Picking the colleges you want to apply to can feel like ordering lunch from Subway at noon on a beach day. You can ask the sandwich artist to put the perfect amount of sauce and veggies on your sub, but the urge to simply get it done and be on your way makes you rush and settle for whatever you get.
Ultimately, you’re the one stuck with the end product, so it should be the perfect fit for you. Don’t get so bogged down by the questions on college applications that you forget to ask your own questions, like “Is this really the right school for me?”. When creating your list of schools to apply to, be mindful of what you want and need from your postsecondary education.
Choosing the best colleges to apply to is only the beginning, because what looks good on paper might not feel right in person. Seek out what you deserve by answering your own questionnaire and finding colleges that fit your requirements, rather than just fitting yourself to theirs.
Where do you see yourself living?
Your hometown may feel a lot different from a potential college town across the country. Weather and cultural differences play a huge role in your satisfaction. Research the year-round weather, including storms and temperatures. Don’t forget that changing from a small town to a big city or visa versa can be a shock, too. Do your homework on the prospective cities. Research how safe they are, find out how likely it is you’ll be able to travel around and out of that city, and discover what businesses are near the campus. Are there other characteristics you look for in an environment? Perhaps you would prefer a faith-based school, the ability to live off campus freshman year, or to live in single-gender dorms. There’s a college out there for you, so seek it out. The world is your oyster!
What is your financial fit?
Like you would when shopping for a car, create a price range that’s affordable for you.
Remember, if you receive financial aid in the form of a scholarship or grant, whether it's federal or private, it does not need to be paid back. If you cannot cover tuition with those forms of aid alone, will you be able to cover your other expenses with loans or income? There are ways to pay back those loans over time, but the more time it takes to pay back loans, the more interest will accumulate. If you plan to work a part-time job during college in order to afford school expenses, factor that into how much energy you will be able to put into your studies. Will it be worth it? There are other options like transferring from a community college to a four-year school, for example, which would make college more affordable.
What is your academic fit?
Education is the number one reason to go to college, and a school’s academics are what define it. You can compare your grade point average and standardized test scores to those of a college’s average applicant to get a feel for how you stack up against the competition. During your search, ask questions. How does this institution rank compared to others? What are the four-/five-year graduation rates? What are the top majors? What is the average class size for your possible major? While some schools may have your major, not all of them provide the same programs. The top majors at a school have likely developed their programs and connections more than other departments. If you are not sure of your field of study, it’s okay; just plan ahead. Look for a school with a wide array of majors in case you switch.
What size college will best suit you?
When it comes to college, it’s not a “one size fits all” situation. Just as some students excel when they stay close to home and others do well when they leave the nest, some will do better on a small campus than a large one. It’s important to know which type of student you are and narrow down your school search accordingly. The size of a college doesn’t just indicate how many people are around to hang out with; it could also determine the availability of classes, the number of majors there are, and more. A medium-sized school isn’t always the best of both worlds for all students, either. Ask yourself if you’re looking for diversity and freedom, or a tight-knit student body and specialization, big football games or small coffee dates, large lecture halls or quaint discussion groups.
What kind of social life will allow you to be satisfied and successful?
This is the kind of question you need to reflect on honestly. Are you guilty of overfilling your schedule with plans with friends, or are you more of a wallflower? What do you want to achieve in the next chapter of your life: becoming more outgoing to network for your future or balancing weekend culture with weekday responsibilities? Consider the positives and negatives of each, without just jumping into a lifestyle that looks good. Then, choose the type of school that has a social atmosphere that fits your needs and allows you to grow.
Which investment will benefit your future?
Although college is a huge decision, it’s still just a stepping stone to your future opportunities. If you plan on living across the country when you finally settle down (or just want to test the waters), a college out of state could help you on your way. If you want to network in the local area or if you want to go to grad school after college, perhaps you want to stay near home and save money, or make your way closer to an area that may provide that. The world is your oyster!
A postsecondary education is an investment of money, time, and energy (just like that Subway sandwich). Not only do you want to be sure that you will be happy during college, but you want to find the opportunity that will usher you into the future. Understanding—even if it’s only to a small extent—what you want to do with your education will benefit you in your search for the perfect school.