Finding a Public College That Fits

by
Former Executive Director of Admission, University of Colorado Boulder

As your high school years begin to wind down and you take those first steps toward adulthood, it’s important to take time to consider the type of college experience you’re seeking.

This is an exhilarating time! You have the chance to start fresh and shape the trajectory of your future, taking aim at whatever success means to you. When it comes to choosing the right college, the challenge is in narrowing your search to reflect your educational ambitions and personal goals. Whatever you hope to gain from higher education—lifelong friendships, job market preparedness, academic exploration, or all of the above—you’ll need to identify the traits that are most important to you in a potential university.

Related: What Really Matters in Your College Search

If you’ve set your sights on attending a public college, you may already be aware of the benefits that come with attending a state-funded institution. To name just a few, public schools are more likely to offer a vast array of academic and pre-professional programs, provide widespread diversity of both thought and culture, and are renowned for their ample research opportunities. But as graduation draws nearer, you need to start thinking more seriously about reducing your pool of options from there.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. How can you be sure to select a school that will meet your academic and cocurricular needs and provide you with a lasting network of great friends? How can you tell if a university will truly feel like “home” after first-year orientation ends?

Your first step toward choosing the right college for you is to identify your priorities. Are you seeking a sense of balance between academic rigor and social growth? Are you planning to begin college with a clear idea of the path you plan to pursue, or are you more interested in trying a variety of subjects and finding your passion? Think carefully about the college experience you envision for yourself, and get an idea of the qualities that are most important to you when selecting a school. But do keep an open mind—you may be surprised at what the college search process will teach you about yourself.

Exploration

College is about finding new passions and expanding upon them. If you’re one of the many high school students who aren’t quite sure what they want to study at the university level, you might be under the impression that a smaller university will allow a more personalized educational path that will accommodate your academic exploration.

But the fact is that even larger institutions are trending toward urging students to challenge themselves—to discover new interests and expand their horizons. After all, in today’s fast-paced technological economy, universities are tasked with training students for careers that may not even exist yet!

If you’re excited by the prospect of spending your college years preparing for an innovative, groundbreaking professional future, look for universities with exploratory programs and makerspaces that will encourage you to experiment broadly while still progressing efficiently toward graduation.

It’s also worth noting that a larger university is likely to have numerous academic and extracurricular programs, plentiful internship opportunities, and ample connections to the surrounding business community—all powerful mechanisms for educational growth. A wide variety of options will ultimately translate into the ability to truly customize your college experience to fit your unique interests, strengths, and goals.

Related: The Advantages of Going to a Public College or University

Support

Freedom to explore is certainly an asset in higher education, but it doesn’t mean much unless you’re equipped with a support system to ensure that you continue moving forward on the road to graduation. College is meant to provide you with an encouraging and motivating atmosphere in which to discover your passions and find your voice.

Over the course of your undergraduate experience, you may change career paths more than once as you explore and grow. Forging your unique academic journey is an ongoing process, so it’s important to select an institution that has the experience and resources to guide you on your way to a fulfilling, successful future. The right school should have career-preparatory programs in place that will enable you to connect with mentors and peers who will challenge you to fulfill your potential and achieve your goals.

Diversity

On the journey to discovering your purpose and shaping your future, exposure to a community of diverse ideas, opinions, and beliefs is essential. The real world is full of people with differing backgrounds and viewpoints, so a crucial part of a well-rounded education is learning to communicate and collaborate with a variety of personalities and perspectives.

Seek out an institution that clearly embraces students from a range of backgrounds, from all over the globe. An environment that fosters diversity and inclusion is one that permits all its inhabitants the opportunity to grow and learn from one another, which is the best way to prepare to enter an increasingly globalized job market. Aside from that fact, a major component of a healthy and happy learning community is a sense of belonging and well-being that is felt by all students.

Related: Choosing a College That Values Diversity

Location

Sense of place is an essential factor in deciding where you want to spend the next four years. Consider the interests and passions you hope to expand on, and think about the backdrop that will be optimal for you to pursue these avenues.

