Choosing A College: Some Suggestions

If you applied to more than one school, and if you did your homework and chose places that fit you and where you have a reasonable chance of being admitted, you may soon be in a position to select from multiple offers of admission. Should you be this lucky, how do you go about choosing a college, a momentous decision? Here are some variables that I recommend students consider in order to make a sound choice.

Academic Fit

First, which of the schools that accepted you comes closest to offering the academic experience you hope to have?  Consider which schools offer majors that interest you, or THE major that interests you if you’ve made a choice. Consider also the strength of those programs, something you can root out by consulting databases, or doing simple online searches (e.g. top U.S. college business programs). What is the average class size at the school, do faculty invite students to participate in research efforts, and what is the predominant teaching style of the faculty? Does the school conduct research on student experiences (for example do they participate in the National Survey on Student Engagement), and if so, do they publish outcomes for prospective students to read?

Know that you don’t necessarily need to attend the most prestigious, selective or expensive college in order to have a great experience and a great future. Ask about what recent graduates are doing, including their employment and acceptance rates in graduate and professional programs. See if there are local alums of the college near where you live that you might get in touch with to hear about their experience.

Social Fit

Second, did the cultural and social atmosphere of the school fit you?  Do you feel you could be happy on the campus given its location, its range of activities, and the sort of students who attend there? What about the size of the school, and its distance from where you live?  All of this and more can be weighed as an additional aspect of fit.

Monetary Fit

Third, which of the schools offers the best monetary value in terms of the balance between total cost of attendance and offers of aid? In an era when college costs have spiraled beyond any other significant life investment, this is likely to loom large unless your family is quite wealthy. Remember that the cost of college may well haunt you long after graduation in the form of loan payments.  Who is giving you the best deal? Inquire also about the status of financial aid over time. Does the college consistently support continuing students?

One Last Visit

Finally, if you haven’t visited, or if your earlier visit was somewhat brief, make another if possible. This time spend a full day or more and schedule appointments with a professor or two, sit in on a class, hang out in the campus center, and see if it is possible to spend the night with a current student. Plan as broad an experience as possible to help you make your decision.

Weigh the Pros and Cons

Finally, consider making a pro and con list about each school in consideration, featuring the above variables as well as others that are important to you.  Talk with your parents, teachers and counselors. Then go with your best judgment. You are less likely to make a bad decision with this degree of consideration, but if you do, you can recover and move on after a semester or a year as a transfer student.

Idyllic Mirror Lake at Ohio State U

Identifying Your “Right Fit” College, Part II

For any given student, the “right” college match is largely a matter of a good fit between interests/aspirations, intellectual aptitude and learning style, and the total campus environment, both academic and social.

There are unquestionably multiple “right fits” for each student, some never to be considered given the large number of U.S. colleges (there are nearly 4000 colleges nationwide, over half of which are baccalaureate degree-granting institutions), and the likelihood that most students will primarily be familiar with schools in their region as well as some of the well known standouts, such as the infamous Ivy League subset of colleges. When one conceptualizes the college search as a matching process that has identifiable outcomes of interest to students and families, it becomes clear that many schools can equally yield a stimulating and enriching environment, solid preparation for the future, memorable experiences, and a lifelong set of friends.

Here’s an eye-opening little truism: students may be surprised to learn that many lesser ranked schools have placement rates for grad school and medical school equal to or even better than their more expensive, higher profile institutional counterparts. The same thing is true of job placement as well.

So how is a student to narrow the field and decide which schools to apply to? It makes sense to establish personalized priority factors, and to create a list of schools of interest based on these. Key characteristics for matching might include: proximity from home, size of the student body, academic rigor and reputation, faculty-student ratio, strength in a particular academic program of interest, social options available on campus, athletics, opportunities for involvement in special programs like study abroad and internships, and others. Since every college publishes information on their strong points as well as basic, comparable characteristics, it shouldn’t be hard to begin to narrow your list.

An additional important factor for students once they arrive at the campus visit stage is the FEELING of fit – Do you feel comfortable on the campus, do you feel that this would be a pleasant place to spend four years of your life? Did you like the students you met, the professors you conversed with? If you spent the night in a dorm on campus (a good idea, by the way), do you believe you would enjoy the residence life experience at the school?

Of course not every college will accept you, in many cases due to no deficiency on your part. If you don’t fit a school’s admissions profile, if they’ve already accepted lots of students who demographically and academically resemble you, or if it’s a highly selective college and you are merely one of many strong, equally interesting applicants, you may not get a bid. This is more likely at the moment, when the applicant pool is larger than it’s been in a long while at U.S. colleges. But no worries – there are schools that will fit you beautifully where you WILL be accepted, where you may even be courted with an attractive financial aid package.

Helping students find their right fit school and helping them put their best foot forward to increase the likelihood of admission is something I love doing, as it’s an incredibly satisfying form of matchmaking (better than eHarmony and Match.Com!). There aren’t many more fulfilling pursuits, in my book, than helping young people launch one of the most important and enjoyable experiences of their lives.

Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former higher ed administrator, and head of a Denver-based college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC,