It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was my college search. Finding the perfect college is certainly a formidable task, but in the end it is one of the most rewarding ordeals you will ever have to endure. When you open the friendliest of acceptance letters, all of the stressful, eye-wearying web surfing and panicked essay drafting that brought you to that point will melt away into the satisfaction and excitement of being welcomed into a new community, I promise.
To be completely honest, I loved looking for colleges. I was in enchanted with the very notion of college before I even started high school, so learning about different schools and the opportunities they present was more of an adventure than a drudgery; however, no good adventure is carried out without some dark and doubtful days. Never forget that there are millions of us who have been right where you are! We made it out of the valleys of the in-state/out-of-state debate and arose triumphantly from battle with the trolls of financial aid: you can do this. Ready?
Here are some tips and things to consider as you start wading into the vast marshes of college options.
• The Tip of all Tips: START EARLY
If you are just starting your senior year and you have no idea where you want to spend the next four years, that is okay. Many, many people begin their college searches their senior year and are perfectly content with their choices. However, starting early gives you the best chance of finding a school that fits you like your favorite jeans and a better chance of lessening your senior year application fluster-ment.
Even if you don’t decide to start looking at schools, as a high school underclassman or even a middle schooler you can think about what kind of school you would like to go to (large or small?) and where geographically you would like to go (near, far, wherever you are?). If you have yet to start concocting your college plans, why not start them now, right now?
• Consider, What Do You Want To Do?
This was the central focus of my search for the mythical, legendary, highly individualized ideal, perfect school. It was also what drove searches for my brother, my boyfriend, and some of my best friends. Having some idea of a major or possible majors can be an invaluable asset in narrowing down the range of schools you consider.
If you have several interests or are unsure of what you want to study, check the list of majors on each college website you visit to see if any of them appeal to you. If you know exactly what you want to study, you are in luck! You can always pour “best schools for (intended area of studying)” into any search engine and get a plethora of comprehensive rankings of programs in that area across many different schools.
• Consider, Where (Geographically) Do You Want to Go?
This was the second most important criterion on my college searching expedition. I wanted to study in the U.K. which is not a very straight forward for those of us not in the U.K. However, I also loved the American collegiate system, so I found a program that actually lets me spend time in two different places.
If you visited Vermont as a kid and fell in love with the glorious landscape and unholy abundance of maple syrup, why not go to school there? This is your chance to choose where you study and live. There are institutions of higher learning everywhere—mountain, vale, beach, glen—you can study anywhere.
• Consider, When You Aren’t Studying, What Would You Like To Be Doing?
Extracurricular activities are often an essential part of student life. When you find schools that look promising, sneak a glimpse at their student organizations page. Most schools have a dozens of clubs and some even have couple of unique groups that are worth a laugh, if not an application (one of my favorites: Yale’s Antigravity Society). If a school doesn’t have a tea drinking society and you just can’t drink your tea alone, don’t fret, if that is the only thing about the college that doesn’t quite meet your expectations, it is probably an excellent option nonetheless. Additionally, you can always start your own organization!
• Consider, Community
Do you want a large vivacious community on a campus that is practically half-scale a diorama of NYC or do you want a petite community with a small town aspect and fewer names to learn? All of this is very dependent upon your personality and background. Looking at campus event calendars, perusing student and department blogs, and reading about the surrounding area can give you a decent impression of what you could expect to experience as a member of their community.
• Note, College Visits Are Not Optional
Do you need to visit every college you apply to? No, you don’t even need to visit colleges you are interested in applying to, you just NEED to visit one. If you have never set foot on a college campus before, you will not have a clear idea of what qualities you like about campuses and what qualities make you uncomfortable. In addition to the schools I saw with my older brother while he was choosing a college, I visited just over half a dozen schools. Of those I visited, I decided not to apply to two of them after exploring their campuses. Seeing the layout and surroundings and hearing information about the school directly from those who work and study there is indispensable, and it can save you the toil of excess applications. When you are ready to plan a college visit, check out this visit planning guide!
• Consider, Who Went Where?
If you have a favorite author, public figure, or someone you simply and truly admire, find out where they went to school. A school’s graduates are often a gauge of the sort of education they provide, the kind of people they appeal to, and their philosophy. This can be a fun way to learn more about a variety of schools.
• Consider, the Liberal Arts
If you want an education that gives you access to a wide array of studies in you undergraduate career, then a Liberal Arts school, one which promotes exposure to many different areas of study in addition to your major, may be just the thing for your ultra-curious mind. However, if you are so sick of mathematics that your very being would collapse under the weight of an algebraic expression and all you want to do is get your music degree, then the liberal arts are probably not for you.
• Tip: Involve Your Parents, They Love You
Yes, this is your chance to get away from those people you may (erroneously) think have been trying to ruin your life for the past 18 years; but they know you better than anyone, they know what you are capable of, and want to see you succeed. Tell them about colleges that intrigue you and ask what they think. In their great, unbounded parental wisdom, they may be able to guide you as you look for options that suit your personality.
• Consider, What You Can Afford
I include this last because it is my least favorite consideration. Nothing inhibits flights of university fancy quite like the bill. Do not be deterred! There are lots of sources for student aid, and in the end, a getting a strong education will be a treasure worth the tuition. However, if you are not going into a field where you will need the prestige of a lofty degree from a renowned private college, it could be more practical to look at local state schools or options that require a less costly investment.
Here are links to some amazing college search tools that let you find colleges based on anything from size and location to majors and religious affiliations! (I wish I found these when I was looking for colleges! Save yourself the trouble and try one of these tools, you won’t regret it.)
Big Future from the College Board
College Search Tool from College View
College searching is a form of exploration, and there are some many shores of higher education to land upon. There is no knowing what you may find. I hope these tips help, but it is, in truth, up to each student to set his or her own collegiate course. Best of luck and Godspeed!