When it comes time to decide where to apply to college, there are many factors to consider. You’ll want to weigh the importance of location, family, cost, and your plans after graduation. Although not a comprehensive list (there may be additional questions you want to ask yourself when choosing a college), the questions below will give you an idea of where to start so that you can narrow down your choices. Once you’ve narrowed your list down to between five and 10 schools, it’s time to apply!
How far away from my family do I want to be?
There are pros and cons whether you decide to stay close to your family or move away from home. If you stay close, you might end up saving money on living costs, getting extra emotional support, and attending family gatherings and holidays without having to deal with travel. Being far away from home means more independence, but it also means that you’re less likely to visit home over long weekends and you’re probably going to have to pay rent or room and board. If you’re on the fence, ask yourself these questions: Do I have any other family in the area where I am considering going to school? Will I rely on my family for emotional support? How often do I want to see my family? Do I want to be able to come home for holidays? If so, what is the cost to fly? How long does it take to drive?
Is the institution in a rural or urban area? Have I considered the pros and cons of each?
It may be that you’re looking for a drastic change from where you grew up, or it may be that you want something very similar. Regardless, consider your preferences and comfort when making your decision. In areas where a college is the largest thing around, the town is often built around students; this may mean more affordable housing, special deals for students, and more accessible amenities. On the other hand, larger cities tend to have a greater variety of restaurants, nightlife, and cultural activities, though housing prices may be higher as well.
What is the weather like on campus? Do I have experience with that type of weather? Will I be able to adapt?
If you grew up in Florida, but are looking at schools in Michigan (or vice versa), consider the difference in climate. Are you prepared to buy new clothes for when it’s really cold (or really hot)? Will you be content with the limitations the climate places on outdoor activities? Can you learn how to react during a hurricane, earthquake, or other natural disaster? Are you okay with the risk?
What housing options are offered? How affordable is off-campus housing?
Schools have different policies when it comes to housing. Some require that only freshmen live on campus, while others require students to live on campus all four years. At some point, though, 87% of college students live off campus. Living costs vary geographically, and should be taken into account when planning for college. Will you be allowed to live off campus? Do you plan on having a roommate? Is living at home an option? What’s the cost difference between living on campus and living off campus?
What is the average class size?
Consider how much attention you’ll get from your instructor, the type of instructional material, and the importance of one-on-one guidance when you plan for college. Larger classes are likely to have teaching assistants (TAs) who may instruct groups of students and assist with grading. TAs tend to be graduate students, and while they may be able to give you one-on-one guidance, they are likely not as knowledgeable in the field as the main instructor. Smaller classes inherently give you more time with the instructor, so if you want to be on a first-name basis with your professors, look for schools with low student-to-teacher ratios. It’s important to note that at most institutions introductory courses tend to be large. Class sizes shrink as you reach the upper-level courses required for your major.
Will I have options if I decide to change my major?
Going to a school that is well known for their engineering program is great if you know you want to be an engineer, but what if you take a few classes and realize that it’s not for you? Consider a school that has many strong programs in case your plans change. You’ll find that liberal arts colleges often have strong programs in a variety of fields—and may be a good choice if you’re considering graduate school—but may not have specialized pre-med or engineering programs. Research universities, on the other hand, often have strong specialized programs that provide you the opportunity to participate in research projects and practice using specialized equipment. However, not all degree programs at research universities are equally strong. Attending a school with a renowned medical program won’t be of much use if you realize that your true calling is teaching.
Do I feel comfortable on campus? Will I fit in with my classmates?
Every campus has a different feel and culture, so it’s important to look into each school you’re considering to decide whether you’ll fit in and thrive. Does the institution have campus clubs and activities that you’re interested in? Do other students seem to have similar interests? You may also want to consider the predominant political view on campus, and whether that meshes well with your beliefs. For LGBT+ students, it’s important to find out whether the campus culture accepts and welcomes your lifestyle. No matter your viewpoints, you deserve to feel safe and happy on campus.
How much debt do I expect to have? How much debt can I handle?
If you’re looking at state (public) schools, compare the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. If you’re looking at private schools, know that it won’t matter where you call home; private schools usually have a single tuition rate. Look also into what your tuition bill covers: Are room and board included, or are they separate costs? What about books? Are you planning to attend graduate school after college? The amount of debt you can handle depends on your family’s situation, what your expected salary will be after you earn your degree(s), and how many jobs are available in your field. Apply for scholarships and grants to offset the cost of college!
What are my plans and goals after graduation? Where do I want to end up?
If you know that your eventual plan is to live on the West Coast, focus on schools in the area. You’ll make local connections while in college and may have an easier time finding a job, especially if you’ve already interned or worked part time. Also consider whether your planned major is in a field where there are jobs all over the country (like teaching, accounting, or medicine) or if it is in a very specialized field where the jobs are centralized in one main area (e.g., technology in Silicon Valley or filmmaking in Hollywood). Finally, check whether any certification or licensure you need will be valid in other states, whether a school has any special connections to certain companies (to co-op or intern), and whether any leaders in your prospective field are part of the faculty at a particular school.
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