Wrote this for the good folks at PolicyMic.
Admissions letters are coming in and you’re excited, but anxious. The high of getting into schools is coming down and you need to make a choice — without a whole bunch of time to give due diligence. So what makes your choice, do you go with your favorite school colors or whichever school got the farthest in your March Madness bracket? The school with the fewest vowels in its name or the one with the highest deer-to-student ratio? Which alma mater on your future license plate will cause other drivers to judge you? (Pro tip: Any and all.)
Having just graduated from college last June, I have some distance and perspective to this milestone. Perhaps most ironic, I didn’t actually choose between any two or three or fifteen colleges — I only got into one. To this day I feel lucky for that (see Consideration #12). But my own experience with college admissions requires I note up front that the ability to choose a college is itself a great privilege, one for which you ought pat yourself on the back and thank others in your life for helping you achieve.
That said, it helps to have some decision-making calculus, if only so you can deal with the tons of collegiate propaganda being sent your way by email and snail mail. Without further delay, here are 13 things to consider when choosing where to spend the next four years of your life.
What you’ve probably already considered:
1. Talk to people who go to the colleges you’re eying. It’s difficult to figure out what college is like if you both have never been a student at that college and you don’t know what it’s like to be a college student at all. In this way, some of the advice given to you by current students will be unintelligible. That’s okay. What you’re looking for in their responses is a kind of vibe, which itself will vary from student to student and day to day. Just don’t ask the student(s) a question as hopelessly broad as “What’s it like to go to X?” It’s, uh, okay I guess.
2. Visit the colleges you’re choosing between. Take the tour and drink the Kool-Aid, but also take some time afterward to just walk around yourself. Pretend to be a student and sit in on a class, have lunch on campus, go to an event. While you’re doing this, take note of what you like and don’t like about each. Then compare.
3. Determine how you actually deal with class size. The notion that smaller class sizes are always better has entered into the zeitgeist without much nuance. Smaller class sizes are better for individual attention, but if you like to be left alone until you decide to seek a professor out in office hours, a larger school is probably better. Smaller classes really do tend to weave a closer knit community, but large classes bring with them diversity and a larger set of niche opportunities. Also recognize that class size can differ within college. The psychology program at a liberal arts college might very well be larger than the religious studies program at the largest public university in the country.
4. Rankings matter, BUT: National rankings tend not to make a huge difference unless you’re dealing with the tails of the distribution and the school has a well-acknowledged brand. Where rankings do matter is in some individual measures. It is worth looking into meaningful records like graduation rate, or employment within six months of graduation, or freshman retention rate. Some niche rankings and related notions of reputation also matter for particular kinds of programs. If you’re dead set on getting a business, banking or consulting opportunity, many large firms restrict their recruitment efforts to a handful of colleges.
5. Tuition matters a lot, but take the long view. Speaking of rankings, check out the average student indebtedness. If the cost of the school is high, seek out information on concurrent student scholarships and student employment opportunities, or money you can earn while you’re there. If it’s expensive, try to map out what tangible services you’re getting for the cost. Conversely, if the tuition is low try to find out if the tuition is expected to rise, and what you’re not getting for the lower cost.
What you’ve considered considering:
6. Weather matters a lot … for some people. It seems safe to say too that weather only matters if it’s especially bad. There’s not much to say here other than make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
7. Be aware of differing academic calendars. Do your target schools vary between semester, quarter and block systems? There are trade-offs to each. A semester gives the most time to a given class, so it’s possible you’ll get into deeper topics and have more time to prepare for exams and papers. A quarter system will put the semester system on steroids, but you get to take more courses over the year. In a quarter system, the courses themselves are shorter, so the pain of a not-great course selection is less. There are only a handful of colleges with the block system. If you applied to one of them, you probably know all about that.
8. Balance what’s in the college with what’s outside the college. Many students, from prospective freshman to alumni, for some reason think about the community only in terms of how fun or safe it is. Those factors are important, but the surrounding community of a college is important in at least two other respects. Consider how the community relates to the campus: Is the campus enmeshed in the wider community, opening itself to events and getting involved in community affairs, or is it something of an island? Does campus culture reflect the community, or do they each provide a fresh break from each other? Last, consider what the surrounding community can promise by way of opportunities — can you intern downtown, find a job there perhaps?
What you haven’t thought to consider, but really should:
9. Map out potential activities and classes for your first year. This seems onerous, but a good way to determine the tangible differences between a school — get beyond the “feel” of a campus — is to crack open the course guide and events calendar from the previous year and map out a potential first year. It’s sobering and exciting all at once to see a real example of how your year could go. Once you have these plans in front of you, it’ll be possible to make comparisons between opportunities available at one campus and the opportunity costs of another.
10. Figure out before you need to how flexible a campus is … How easy is it it to change your major? How much long does it take to apply for study abroad? Is getting involved in research possible? You’re going to change your mind in college, probably more than a couple times. This is a good thing. After all, the alternative is to be a slave to your high school self’s conceptions for your future. To investigate these questions, you might consider cold-calling the relevant campus department, posing as a current student.
11. Try as you might, you won’t be able to fully comprehend the experience a college has to offer.
College life is too multivariate. I spent the best four years of my life at UC Davis and I don’t know what it’s like to go there. I know what it was like for me to go there. What you ought to consider as you’re looking through brochures and meeting students and going on tours and simulating the college experience is that, at best, you’re only ever seeing any given college from one perspective at a time. This leads to a crucial point, namely …
12. No matter where you’ll choose, you’ll be fine. I could cite psychological studies here to show you that even after experiencing ostensibly positive or negative life shifts (think: winning the lottery or becoming a double-amputee), psychological baselines return to normal levels after six months. Or I could just say that it’s human nature to adapt to your environment, however great or awful you find it to be at first. Last, I could say that while choosing a college is surely a large part of determining the college experience, a significant component of your experience will be determined by you.
13. Consider that you bring a lot to a given college, too. Folks tend not to think of college in terms of what they can give, seeing only what they can get. And I get it, you’re going to pay and perhaps go into debt attending college — so why should you care about contributing to the campus? For one thing, it’ll make you happier. And doing so will likely improve both your grades and your resume of experiences. So when choosing a college, consider yourself and ask what can you contribute. Different colleges may offer different kinds of opportunities for your skill set and interests in this respect. Does the school have a great program for mentoring STEM high school students in the surrounding community you can support? Can your background in camp programs position you for a future in resident advising? Does your college offer a program that allows you to teach a subject you’re passionate about to your peers? What you give back might come to define your time there.