What are your best tips for high school students in helping them identify the best college/universities for them?
Perhaps the hardest thing for college-bound students to grasp is the importance of fit; you have to feel that the college you plan to attend embraces and wants you. If you do not have a sense of fit, it’s likely that you may eventually transfer to a school that feels more like “home.” But how do you judge fit?
Here are the answers to this question from each member of our panel:
Alicia Ortega, Oregon State University
I always ask students to prioritize their needs and interests. It really is all the little things that count when selecting a college! Academics are obviously a big piece, along with other factors such as cost, location, student population and distance from home. I encourage students to also consider campus climate and social opportunities (Is there school spirit? Do students work? Are students politically active? Is partying dominant?). Only so much of a student’s life is spent in the classroom, so identifying activities that have played a large role in shaping who the student is (community service, multicultural organizations) or could influence who/what the student will become in the future (internships, professional organizations) can be a very helpful way to narrow down the list of colleges that students are interested in.
Susan E. Donovan, Syracuse University
Approach the process with an open mind. There are many great schools and students may be surprised by what they see or like in places.
Take advantage of all available resources, including college counselors, admissions officers, publications, special web sites, including the College Board Website — which includes information about how to be prepared for the college selection process.
Start visiting schools in the junior year of high school and try not to visit too many in one trip.
Remember that interests may change. Consider schools that offer a wide range of academic and extracurricular opportunities.
Gary L. Ross, Colgate University
Schedule your time wisely: In other words, don’t try to visit three colleges a day. Two, if reasonably close together, are a more realistic bet. If possible, try to space visits so there is time to reflect on an overall impression and the campus visit experience.
Ask questions: Students should ask questions in addition to any their parents have. Parents should let students take the lead in asking questions or they will be taking away a great learning opportunity from the student. Questions about basic student services — meal plans, residence life, student activities — can help shape a picture of what life is like at a particular school. Questions about academics, faculty, and curriculum can help a student understand the type of education they will receive, the support available to them, and the classroom environment they will encounter.
Trust your instincts: Students should choose their ultimate destination based on where they truly are most comfortable, and where they feel the deepest connection. All other factors in the college search process should supplement and complement a natural inclination for a particular school. That sense of belonging should hit at some point — and when it does, follow through with it.
Paul Thiboutot, Carleton College
Best tips are plentiful these days but often begin with looking for some college features that interest you. I think that puts the cart before the horse. The first step is for a student to think through what they like to study, to do, and the kind of environment that pleases them. If having ready access to snowy ski slopes is critical, that will limit choices on colleges as will the need for surfing waves! This is not to suggest that these are the most critical features to consider, but ignoring that which is essential to one’s well-being will not make for a happy 4 year college stint. That self-examination process should lead to identifying important characteristics of a college: location, size, academic offerings, and available extracurricular activities. Further exploration through reading guidebooks, looking at websites and meeting alumni or students of colleges can help narrow choices.
Here is my crystallizing suggestion: visit one college that is convenient and establish for oneself what seems to be important and then narrow choices with the best available information, including, if possible, visits to the most promising half dozen colleges of interest to you. Look beyond reputation and costs. Most prospective students have chosen a particular college among many similar ones for the most individualized reasons that range from their reaction to the grey stone or red brick to the availability of organic produce or trees for shade.
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