Checklists and Soul Searches: Finding the Right School for You

by
Vice Provost for Enrollment, Dean of Admissions, Vanderbilt University

As a student in high school, you are likely spending a lot of time wondering about the four years that come after it. But before you start thinking about the right college or university, be aware that there are many at which you could be both happy and successful. Get out of the mindset that you are searching for the “one right college” and instead realize that you are building a list of colleges that make sense, given your own particular background and dreams for the future. Your goal is to select a college or university that is a great match for you, versus trying to determine the single “perfect” college to attend. Embarking on a well-planned and organized search will help you stay focused during the application process and ultimately confidently transition from high school to college.

Finding the right college or university requires a combination of research, soul-searching, reality checking, and expert confirmation. Students can engage in the college search for any number of weeks, months, or even years. There’s no “right time” to begin thinking about college, but there is one foundational element to a healthy search: an open mind. For students who think they’re found the perfect college as early as ninth grade, we advise a good dose of re-thinking throughout high school. High school can be a time of tremendous change for students—physiologically, mentally, and academically—and heading off to a college you’ve been set on attending since ninth grade may not make much sense by the time graduation rolls around. Instead, it’s important to reconsider your options, especially as you approach application season in fall of senior year, and then again as you make the choice of where to attend.

And while we’re setting the ground rules, let’s recognize that families involved in the college search often bring more anxiety to the process than may be warranted simply because there’s a cloud of finality brought to bear—in the media, by your classmates, and in the gossip mills that typically surround this process. The college decision is sometimes referred to as the biggest or most independent decision many 18-year-olds will make in their lifetime thus far. While factually that may be true, be wary of putting quite that much weight into your thinking. By understanding that you will thrive at a number of colleges or universities, you can take some of the pressure off of your search. Just like your academic goals may change from fall of junior year to fall of senior year, your life goals will evolve continuously—your college choice is just one manifestation of those goals as they look during your senior year. But, once you land on your chosen college campus, you will continue to re-prioritize your personal goals, academic and otherwise. Knowing that the result of your college search process represents one step in a continuum of your academic career might help you enjoy the process a bit more and take some of the angst out of the search.

Understanding the process requires an open mind, and this big decision is simply one step in your educational journey, so where might you begin? The good news is that the information available to you about colleges and universities in the United States (and there are approximately 4,000 accredited institutions) is virtually limitless. With all the websites, university Facebook pages, Google, virtual tours, glossy print brochures, and campus visits, finding out answers should be simple, right? Maybe. The bad news is that because the information available is virtually limitless, information overload is perhaps one of the biggest hazards in the college search process. However, with a little organization, you can use all of that information to your advantage.

Goals and considerations

There’s a two-step goal to this process. Step one: build an appropriate list of colleges to apply to. Step two: find the right college to attend.

Start a journal or list of general requirements you think exist for your college experience. Here are some things to consider:

Location. Are you set on attending college as close to home as possible? Has your family set geographic limits? Perhaps you are anxious to see a new part of the country and want to attend college in a faraway destination? Let yourself dream here, particularly in the initial stages of your search. As you approach college application season, just remember, attending college far away may mean fewer visits home; is that ok with you and your family?

Academic programs. Would you like to engage in a liberal arts program in which you are exposed to a number of core academic areas with the intent of becoming a critical thinker, able to interpret many different perspectives about a range of subjects? In these programs, you’ll eventually select a major and become a specialist in some academic area, but you’ll graduate from college having engaged in a broad academic framework. In the alternative, you may be searching for highly specialized academic training. Perhaps you would like to pursue electrical engineering, and your goal is to engage in engineering classes and related hands-on work nearly 100% of the time. Knowing whether you are searching for a liberal arts experience, versus a more tailored academic experience, is important as you search for the right college.

As you consider the best academic environment for you, also think about how students typically engage with each other and with faculty. In other words, will you have easy access to your professors? Will most or many of your classes be small and seminar-style, or will you be mostly in larger lecture hall classes? Are you hoping to remain mostly anonymous to your professors or do you want to interact with them easily? Likewise, what do you hear from other students at each college regarding academic life? Do students talk about working together on projects or do you sense a more competitive environment? What are you used to and what do you want in college?

