The counselors at Collegewise have always thought it unfair to ask high school students what they’re looking for in a college. It feels like asking people to explain what they’re looking for in a car when they haven’t actually driven one yet.
But while you may not know what you’re looking for in a college yet, you do know yourself better than anyone else. Here are 10 not-so-typical questions that can be a good starting point to get you thinking outside the box about what you might like from your college experience. Your responses can help you focus your initial college search.
1. Why do you want to go to college?
It’s good to consider why you’re doing all this, and your answer to this question can impact your college search. If you answer, “Because I want to be a journalist,” it makes sense to look at schools that offer a Journalism major. If it’s “Because I’ve lived in the same place my entire life and want to experience something different,” you’ll want to pay attention to where your schools are located and the diversity of their student populations.
2. Do you think you’re ready to go to college?
There’s no shame in feeling nervous, academically unprepared, or just unsure of yourself when it comes to college. But we’ve seen students who, instead of being honest about their doubts, dragged their feet through the entire application process, leaving their parents to (resentfully) do all the work for them.
If you have similar concerns, be honest about it with yourself and your parents. Apply to a few colleges anyway. You’ll apply in the fall of your senior year but won’t decide where—or if—you’ll go to college until the end of the school year. If you’re still not ready to go then, you could consider other options.
A lot can change in six to eight months. But refusing to even apply takes options off the table that are hard to get back later.
3. How have you done your best learning?
We like this question better than “Do you want small classes or big classes?” The right colleges should give you lots of opportunities to love what you’re learning and how you’re learning it.
Think about the times in high school you were at your intellectual best—not just the times you got the highest grades but when you were excited about what you were learning. Was it a particular subject? Was it because the teacher was great? Was it because it involved projects, competition with other students, or a lot of class discussions?
Your answers to this question can tell you a lot about what you might like to study, whether or not it’s important that you like the teacher, and how much academic freedom you’ll want.
4. What would you like to learn more about?
“What do you want to major in?” is a big question a lot of students aren’t ready to answer. “What would you like to learn more about?” is less committal. It lets you consider how much you like math without necessarily deciding that you’ll major in it yet. College is school, after all.
5. How hard do you want to work academically?
Some schools are a lot more demanding than others. We’ve met students who say they want to go to Cornell but don’t want to take four AP classes during their senior year of high school because of the workload.
Those students shouldn’t apply to the school with a reputation as “the hardest Ivy to get out of.” We don’t think you’re bad if you admit you don’t want to overdo the academic intensity in college, but it’s worth considering before you pick your colleges.
When you’re researching schools, pay attention to what the students say about their experiences. Students at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago, and Middlebury will bring up how much they study. It’s like a badge of honor. Swarthmore College even has T-shirts that read, “Anywhere else it would have been an A...really.” (That’s a clue.)
6. Do you have any idea what you want to do with your life?
It’s not a problem if you can’t answer this question yet. But if you already have a future career in mind, it should probably be a key criterion to consider when picking colleges.
Do a little career research and find out where people who are successful in the field you want to join went to college and what they studied. You might be surprised by what you find. For example, Google and Apple employ more graduates from San Jose State than they do from Berkeley, UCLA, or MIT.
7. What would you like to do on a typical night or weekend in college?
We think this is a fun question because it’s not necessarily the same as “What activities do you want to do in college?” The answers to this one draw out everything from the types of students you want to be around to where the campus is located to what you want to major in.
When we ask our Collegewise students this question, we get answers like, “Play video games with my new friends in the dorms,” “Talk politics in the coffee shop,” “Head into the city to do something fun,” “Build a working robot with the other engineers,” and “Go to the big football game.”
This question also gets at how comfortable you are with the idea of students drinking and doing other things they may not tell their parents about. With some notable exceptions, like military academies and strict religious colleges, a certain percentage of kids at every school are going to find a way to party. Just how prevalent do you want that kind of extracurricular to be?
You’re only in class for a couple hours a day at most in college. The rest of the time, you’ll be living your life on (or off) campus with your fellow students. Think about what you’d like to do in your free time and look for where that will be possible.
8. Do you want to be in a place that’s different or similar to where you live now?
This one hits on everything from your city and state to the size of your town to the type of people in your community. College can be a four-year opportunity to live in a place very different from where you live now, but it’s not the right opportunity for everyone.
It’s good to consider just how much change you want to take on when you go to college. One of our former students said he wanted to be someplace very different because “I’ve lived in the same gated community my entire life and gone to school with the same group of kids since I was five.” When he later applied to college, he mentioned this need for change in a lot of his “Why do you want to attend this college?” essays. One of those essays began, “I have never met anyone from Arkansas, and I think it’s about time that I do.”
9. Do you want to be with students who are like you or different from you?
Differences come in lots of forms: ethnicity, sexual orientation, geographical, religious beliefs (or lack of them), politics, etc. Some colleges are a lot more diverse than others, and it’s a good idea to consider whether or not you want to be with people who may be very different from you.
A popular college application essay question asks you to describe how you’ll contribute to the diversity of the campus community. Schools asking that question tend to be proud of their diverse student population and look for students who want to become a part of it.
10. What’s your family’s college budget?
This question isn’t unusual, but it’s important. First, talk to your parents and get a sense of how much they can afford to help you in college. It’s normal for some parents to be reluctant to discuss finances with their kids, but you can’t do a responsible college search without knowing your family’s financial limits. If your parents are uncomfortable discussing it, ask them to share the budget in “round numbers.” That feels a little less financially invasive.
Second, don’t automatically eliminate any college that’s over your family’s budget. You won’t know the amount of your financial aid package until you’re actually admitted. You can estimate it, but the package could be influenced by other factors, like your strength as an applicant. It’s not a good idea to apply to a long list of schools your family couldn’t possibly afford, but don’t cross every school that exceeds your family’s budget off your list either.