With more than 4,000 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States and many more abroad, the options for high school seniors applying to college are seemingly endless. Types of schools range from research universities, liberal arts colleges, art schools, women’s colleges, international schools, open curriculum, co-ops and much more. There are benefits to every type of school and it doesn’t hurt to have a variety of schools on one list.
Yet the key to success in college, and ultimately, beyond, isn’t just about the best school, but finding the best school(s) for you. In a vast sea of options, how do you find schools that fit?
“Consider the toothpaste aisle,” says Garrison Forest School Director of College Counseling Ann Marie Strauss. “There are many different options and features but at the end of the day, they all clean your teeth. The same is true of colleges; they all educate students and prepare them for whatever comes next, but they offer different things that might make some a better choice for a student than others.”
In creating a college list full of fits, students need to think about who they are and what they need to be challenged intellectually and personally, get them where they want to go and define their own happiness.
To help students and families navigate this often daunting part of the college selection process, GFS Director of College Counseling Ann Marie Strauss and Associate Director of College Counseling Stephanie Metruk provide a list of the top five questions to ask when choosing colleges that fit.
1) WHAT IS THE WHY BEHIND THE WHAT?
Think about the courses you enjoy most and why you enjoy them. It’s not the what, but the why you like what you like that is the most important. For instance, if you don’t like science classes, you may want to reconsider whether you actually want to be a doctor. Colleges have majors of which you’ve likely never even heard. Knowing why you like what you do now will help you communicate with your academic advisors and choose courses that will set you on your path to your future.
You may also want to start thinking about what your ideal job looks like; not the title, but the responsibilities, environment and purpose of the work you want to do in the future. Thinking about how you like to work and the goal you’d like your work to accomplish is important. Meet with the career office at your college early to get connected with experts who can suggest fields of study or set you up with alumni in careers that may inspire you.
If you have a goal in mind for your future career be sure to do two things: ensure your college has a path to that future, and recognize your right to change your mind. Use your awareness of what you like about your future field to help decide the kind of classrooms that might be right for you. If you’re currently open-minded about what your future holds, that’s just as good. Colleges and universities come equipped with resources to help you find your path. Ask questions that help you determine how you’ll learn the skills you’ll need to be successful in any field. In what ways do they encourage collaboration? Creativity? Critical thinking? Problem-solving? Public speaking? Writing? Research? Search for schools that will push you to grow. This often means stepping outside of your comfort zone. Embrace it.
2) HOW DO YOU LIKE TO LEARN?
There are many questions you’ll need to ask yourself when determining whether a school’s academic philosophy matches your learning style.
If you had your choice, what would your grades be based on? Tests? Projects? Papers? Participation? Do you prefer classes that are interactive (project/discussion) or lecture style (note taking/reflection)? What is the size of your ideal classroom? Look for schools that value what you value.
- Get a lot out of classroom discussions
- Want to be able to easily meet with professors and deans
- Desire to build strong relationships with adults and school leaders
- Value a more close-knit, personal environment
…then you may want to consider looking at smaller schools whereas if you…
- Prefer to listen and learn independently
- Want to be able to choose from a large list of subject options
- Are just as or more comfortable googling information than getting it directly from advisors or other adults…
…a larger environment may be better for you.
Both large and small schools have programs and people but access to them is something you should ask about if it’s important to you. Know your style, but keep an open mind and remember that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can lead to growth!
3) WHERE AND HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO LIVE?
When considering your location, keep your current relationships in mind. How close are you with your family? How important is it to you to see them often? What role do they play in your support system? When you imagine going back and forth to school what does it look like? Plane? Train? Automobile? How long is the trip? If you’re sick or a family member is sick do you want to be able to get to them quickly?
Don’t be afraid to stay close to home, but don’t be afraid to venture out either. Think about what kind of distance you are comfortable with, what kind of transportation you’d like to take, and don’t forget to factor in the cost. Geographic diversity can work in your favor!
You will also want to think about what type of campus appeals to you. Do you imagine college as a residential campus or as a chance to live independently and attend classes? Do you envision eating in a dining hall, food court, or cooking your own meals?
Feeling safe, comfortable and well fed are the absolute fundamentals to a successful college education. If you don’t feel safe or aren’t properly nourished, you can’t focus on your studies. If you’re more independent, a city campus may work for you. If you like passing people you know and a feeling of community, check out places with a more structured/contained campus.
Do you have strict dietary needs? Make sure the dining hall can accommodate or that there are living options available where you can make your own food.
Does weather really matter to you? Seriously, think about it. How much do you care? Is it a driving factor? If you need to be warm to function that’s one thing, otherwise open up your options and buy a good coat!
4) WHO DO YOU WANT TO BE AROUND?
Consider the issues that matter and are of concern to you. Attend a place that values what you value. If you care deeply about an issue find the people who will fight alongside you. Some campuses are known for their activism; decide whether or not that is an environment for you.
Also, consider how important is it to you to be exposed to people from different backgrounds or who think differently than you do? Diversity comes in all forms. Racial, socioeconomic, geographic, political-the list goes on and on. You will find many campuses that are very diverse and others that are not. Remember--learning to debate and discuss respectfully with those who disagree with you is a skill that is learned; don’t be afraid to ask how it is taught at your potential college. College is a place for courageous conversation.
5) WHAT WILL FILL YOUR OUT OF CLASSROOM HOURS?
College is a lot of work. A LOT. It’s important to find ways to destress that are healthy and make you happy.
If you are very involved or would like to become more involved in clubs, sports, music or art make sure you can continue or get started where you’re going.
Often times the interests you pursue in college can not only build your resume but help you find your future calling.
No matter what, don’t choose a life to build a resume, live a life that builds one naturally.
The size of your school will also play a role in the college’s social scene. Think about yourself socially. Do you prefer small get-togethers or big parties? At smaller schools, you’ll know most people when you walk into the dining hall and the student center, weekend parties may be in your friends’ rooms, apartments or off-campus houses with people you know/recognize. On the other hand, at larger schools--you’ll meet new people every day; walking into the dining hall may feel like walking around the food court in the mall looking for a seat and attending a party may mean thousands of students. Determining what your social preferences are will help you find places with your kind of scene.
A final word of advice…
As you search, identify the components of the experience you hope to have and learn to identify it in MANY places. There is no one perfect fit, there will be good and bad classroom experiences, defining friendships and emotional hardships, unexpected and inspiring opportunities at all the schools you consider.
Remember, the key to success in college, and ultimately, beyond, isn’t just about the best school, but finding the best school(s) for you. Know that nothing is perfect, compromise is inevitable, and that great experiences and opportunities are found by those who learn to take advantage of what’s before them. Honesty with yourself and focusing on your own search rather than that of your friends or relatives will allow you to see more clearly and create a list, and future, full of great fits.