Setting. Would you prefer to be in an urban, suburban, or rural setting? Major cosmopolitan city or small college town? Do you want to walk, bike, or take a bus to classes? Will you be most fulfilled on a campus filled with open green space or in an environment filled with city action? Think about your academic life and in what setting you are most likely to succeed, and consider your social preferences—what’s most likely to help you thrive?

Student body. Regardless of where you attend college, you are likely to meet students from many different backgrounds, from cultural to socioeconomic; however, some colleges and universities are more likely than others to build a diverse community of students. Is that important to you?

Cost. While you should be sure you understand what possibilities exist regarding your college career, you should also take plenty of time to research the need- and merit-based funding options available. Some colleges promise to meet 100% of your demonstrated financial need without loans; others will meet your need by awarding you loans that you must pay back after graduation. Other colleges do not promise to meet your need, meaning you will cover any costs your family cannot afford, whether through outside scholarships, part-time work, student loans, or a combination of these things. Some schools offer a significant number of merit scholarships, sometimes based solely on test scores and GPAs, while others reserve a small handful of merit awards for the most academically competitive applicants. Knowing your family’s financial situation, paired with a healthy dose of research regarding available funding options, is important as you build an appropriate list of colleges.

Size. Do you attend a small school with plenty of individual attention? If so, how will you feel suddenly being one of thousands of first-year students, having to register for classes via a computer system or being put in a random housing lottery? Are you prepared for that kind of change? Or perhaps you attend a large high school and you would like more individual attention? Colleges range in size from very small (under 1,000 students) to very large (60,000 students or more!), and it’s up to you to figure out what size might make you feel most secure.

Student life. Are you interested in a place where nearly every student is involved in activities outside the classroom? Is college spirit important to you? Do you want to join a community that goes en masse every weekend to the home game? Or are you more interested in other types of activities? Would you prefer to join a community in which late-night, deep discussions are the norm? What about Greek life? Intramural or club sports? Political debates or performing arts? This is an area where soul-searching comes into play. As you think about how you’ve spent your high school days, imagine what you want college to feel like regarding your out-of-classroom experiences.

Organizing your search

  • Begin by using guidebooks and websites to create a list of anywhere from five to 20 colleges that are of interest. You’re looking for broad outlines with this step—colleges that fit your ideal in terms of size, location, academic program, setting, and student life.
  • Work with your family and guidance counselors to understand how your list fits with their suggestions and with your financial considerations.
  • Spend time connecting with the colleges on your list: subscribe to blogs, read school Facebook pages and post if you are so inclined, follow school Twitter accounts, and connect with students at the school via e-mail if that is easily available. Sign up for e-mail and mailing lists to be sure you receive information about the schools. As you do this, remember that all of these communication avenues tell you more about the school. Do you find the information coming from the school interesting? Does it make you want to learn more? Or does it make you want to run the other way? Remember to update your list as you learn more about your potential schools.
  • During junior year, visit schools if you can. There is no better way to grasp the culture of a college or university than by visiting. And if you can visit during the academic year, even better. Talk to students at every possible turn—your tour guide, students walking to class, students in the dining hall. Sit in on a class or two if possible. Take note of how students and professors are engaged in the classroom. After the class, ask a student about anything that concerned or interested you. Can you see yourself in this environment?
  • If visiting is difficult or impossible, try out school virtual tours. While not every school offers a virtual tour, many do, and these tours will give you a nice feel for the school.
  • If you know what academic areas you are interested in, and if you have particular questions about academic programs, contact appropriate faculty members via e-mail.
  • Aim for narrowing your list to five to 10 schools by spring of junior year.
  • As you begin the application process senior year, continue to gather information and interact with the schools to which you are applying. You’ll use all of this information as you make a final decision about which school to attend.

Once you’ve applied to and been admitted to a set of schools, re-engage in your research. At this juncture, you should know a lot about the schools on your final list. If you haven’t been able to visit, make every effort to do so before committing to a school. As you make the final visit(s), speak with the experts—current students and professors—and ask the nitty-gritty detail questions about everyday life at the school. Do the answers resonate with your vision of college life? Let your gut be your guide; you are older and wiser now, and your perspective is new. Use that to your advantage as you make the decision of where to attend. Remember, if you select a school that makes you happy, you are more likely to have an easier transition from high school to college and be more successful at that school.

Finding a great college or university match can be a complex process. But with organization and research and some soul-searching along the way, you can work with your high school counselor, check in with the experts on campus, and land with confidence at a college or university that is right for you.  

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