If you are a high school junior who is starting to think about potential colleges, you have a choice to make about how you approach this process. You can read magazine rankings and lists of “best” schools. You can apply to the colleges your relatives have attended, or the schools your friends are talking about. You can focus on the many colleges sending brochures and emails urging you to choose them.
But these are passive approaches that allow your choices be determined by other people, and that’s not the best way to make a major life decision. It is very empowering to tune out the outside influences and look inward. Think about who you are and what you want in a college experience, and then you can make sure to find the schools where you will be able to have that kind of experience.
You might not know what kind of experience you want, and that’s fine. It can take some time to figure out what is important for you in choosing a college. There are many factors that go into this decision.
If you know you want to study architecture, or nursing, or another subject that is not offered at every college, finding schools with that program will narrow down your options considerably. If you are contemplating majors that are offered at most colleges, there are other ways to determine what kind of college would be right for you.
In what type of environment have you flourished in the past? Think about your favorite classes in school. What made you love them? Is it a passionate teacher who got you interested in the subject? Class discussions where you enjoyed having your say and hearing what your classmates thought about an issue? Do you enjoy talking to your teachers outside of class? You might want a smaller college that offers a lot of interaction between professors and students. Do you like being one of the top students in your classes? If so, you might be happier at a college that’s not overly competitive.
And if you are clueless, no need to panic. Start by visiting some local colleges, both big universities and small liberal arts colleges, and those visits can help you begin to clarify what you want and don’t want in your college experience.
Even if you have it all figured out, you may find that your preferences change once you start visiting colleges. Students who grow up in quiet suburban neighborhoods may fantasize about the excitement of living in the middle of a major city, but sometimes they end up falling in love with a sprawling, peaceful, grassy campus.
Unlike high school, where you go home at the end of the day, college will be your world for four years. It needs to be a world where you are engaged and challenged, and where you feel part of a community. There is more than one college where you can thrive, but not every college is a good fit.
It’s all about individual preferences, which is why it makes no sense to use other people’s preferences in choosing which colleges are best for you.
So spend some time thinking about what you want in a college and then you can start researching schools. If you plan some campus visits for spring break, you’ll have a chance to make sure you are on the right track with your college list.
Going to college is a major life decision, and you are much more likely to be happy with your decision if you are knowledgeable and in control of the process.