10 Tips to Help You Choose the Right College

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Feeling overwhelmed by college choices? Here are 10 ways to help you find the right school
By Emily Doyle

1. Talk with Your Family

Bill McClintick, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, cites this as the first step in the college selection process. “The reality is that it’s a partnership between student and parent, and the student can’t get too far in the process without parental support,” McClintick says. A good place to start is to discuss cost and location, which tend to worry parents the most.

2. Know Yourself

Create a list of “must haves,” says Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, New York.

McClintick says it is important to dig deep and consider your academic identity, such as your learning style and personal priorities. Are you self-sufficient enough to function in a large lecture hall, or would you do better with more faculty interaction? How hard do you want to work—do you want to be the smartest kid in school or do you want to have to work your tail off to be successful?

3. Learn the Academic Environment

It’s important to recognize that not all schools do everything well. McClintick suggests students to become familiar with their academic strengths and weaknesses and make sure the school is a good fit in that sense. The right school for a student that loves physics is different from a student that is looking for strong philosophy and religion programs.

4. Choose a Location

Where do you see yourself going to college — cornfields, suburbs or a bustling city? McClintick recommends starting off by asking: “How important is it for [me] to have access to a shopping mall?” Proximity to the city could mean nothing to one student and everything to another.

5. Assess the Campus Culture

Learn about the campus culture by reading the student newspaper. This will give you insight into the opinions on campus. What does the student body revolve around—Friday night football games or open mic night at the local coffeehouse? Also, learning the male to female ratio and the ethnic breakdown of the student population could be helpful in assessing where you might fit in at each school.

6. Get a Sense of the Campus Life

What kind of campus life do you envision? If you are interested in more than just an academic experience, ask about the percentage of students involved in extracurricular activities. Find out what the common campus hangouts are and try the food. McClintick also recommends finding out if it is a “suitcase school,” where most students go home on the weekends. This could be a big problem if the school is not a convenient distance from your own home. Evaluate the quality of the university library. Look for group study rooms. Consider the distance between service desks and collections. How accessible are the librarians? What are the hours? Try out the library’s online catalog to see the variety of materials available. As a recent graduate of the University of Missouri, Erin Nixon is very familiar with the important role libraries play in a student’s success. “Through my college years, the interlibrary loan system made it so much easier to get relevant sources for all of my research papers, and the librarians were really helpful teaching me how to use online databases,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

7. Consider Study Abroad Options

Learn about each school’s study abroad programs. “Study abroad is not only expanding in size, but also in the variety of experience,” Sohmer says.

But McClintick cautions, “There can be a big difference in program offerings.” Some only offer month-long programs rather than full semesters. Also, find out what type of financial aid is available and whether credits are easily transferable once you return.

8. Research the Post-College Services

What happens once you graduate is equally as important as choosing a school today. Ask whether the school offers resume workshops or an online job or alumni database. Also find out how many students obtain internships and how many go on to graduate school. Most colleges know the percentage of students placed in their field within six months after graduation, McClintick says. You also might find out the names of companies that frequently recruit at the campus and where students get jobs after graduation.

9. Be a Good Consumer

College is a major investment, so assess each one with a consumer’s mentality. Consider the value of the school — what do you get for the tuition? Evaluate in-state versus out-of-state tuitions, and the availability of teaching assistant or work-study programs. What is the cost per credit hour? Sohmer recommends considering the whole cost of attendance. For example, if you have to fly to school for each school term, that is much more expensive than driving.

10. Visit Your Local Library for More Tips

Librarians can refer you to detailed lists of the top U.S. colleges based on various criteria. They can also direct you to resources that explain the Free Application For Student Aid, as well as other types of loans. Some libraries provide extensive college guidance, such as the Multnomah County Library in Oregon, which offers a Web page dedicated to information on admissions, guides, financial aid and exchange programs.

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