Finding a College Where You Belong

by
Vice President of Enrollment Management, Stephens College

Why should you listen to me when it comes to your college search? Well, I was a first-generation student who grew up in the inner city, and I’ve worked my way through a career in higher education that has spanned 30 years (and counting). But most importantly, in my role with college admission, I care about you—the student. You’re the center of the universe (or should be) when it comes to higher education. That means it’s the college or university’s responsibility to challenge you to learn, improve your mind, and become an expert in your field in a mere eight semesters.

When making a college choice, you shouldn’t be influenced simply by where all your friends go—this isn’t high school anymore. And don’t be influenced just by where your parents went unless you’re really interested in the school—parents remember what it was like when they attended, not necessarily what the school is like now. At the same time, don’t ignore a college or university just because they went there. (Are you a first-gen student with no family members to help? Look online for first-gen resources—they’re excellent!)

You need to find and apply to colleges and universities that are the best fit for you—academically, financially, personally, and any other way you can think of. But how do you find campuses where you truly belong?

College fairs

Find a way to get to college fairs and gather all the information you can. Yes, it’s window shopping, but it’s important to hear all the sales pitches, so take your time and visit all the booths you can. Talk to admission representatives: Is the rep employed by the college, or are they an alum from the local area who attended 30 years ago? Talk to them and see. You’ll get a sense of each college this way, so don’t just walk by; gather information to educate yourself, then make decisions.

Related: Quick Tips for Navigating College Fairs

Visit, visit, visit

Start by going to local colleges and universities for open houses and campus visits. You’ll get used to seeing how it all works and get better at asking questions when you visit other schools of interest. It’s all about practice!

You’ll get tons of mail, email, texts, and phone calls from different colleges and universities…it’s kind of nice being wanted, isn’t it? Take the time to look through everything, and don’t dismiss anything right away. For example, I work at a women’s college. You’re probably thinking there are no men and it’s in the middle of nowhere. Well, we’re actually right next to a major university in a top-ranked college town, so there are lots of other students around and tons of cool things to do. Just keep an open mind!

Be sure to look for things that aren’t on the admission tour when you visit. For example, are you seeing the nicest residence hall only—the one that cost big money—or the dorm where freshmen really end up living? Is the admission office the only nice, new building?

Judge each college and university as you would a person: Are they dressed for success? Honest and ethical? High maintenance? Supportive or competitive? Don’t start compromising on things you really believe in—religion, diversity, etc. The more colleges you visit, the more comparisons you’ll make and the better your questions will be. If it seems like a school is embellishing or avoiding the truth from the start, it won’t get better, and you won’t change them.

Related: Campus Visits: Your College Search Secret Weapon

Applications

Applying to college should be free—why should you have to spend money on a school before you’ve really been able to spend time getting to know it? Even if the school has an application fee, be sure to ask your admission counselor if they’ll waive it for you—most will say yes.

When it comes to choosing which colleges to apply to, decide if you trust the school first. Does it feel too slick? If it feels right, then apply. And don’t wait until the last minute to do it. Try your best to get your applications in early, because you’ll be offered more opportunities the earlier you apply.

Financial aid and scholarships

First, don’t be dazzled by large scholarships if the tuition is also large. It’s the amount of grant aid (the stuff you don’t have to pay back) compared to the total tuition that’s important. Look at the gap and compare that to your other schools. (Sometimes the gap may still seem worth it to you.)

Second: fill. out. the. FAFSA. You may very well be leaving money on the table if you don’t. Don’t worry about exposing your family’s income—whether you’re rich or poor, the school will be just as excited.

Third, after you’ve been accepted, look at what’s included in the financial aid letter you receive from each college. Does the school make the aid package look like loans and federal work-study are “grant aid” from the university? (Hint: they’re not.) You’ll have to apply for and repay any loans you’re offered. Also, federal work-study shouldn’t be figured in to look like it’ll be used to pay tuition, because it’s a small amount that you’ll have to work to earn, and honestly, you’ll probably use it for pizza. If the school is doing things like this on your proposed financial aid package, what does that mean for your future relationship?

Related: Types of College Financial Aid

Opportunities and outcomes

Does the school have general education requirements that you can apply to your field of study or interests? Are there summer opportunities? Do they offer study abroad and internships—with scholarships to support these options? Does the school have a solid alumni network? Are your fellow-alums-to-be only a phone call or email away? Ask!

Also ask for outcomes; these outcomes shouldn’t be one-offs but a pattern of success in your potential field. Alumni with positive program outcomes can also be an easy network that’s available within your reach.

Campus community and resources

You’ll generally find a sense of belonging by finding what ties you to a school. For some students, this might be the religious affiliation of the college, a particular location, a sense of history, and/or a mission that speaks to you and drives you forward.

Look for concrete support services for mental health and student success, because those are all a part of your tuition and fees. Is there specialized housing, and do you see a camaraderie among existing students? Look at the clubs and activities—the types are more important than the number. What’s the food like? How does the campus look? Is there a sense of pride? Does the town like the students? Does the school have hands-on or experiential programs that get you into your discipline right away? If the school has graduate programs, do the grad students get enough opportunities?

Is the campus secluded or are you able to get around without a car? We all like to be part of a close community, but we also need to be able to step outside that bubble every so often. Can you easily get away or do you need a car? If you do need a car, do you have to park it miles away from your residence hall or pay for a parking permit?

Related: The Ultimate Guide to the College Search: How to Find Your Perfect College Match

Final advice

Your ultimate goal should be to do what you love and be happy, but if you make college and your career all about money, it’ll always be about money. Don’t you want a doctor who wants to be a doctor rather than someone driven by money alone? Does your potential college support that?

College is the opportunity to learn to do what you love, be good at it, and find what you enjoy about it. Success is a relative term. Does your potential college believe that?

You could be a Nobel Laureate, and yet no one outside your discipline knows your name. You could also be a hometown hero who is lauded by everyone in the area. Both are amazing and both are important. And it’s likely that neither of those people were thinking about fame but how to help solve a problem instead. Is that what your potential college wants from you?

Making the right choice for you

Do you really love the school, and is it worth it to you to attend? Be honest with yourself, because you’re investing in your future. Your decision will affect you and your family for some time. I’m not trying to make you nervous, but this is where you need to use your better judgements and slow down and think: Does it feel right? Yes? Then go for it.

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