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How to Choose the Right College for You

Topics: Data & Research

Spring brings both joy and pain to the high school senior. On one hand, finishing up that K-12 career brings a sense of accomplishment and relief; on the other hand, this time also asks the typical 18-year-old to make one of the biggest decisions of their life.

As someone who went through the process of college admissions a little less than a year ago, I can confirm that the weight of my college decision rested heavily on my shoulders. Choosing your home for the next four years is not a decision to make lightly (especially since the price of college nowadays is pretty much equivalent to a small fortune). But the problem of which school is best for you can be broken up into smaller, more answerable questions.

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(Photo Credit: Baim Hanif/Unsplash)

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Here are some to ponder before paying your housing deposit:

1. What kind of degrees and programs are you interested in?

It makes sense to confirm that a school has a degree that you’re interesting in pursuing before applying. But after getting accepted into several schools, it’s time to look at degrees and departments with more scrutiny. For those interested in interdisciplinary degrees that may not necessarily be offered at the institution they’re considering, I suggest looking into schools that allow (and more importantly support) the creation of a major.

2. How big a school do you want to go to?

This is definitely a question that a lot of students tend to overlook when applying to colleges, but is crucial to their success.

The number of bodies around you may not matter to you, but there are other factors besides cramped lecture halls to consider. For me, being at a big school seemed incredibly overwhelming. Outside of the number of students at some colleges, the consequences of a large student body personally turned me off. I valued the idea of having a real relationship with my professors and I believed that I would struggle to have that kind of connection with faculty members if I were another face in a 600-student crowd during lecture.

However, larger universities often provide more research opportunities, which can be more appealing to other people. There are pros and cons to either scenario, but it’s important to take the population of your school into consideration.

2.5 Liberal arts or big research university?

As an addition to the previous question, consider whether you want to go to a liberal arts college or a big research university. Of course, there are also pedagogical differences between the two. A liberal arts education offers a breadth of study and interdisciplinary interaction. However, there are rarely large research opportunities – though at my liberal arts college, there are still research opportunities during the summer.

On the other hand, large research universities allow for extreme specialization within a major or department and boast a wide variety of research and internship opportunities on campus. Additionally, these universities typically allow for undergraduate students to take courses at the graduate level, an option not readily available to liberal arts college students.

On a personal note, I think going to a liberal arts college has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do with my life, and having to explore different subject areas as required by the liberal arts pedagogy, I was able to figure out what I truly enjoyed – interdisciplinary study between art and technology.

3. Where will you be geographically?

You might not think that where you go to school affects your studies, but I would argue otherwise. Being in the middle of a city versus a suburb can shape your relationship with academia. Do you value studying in an environment that is conducive to studying economic theory? Or do you prefer to “study” through hands-on experience at a year-long consulting firm internship? While the former can be achieved at a school in the suburbs, the latter will probably produce difficulties with transportation if you were to go to a university outside of a city.

Furthermore, where do you want to work after graduation? It’s not impossible to get an internship in a place where you currently do not live, but it is easier to network and nab internships in places where you can get to physically (especially if there’s an in-person interview involved).

Outside of academia and career prospects, what kind of environment do you want to explore? Are you happy with being where you are or do you want to experience a different culture? I can attest to the fact that my southern Californian environment at home is far different than New England, where I’m currently studying. While my heart belongs on the sunny shores of the golden state, I am glad I am 3,000 miles away from home. For reasons unquantifiable, I feel like the physical distance I’ve had from my home has allowed me to grow into my own person.

4. Can you afford this place?

I would say that questions No. 1-3 are in no particular order, but this next-to-last question poses the most important factor to consider. Considering a secondary education nowadays is definitely an investment, and while in an ideal world, the benefits should outweigh the costs, that simply is no longer the case. The price tag of a college diploma is too high for you to make your decision without considering return on investment. Payscale’s College ROI Report provides some insight into whether a given school is most likely to set you up for financial prosperity or crippling debt.

Outside of the ROI, I think an important question to ask in regards to affordability is whether or not you want to go to graduate school, yet another investment you will be making with less generosity from financial aid and scholarship foundations. I do not advocate going to a more affordable undergraduate institution that you hate if it means you can afford to graduate school, but you should note that if you do wish to go to graduate school, affordability for your undergraduate years becomes a far greater factor.

5. Does this school feel like home?

As a final tip, if you have trouble answering these questions, try to visit the universities you are considering; the answers to questions No. 1-3 should reveal themselves quickly. Even if you can answer these questions, try to visit your universities. You won’t know if a place is home until you’ve actually stepped foot on campus.

Otherwise, though choosing a college is stressful, finding a place you can truly thrive as a student and as a person is more rewarding and enjoyable than the last semester of your senior year of high school ever will be.

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