consider all aspects of college life, and ask, “Will I be happy and successful at this school?”
Finding the right college is a deeply personal process. Certain considerations may be unimportant to one student, but essential to another.
Congratulations to all the seniors and their families on the offers of acceptance. You have until May 1 to make a choice and notify colleges of your final decision. I hope these suggestions help you weigh your options.