The United States has more than 4,000 colleges and universities, including everything from two-year technical colleges to huge state universities, small private liberal arts colleges, and elite private universities.
How can you possibly find the one that is right for you?
In truth, there isn’t any one school that will fit you. You probably could be happy and successful at several schools. Nevertheless, you must make a choice. So how do you do it?
First, start early. Your parents, your counselors, maybe even your friends will tell you college can be the most important four years of your life. Deciding where you want to go is something you need to take seriously and not decide on the spur of the moment.
Make time for research
It’s a good idea to start exploring colleges in your junior year of high school, if not sooner, and to apply to schools early in your senior year.
Begin by considering which is more important to you—the programs offered or the type of institution. Some students know exactly what they want to study, and search for schools that have the leading programs in their field. Others choose the type of university they want—large or small, urban or rural, private or public—then explore those.
The Internet, guides to U.S. colleges, college rankings, and materials your high school counselor has on file can get you started. Attend college fairs in your community, pick up the free materials, ask lots of questions, and bring paper and pencil so you can make notes and write down your impressions.
Don’t overlook your local technical college. Low tuition rates and excellent faculty and easy transfer options make it the perfect start for students who plan to earn four-year degrees. Two years at a technical college can shave thousands of dollars from your tuition bills, or boost your GPA allowing you to transfer to your dream school.
Get ready to apply
By this time, you should have identified several schools that meet your criteria. Narrow this list down to ones you want to investigate in depth. Create your own college calendar so you can keep track of when applications are due, when you sent your application in, and when admission decisions are made.
Contact the institutions directly and ask for more materials. Watch how quickly they respond to your request to see how they treat prospective students.
Then plan some site visits. You really can’t get the feel of a place and figure out if you will fit in from a brochure or CD. Go on campus. Talk with people in the Admissions Office. Have lunch in a student cafeteria. Walk through classroom buildings.
You will find you respond differently to different places, and this is good. It helps you make the decision of where to actually apply. Don’t ignore your instincts. Include them as one more piece of information.
Filling out an application is not fun. It is a challenge that you may repeat several times. Seventy percent of students apply to three or more colleges, according to the Higher Education Research Institute.
After you have done your work, and submitted your application, the waiting begins. Keep an open mind and consider that 84 percent of all colleges accept more than 50 percent of the students who apply, according to statistics from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
The 10 Worst Reasons For Choosing a College
1. My girlfriend/boyfriend is going there.
2. Most of my friends are going there.
3. My guidance counselor (or my computer) told me it was the right school for me.
4. It’s a party school.
5. It accepted me, and I want to stop applying.
6. It’s the only school I know about.
7. My parents went there.
8. It looks cool in the virtual tour/guidebook.
9. It’s as far away from home as I can get.
10. It’s got all this prestige.
Ask All the Right Questions
Your honest answers to these questions will help you decide what kind of college is the best fit for you, financially, academically and personally.
How much can you afford in tuition, fees and room and board?
Tuition alone can range from an average of $3,000 a year for a technical college to $50,000 or more a year for private colleges. If you live on campus, room and board will run around $8,000 on top of that.
Students who decide to live with their parents and attend technical college will have the lowest costs. By completing the first two years of required courses at a technical college and transferring to a university to complete your bachelor’s degree you can save thousands and avoid crippling student loan debt.
Can you meet the entrance requirements?
Colleges can be very selective, and clearly someone with a low grade-point average will have a hard time getting into Harvard. Colleges do look at grades.
If you don’t get into your dream school on the first try, consider attending technical college, raising your GPA and then transferring after you prove you’re a serious student.
What kind of living situation is best?
Do you want to live at home, close to home, or far from home? Do you want to live in a dorm or off campus?
While some student can’t wait to live on their own, others prefer easing into adulthood and remaining near family and friends. And if cost is an issue, splurging on dorm life now might not be worth moving back in with your parents after you graduate. Not all technical colleges are commuter colleges; some offer dorms or near-by off campus housing.
Do you prefer a small, medium or large school?
Student populations on U.S. campuses can range somewhere between 200 and 50,000 students. Technical colleges, too, vary in size from small rural campuses to large urban systems.
What do you want out of college life?
Do you want a school with a lively social life, big football games, and lots of traditions? Do you want a school that is quiet, serious and intellectual? Are extracurricular activities or sororities and fraternities important?
Remember, these are not completely exclusive. But a large university is more likely to offer up big football games and Greek life than a small liberal arts college.
Technical colleges too, have their own identities. Some excel in the arts or specific academics; some have thriving sports teams and campus activities. Some offer extensive transfer credits, others emphasize vocation and technical training. Find out what your Technical college has to offer.
—Kathy Hulik, Laura Lyjak Crawford