Do you want the comfort of staying close to home, or are you interested in exploring a completely different landscape? Do sandy beaches and waves inspire you, or is your happy place a snowy winter wonderland? It’s also helpful to think about the type of campus you’re looking for—do you imagine navigating the busy streets of an urban campus, or is a rural environment more your style?

You can’t know for sure what you want until you’ve tried as many of the available options as possible, so it’s important to visit as many campuses as you can. Take the time to go on the full campus tour led by the admission office, which will ensure you see all the college’s greatest assets—plus, you’ll get a sense of which of its own resources the school values most.

While brochures and websites are fun to browse and can offer you a general idea of a school’s background, these resources can’t tell you how being on campus will actually make you feel. You won’t be able to make a thorough assessment of the school until you’ve set foot on its grounds and explored its halls for yourself. Would you want to buy a new car without taking it out for a test drive? Of course not! You’ll gain a new sense of certainty and a deeper understanding of the options available to you after visiting a variety of schools prior to making your final decision.

When visiting a school in person, find time to explore the local town and surrounding regions as well as the campus itself. Is an airport nearby? What is the town or region known for, and do its values seem to match up with your own personal and academic goals? Will the college campus truly stimulate your growth as an active student and community member?

Related: Questions to Ask Before, During, and After Your College Visit

For instance, if you’ve always had a dream of launching a tech start-up, consider choosing a school that will allow you to immerse yourself in the tech industry before graduation. If you’re passionate about astrophysics, you’re likely to benefit from living and going to school in an environment that fosters a thriving community of scientists and atmospheric centers. When you’re surrounded by innovators and leaders in the field of your choice, you’ll be enabled to make professional connections even before you graduate, which can give you a significant head start in your career search.

Community

Both small and large schools offer an array of unique opportunities to their students—but regardless of what you think you want, keep an open mind. Many students who assume they can only find small class sizes and a tight-knit social scene on a campus with a small student population can be pleasantly surprised by their first visit to a larger school. Sure, you may start out in large lecture halls for some courses you’ll take during your freshman year, but after that, many big institutions offer intimate academic settings with higher-caliber research opportunities than a smaller school can provide.

Even universities with upwards of 20,000 undergraduate students can boast student-faculty ratios under 20:1. Plus, regardless of the school size, you can be sure to find plenty of smaller communities to call home within your academic college, residence halls, or students clubs.

In addition to offering many of the same benefits of a small school, a larger university will come with the support of a wide-ranging population of alumni that can be powerful forces in helping students find post-graduation stepping stones. Name recognition can be surprisingly important when entering the job market, and having a university listed on your résumé that has a prominent economic and academic presence within its state can help you get your foot in the door.

Related: Comparing Public Colleges: Big vs. Small Schools

Extracurriculars

I’m sure you’ve heard that to a certain extent, college is what you make of it. It’s important to be active in your areas of interest on campus, and you’ll get more from your college experience as a result. When exploring an institution’s offerings, don’t forget to check out its intramural/club sports and student organizations. Participation in cocurricular activities will help you make friends and find your place on campus.

Maybe you’re interested in participating in an activity you’ve been passionate about throughout high school, or perhaps you’d like to try something entirely new. Either way, many schools have a surprising variety of options when it comes to intramural and club activities. You’ll find a number of schools that offer student organizations for things like tango dancing, aerial photography, water polo, anime, beekeeping, and triathlon training! College is the ideal place to find and nurture new talents and hobbies, so challenge yourself to push the boundaries of your comfort zone and try something new.

Related: Finding Fun on Campus

Final tips for your college search          

The college search is a fun and exploratory process—you’ll learn as much about yourself as you will about your selected universities. Carefully consider your options and take another look at your list of priorities to get the most out of this experience.

Again, visiting campus is key—be sure to take your time exploring each school and its surrounding area to get a feel for whether or not you can imagine calling it home for the next four years. Weigh a school’s price with the resources it offers prospective students, and don’t be afraid to delve into financial aid information to learn which funding opportunities, scholarships, or loans may set it apart.

Ultimately, follow your intuition and maintain an open mind—you’ll know the right fit when you find it!

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