Choosing which college to attend can be a tricky thing. You want find a college that fits you, speaks to you, and just feels right. The first tip I have for all students is to make a checklist of things you are looking for in a college and write out why they are important to you. This will help you collect your thoughts and remember these things later.
When I was conducting my college search, these were the 12 things I kept in mind and made sure I asked questions about when I went on campus visits and spoke with my admission counselors. Hopefully, my checklist will give you an idea of what to look for when choosing a college too.
1. Academic fit
Do my GPA, admission test scores, and classes match up with what the college is looking for in prospective students? When looking at a college, it is always wise to see what their average student looks like, and college websites and pamphlets will contain this kind of information. How do you compare to their students? Is the college a reach, safety, or match school for you? Most colleges will also have a list of admission requirements when it comes to your high school classes: they want you to have so many years of English, math, science, social studies, foreign language, and other electives. A word to the wise: keep your eyes open for what colleges want.
Also, does the school have majors I like? Obviously, you're going to college to get a degree and studying something you care about (right?!). The colleges and universities on your list should have your favorite majors. Here's more advice for figuring out what that major should be!
2. Campus location
Is the college in an area I prefer? Some students like large campuses, and some prefer small. Some like urban areas, and some prefer rural. I come from a small school in a small town surrounded by farms, but I was only interested in bigger colleges and bigger cities than where I am now. When looking at a college’s location, think about what makes you happy and comfortable. Will you be okay in a big city and finding your way around? Or would you prefer a quaint small town? Do you want to be close to home or far away? Pick a location that suits you.
3. Class sizes
Do I want my professors to know me? For me, the answer was yes. This is a good idea in general. But I also have this strange fear that if I end up in huge classes and don’t know my professors, I might not hold myself accountable or not put my all into my college work. (I'm a goody-two-shoes kid, but you start wondering after hearing so many stories about students skipping big lecture halls…) Look up the average class sizes and student-faculty ratios for your colleges online, or if you can’t find them, ask your admission counselors. (Ideally, you’ll find these stats for your intended major as well as the college as a whole, because they can differ a lot.) Thankfully, the average class size at my future college is just 15 students, so I will be noticed! I have been told my professors will know who I am and talk to me every day. This makes me happy (and assuages my fear of slipping up at college!).
4. Campus safety
Is there a high crime rate on campus and in the surrounding area? Everyone wants to feel safe when on a college campus, and campus crime statistics are always worth looking up. Colleges will not necessarily highlight this information, so it may come down to you using the power of Google to find out. Campus crime mattered to me, and I kept it in mind when talking with admission counselors. I asked them straight up, and in my experience, some of them would skirt around the issue or just say to avoid certain crowds and situations on campus. The first thing they tell you is to avoid parties on campus (which is fine advice if you don’t want to go to parties, but that may not be right for you either). This is why I recommend researching campus crime statistics yourself.
5. Partying and alcohol
Do I want a dry or wet campus? A “dry campus” means alcohol is not allowed on college grounds. A “wet campus” allows alcohol on campus, as long as the students drinking are of legal age; those colleges have different rules for where you can drink on campus too. But here’s some advice from one of my trusted adult friends: “Just because it says it is a dry campus does not mean alcohol will not show up somewhere at some time.” Personally, I went for a dry campus, because I wanted to lower my chances of finding myself in situations with alcohol. But this can be another thing to add to your college checklist: do you want a college with a big party scene, a laid-back party scene, or something in between?
6. Staff and students
What are the staff and students at the university like? Obviously, everyone’s going to be different, but you can find similar folks attracted to similar colleges. One of the professors at the college I am attending in the fall wore purple shoes to the Preview Day I was at—and he was rockin' those shoes. He was all bubbly, radiated enthusiasm, and spoke highly of the university and how much of a home it is. The other professors and students at the Preview Day spoke highly of it too. Of course, that is what they are supposed to do, so I made sure I watched their body language and spoke with other students we met on campus, and it all aligned: this is a good place. Do you see that in the colleges you are looking at? Do you see genuine enthusiasm? Do you find other students interested in similar things as you?
How does the college or university make me feel? So, I just spoke of how everyone called my future campus a “home.” When I first stepped on the campus, I was nervous, but I could also feel the love. I felt it radiate off everything and everyone. What is your first feeling when on the campus, besides nervousness or excitement? Do you feel at home, comfortable, accepted? I like feeling at home; I also felt safe and secure.
8. Extracurricular activities
What campus activities are there? I like extracurricular activities; they keep me busy, and you can learn a lot. I think everyone likes them now, mostly because there is something for everyone to be a part of. When speaking with a college admission counselor, you can find out what the extracurricular “scene” is like on campus. And you can usually look online to see if the college has clubs or activities you like. Another cool thing: you can find out if they have scholarships for it. If you like to debate, volunteer, sing, play an instrument, play a sport, etc., there can be free money waiting for you. When I got accepted to my college, I e-mailed the volleyball coach and told her about how I have managed volleyball throughout middle school and high school. I was brought in, met the coach, interviewed with the Athletic Director, and was ultimately given a scholarship to work with the school’s volleyball teams. (See? Free money is calling you!)
9. College cost/price
What’s the total cost? When looking at colleges, people stress over the cost to attend, understandably. I used to stress about it too, until I realized top choice might not be the cheapest but it’s not the most expensive college out there, plus I really want to go there. So, sometimes it involves shoving the thought of the price out of the window to get what you want. I am a cheap person, so, trust me, this is a hard thing to do, but it can be done. Besides, your financial aid can totally change the price of the school. You get your financial aid award after you’re accepted, but you can look up average financial aid packages before you apply to get an idea of what you might get. I do not want to go into serious debt over college, so I don't mind being constantly on the hunt for scholarships (although, I do miss my old friend sleep…). Like I mentioned above: the things you are interested in (extracurriculars, majors, etc.) can have scholarships, so keep your eyes and ears open. Talk with everyone you know about scholarships, because you never know what you will find. Your college admission counselor and school guidance counselor can also help direct you when looking for scholarships. I also use CollegeXpress and College Greenlight when looking for scholarships. They help match you up to the right credible ones. (Editor’s note: Thanks, Emily!)
Do I like the college’s housing options? Dorms are small, just FYI. Suites are often much bigger but more expensive and, at some campuses, nonexistent. There may be on-campus apartments available, but those are usually for the older students. So where do you fall? Well, as a freshman you will likely be placed in the dorms, and there is nothing wrong with that. Just make sure you pack what you need for your dorm room. Also, dorm bathrooms can be a major thing for some people, especially if they’re shared—and co-ed. Will your bathroom be in your dorm room, in between two dorm rooms, or shared by the whole dorm floor? If the bathroom is shared, ask if it is co-ed or not. You can also ask if your bathroom preferences can change your housing options.
What is the food like? Again, as a freshman you will probably live on campus, and the food matters because you will be eating it every day. (You may even be required to get a meal plan.) Try to eat in the dining hall when you visit campus and/or look up reviews for the school’s food only. Luckily, colleges usually offer a nice variety of tasty foods and unique cuisines. Eat your heart out, gross high school cafeteria food.
What do I want? When it is all said and done, what you want in a college matters. It all comes down to your choices, your needs, your gut feelings. Look to the future: Can you achieve your goals at the college? Can you get the education you want there? Do you see yourself growing in that environment? Can you even picture yourself there at all? If not, cross the college off your list and do not apply to it. Keep looking for new colleges and new opportunities that provide the higher education you seek.
What’s on your checklist of things to look for in a college? Anything different than this list? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter, Facebook, etc.