By Tonya DuBois
There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. How do you find that one that’s just right for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself as you are considering which college will be the perfect match.
What geographic region of the country do you want to be in? Do you want to be in the snow or among the palm trees? Two hours from home or a plane ride away? Geographic region is a great place to start because it eliminates hundreds, or thousands, of schools right from the get-go. Consider climate, distance from home, access to mountains or ocean – whatever landscape suits your hobbies and interests.
What size college would be best for your learning style? Do you prefer being anonymous and taking classes in large lecture halls? Enjoy taking some of your courses online? Are you really comfortable advocating for yourself and reaching out when you need assistance? If so, a larger school might fit your learning style best. Do you enjoy class discussions? Like the feeling of knowing everyone and them knowing you? Want to step into a leadership position right away? Enjoy having close relationships with your teachers? Then, a smaller school may be more appealing. Do your research – visit some large and some colleges – and get a feel for what you like.
What campus setting would you prefer? Do you imagine yourself on a secluded campus with vast courtyards and acres of walking trails, or in an urban setting where you campus spans several city blocks? You probably know if you prefer urban or suburban or rural settings already. If not, visit a few different types of schools. Urban schools often have great cultural opportunities – theaters, museums, restaurants, a diverse local population, and lots of opportunities for area internships. A rural setting often lends itself to a tight-knit campus community with many on-campus events and gatherings, and a special relationship with the local community.
Does the school have what you want to study? While this is a no-brainer for many majors, it’s important to do some research if you want to study something very specific. While a school may have an engineering program, they may not have aerospace engineering, for example. Also, depending on your major you may prefer to attend a technical university or one focused exclusively on the arts rather, than a more generalized research university or liberal arts college. Do your research, read about the professors and courses offered, the ability to change majors (if necessary), and the employment opportunities students have in your major after they graduate.
Does the college fit your academic profile? You’ll want to go to a school that challenges you with the right level of rigor. By exploring a school’s middle 50% of their last accepted class, you can identify if it will be a realistic option for you. Your final list should include some safety, some target, and some reach schools (those below, within, and above your own academic profile) to help ensure that you will earn multiple acceptances and will enroll in a school that’s going to feel like the right academic fit.
Will you fit in culturally? This is very important and sometimes hard to figure out. If the campus is conservative vs liberal, homogeneous vs diverse, arts-oriented vs athletic-oriented, or residential vs commuter – all of these factors can play a role on whether or not you feel at home there. Ask good questions to students when you visit, and check out the student reviews on unigo.com – this is a great place to get a cultural feel for a school.
There is one really important factor that I did NOT mention…cost! You and your family should know what the bottom-line number is that you are willing to pay each year, but do NOT let this impact your initial search. Often the most expensive colleges end up the cheapest after financial aid or merit scholarships, so cast a wide net and don’t base your application decisions on the “sticker prices.” Instead, wait to make your enrollment decisions until after you can compare net costs of attendance of multiple schools, once financial aid and merit awards have been received.
After you’ve established a long list of schools you’d like to consider, visit some big, some small, some urban, some rural and see what appeals to you most. (Visits may be done either in-person or virtually, these days.) You can then hone your list from there. If you work with someone like me, you can often say, “I fell in love with school X because of Y” and I could name three to five other schools that have a similar feel. It’s a great time to tap into expert guidance, as you build your college list and find those colleges that will be the perfect match.