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Searching for Cars or Colleges: Look Under the Hood

Buying a new car and the college search aren't that different. Does that surprise you? All you have to do is look under the hood of each to find what you need.

Are you saving up for your first car, or do you remember the last time you purchased a car? How do you decide which car will be best for you? You might read Consumer Reports, look at the Kelley Blue Book values, or talk to friends and family members about cars you’re considering. Or maybe test driving a handful of cars helps you to figure out if they have what you want. Additionally, what tools you are using to assess the value of each? All of these are major factors of car shopping—but would you be surprised if we said they’re also factors of the college search?

Car shopping vs. college searching

If you're starting your college search, finding best-fit colleges is no different than looking for the right car. Using a variety of resources will help you figure out if a school meets your key priorities. When deciding which websites, resources, newsletters, and search tools to utilize during your search, it’s also critical to know the source and context of the data it offers. While it may be interesting to look at rankings that employ uniform criteria (such as endowment size and peer review) to develop a composite rank, a ranking isn’t necessarily factoring in important things like student support, academic focus, or success outcomes. Rankings, popularity, and national reputation may contain information that’s good to know, but you'll want to look past the numbers to understand what's being evaluated. Just like considering design or a vehicle’s acceleration when investing in a car, you want to look under the hood when starting your college search. 

Related: How to Navigate the College Search, Step–by–Step

Majors and academics

Look closely at majors to identify the main academic features of each school.

  • Does the major have a lockstep curriculum?
  • Are there required courses that lead to declaring a major?
  • Does your major of interest have a direct admit pathway or the requirement to apply at the end of sophomore year?
  • Instead of majors, is there an open curriculum where you design your academic focus?
  • Do you take courses for your major one block at a time

Take the time to learn the difference between programs at different schools, as there is no one size fits all. Smith College, Colorado School of Mines, and Columbia University are excellent examples of how Engineering programs can vary significantly. While Engineering is offered at each school, how the degree is accomplished is unique and tied to their educational missions.

School size

If the size of a school is essential to you, look more closely at the numbers to learn how they define their campus community.

  • Is the number of enrolled students composed primarily of undergraduates or a combination of undergrad and graduate students?
  • What do the demographics (gender makeup, out-of-state vs. in-state students, etc.) tell you?
  • Do students live on campus?
  • Does the school primarily support commuter students, and if so, how does that impact the campus community and culture?
  • Are activities like sporting events, concerts, or movie nights offered?
  • Do students seek out the surrounding community for local events? 

While many schools have a similar number of undergraduates, do those comparable schools provide the same number of majors or focus on areas of study such as a polytechnic or art school? Even when looking at what appear to be similar schools like large public universities, the range of majors offered and their focus can vary. Look beyond reputation or rankings and dig into details to reveal if a school has what you want.

Related: What Kind of College Is Right for You?

Return on investment

If you're concerned about costs and looking for a great return on investment (ROI), you may want to look for hands-on experiences like internships, access to career fair opportunities, and alumni networking to jump-start job opportunities after graduation. While many schools offer internship opportunities, the range of how they’re offered and whether they’re optional, folded into the curriculum, or required for graduation can vary. Find out if a school provides internship opportunities, if it’s incumbent on you as the student to secure one, or whether internships are part of senior capstone projects or completed during a specific time of the academic year. These are all parts of the sleuthing you should do when researching colleges.

Tools to build your college list

Utilizing websites like College Scorecard and CollegeXpress is an excellent first step to start building your college list, and college.u has curated a host of resources for DIY students and families, but you’ll also want to go straight to the source. Dive deep into each college’s website. Explore majors offered, graduation requirements, clubs, athletics, and any other quality you want in your college experience. This will help you see if what a college offers aligns with your goals and provide insights into what each school values. 

Related: The Best College Search Websites, Books, and Apps

Purchasing a car takes time and is not something you pick up on the way home from work or order online. Building a college list is no different. Whether you’re exploring colleges or cars, taking the time to look under the hood is essential and something you’ll want to do before making a down payment. 

Read the full article on college.u, and start building your list using our College Search tool.  

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About Dane Copeland

Dane Copeland

Dane Copeland is the founder of college.u LLC, an educational consulting company that provides individualized college counseling to support students on their college journeys. college.u is grounded in the guiding principle of “dream. search. apply.” to help students expand their view of what is possible when exploring colleges and provide an informed (and less stressful) application process while discovering colleges where they will succeed and thrive. college.u believes that putting students at the center of the college journey is the compass that allows students to discover their unique college path. College counseling services are tailored to meet each student’s individual needs while providing overall guidance and support for students and families to maximize their college search experience. In addition, college.u is committed to sharing its robust resources to help create greater college access. Dane is a member of NACAC and WACAC, holding a College Counseling Certificate with Distinction from UCLA


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