Building a college list shouldn’t just be picking names off a rankings list or applying where your best friend wants to go. Your time at college is likely to be an important period of personal and professional development as well as one of the most significant financial decisions your family makes. It’s worth your time to investigate if the colleges you are considering are places that will allow you to grow as an individual.
I wrote these tips to help you start thinking about what you are hoping to do in college and what factors might make a college a good fit for you.
Decide what you want from college
- A broad curriculum that allows for exploration
- Support for a focused academic goal
- Mentoring and training related to a future career
- An interdisciplinary program that draws from many departments
- Advising for professional programs (like medical or law school)?
- Maximum transfer credit for work you’ve already done
If you know why, figuring out where will be easier
Decide what factors are important to you
Colleges can be categorized by many qualities such as:
- Location: state, urban/suburban/rural, distance from family
- Size: small <3k, medium 3-10k, large 10-20k, very large >20k
- Academic programs: Majors, minors, interdisciplinary programs
- Student body makeup: Diversity, student veterans, older students, students with families
- Available housing: Campus housing, local apartments, living with family
- Campus atmosphere: Competitive/collaborative, politically active, ties to community
- Other personal factors: Disability support, sports, internships & coops
As you make lists of factors that matter to you, try to categorize them by which are essential vs those that would be nice to have.
What are dealbreakers and where are you flexible?
Clarify your budget
Tuition varies by college. Fees, books, housing, food and transportation add to the Cost of Attendance. Use tools like Net Price Calculators (on each college website) to estimate what you are likely to pay at different schools. Understand the difference between scholarships, grants, and loans. Some colleges offer the majority of students some tuition grants; others reserve financial aid to students with demonstrated financial need. You can get an idea of their past actions by looking at the Net Price Calculator or Section H of the college’s Common Data Set.
If you are eligible for special education benefits, such as the WUE tuition discounts, GI Bill and other veterans’ benefits, or state scholarship programs like the Hope Scholarship (Georgia) or Bright Futures Scholarship (Florida), take the time to read and understand the requirements and limitations of the program. There is nothing worse than being on the edge of enrolling at a favorite school then realizing you’d missed a deadline or some other requirement and would not receive that financial support.
Know what you can afford and what aid colleges are likely to offer; don’t rely on consecutive miracles.
Look beyond labels
Read descriptions of majors in both the college catalog and departmental websites. Look at degree requirements and sample course plans. Some degrees have options for concentrations within a major.
You may find significant differences in programs at different colleges. The sample course plans can help you see the difference in experience between a Mechanical Engineering degree with an Aerospace Engineering concentration and a stand-alone Aerospace Engineering degree. You may also find similar programs with different names like Film Production, Film Studies, or Cinematic Arts.
[Check out this post for more detailed tips about Researching College Majors.]
Investigate the minors available at each college. You may find these offer another opportunity to specialize or to broaden your academic experience. Often within a minor, you would take classes with students from a variety of different majors, which can give you exposure to how other academic disciplines approach similar topics. A few minors that have caught my eye recently include: University of Colorado – Boulder Minor in Energy Engineering, James Madison University Minor in Chronic Illness, and University of Cincinnati Materials Engineering Minor.
Honors Colleges and Honors Programs at some colleges create a smaller cohort of students working at an advanced level. Benefits can include priority registration, smaller honors sections of required courses, faculty mentoring, and perhaps even a research budget. Honors programs can be a way to get a more individualized experience at a larger college.
Do the research, so you have a better basis for comparison.
Keep an open mind
There are over 3,000 colleges in the US that offer 4-year degrees. There’s a good chance that excellent programs that meet your goals and needs exist at colleges you aren’t familiar with. Consider the possibilities at Small Liberal Arts Colleges, large public universities, and schools with honors programs, not just a list of famous colleges. Don’t rely on rankings, which are based on what is easily measured, not what is meaningful. The information used as a basis for rankings may not align with your personal goals.
College is an investment of time and resources; do the work to find several strong options.
Your goal should be a list of 4-8 colleges that meet your needs and that have a range of admissions likelihood. I usually suggest that at least half the list should be high chance of admission or medium chance of admissions schools. Don’t overload you list with low chance of admission or “highly rejective” colleges. That’s a recipe for disappointment.
You may find that your best friend looks at your list and asks about some of your schools. If you’ve done your thinking and research, you’ll be able to explain what is exciting about each of them.