How to Choose the Right College
|By: Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Founders of SuperCollege and authors of 13 books on college planning.
Gen and Kelly Tanabe can answer your question in Expert Advice.
Why do students pick certain colleges? We’ve heard every reason imaginable! For example, we know one student who decided to apply to a college because during the campus tour he noticed that there was a Krispy Kreme donut shop right in the center of campus. We can even tell you about a student that wanted to get so far away from home that she took out a compass and a map and drew a 400 mile circle around her house. Then she vowed never to apply to a college within that circle.
Depending on your personal priorities, these may or may not be good reasons to pick a college. And it’s important to remember that what makes one school a student’s dream college may make it a nightmare choice for you. Nevertheless, there are some common steps that we believe all students need to take that will help them in choosing the right college.
Imagine colleges are Neapolitan ice cream.
That’s right. We want you to think of colleges as tri-flavored ice cream. Now it may have been different in your family; but in our families, when someone brought home a box of Neapolitan ice cream, the first flavor to be eaten was the chocolate, then the vanilla. Finally, when there was nothing else left, it was the strawberry.
In the same way, you need to divide your college choices into three categories. Your chocolate colleges are your top-choice schools but also those that are most difficult to get into. Your vanilla colleges are schools that you have a reasonable chance of getting into and ones you would be happy to attend. Your strawberry colleges are your “safety colleges”—those schools that you will definitely get into.
While there is no absolute rule, we recommend to most students that they have two to three colleges in each of the three different flavors. This insures that you are reaching for your fullest potential while guaranteeing that you’ll be accepted to some great colleges that you can choose to attend.
Seek out personal recommendations.
The best way to get started finding colleges is to speak to those around you. Talk to your counselors, teachers, family friends and even (get ready for it) your parents. Often these people will be full of friendly advice and what’s nice is that since they know you, they may have specific reasons for recommending a certain college. Take note of their recommendations but don’t assume that they will give you the answers. Remember, you are just getting started. Asking the people you know for recommendations is a good way to generate a preliminary list of schools. As you research these schools, you’ll begin to discover what is important to you. It may turn out that these initial recommendations were spot on or totally off.
Focus on your academic goals.
When you think about schools, you need to consider what you really want in an education. Do you want to be trained for a specific line of work or do you want a more general liberal arts education? A pre-professional education prepares you for a specific job and includes areas such as engineering and pre-med. Some schools like M.I.T. have very strong programs for those interested in the sciences but might not be right for someone interested in literature. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, aims to equip you with general knowledge and reasoning skills suitable for many jobs.
Here’s a key question to ask every college: How does the college rank in the major you want to study? Universities are stronger in some areas and weaker in others. While it may be too early for you to know whether you want to major in English or history, check out how strong the programs and professors are in the various fields you are considering. One indication of how much emphasis a university places on a major is to find out how many students are studying that major, how many courses are offered in the field and how many faculty members teach the courses associated with that major and others like it. This should give you an idea as to the size of the department and the range of courses. If you want a major in a narrow field, you might have to consider a larger university.