Some Advice on Choosing a College that is Right for You (In My Humble Opinion)
The transition from “big shot” high school senior to “small fish, big pond” college freshman can be very intimidating. College is unique because whether or not you were a big shot (I was not), at your high school, you are now in a new place and you must start all over again.
For the most part you will have to make all new friends, unless you know people going to the same college. You will have to find new places of interest to you, be they new places to read, study, pick up girls, have beers with friends, or get food. You will need to become acclimated with the culture of the area. Some towns and cities are more lenient on traffic and motor vehicle laws, open container laws, noise ordinances, etc. These are all things you should know about the area surrounding of the college if you intend on leaving the library or your dorm, which I truly hope you do.
Before I went to college I had no idea about any of these things. I had no idea what I wanted in a college, had no idea what to look for in a college, and no idea who to talk to about the school. My parents did not go away to college so they were not too much help on these issues, and all I wanted to do was play football somewhere so that became my main focus. Big mistake, especially when I was not getting a scholarship. I ended up injuring my knee, disliking the school tremendously, and desired to transfer. When looking for schools to transfer to I felt much more comfortable with the whole process. I knew exactly what I wanted the school to be like, knew exactly the information I wanted to know, and knew exactly who to ask any questions I had.
The following is intended to be a guide, based on my experiences, to help those intending to go away to college find the perfect fit.
As a general guide, I believe this information will help students find the college that truly fits them and will make their experience much more satisfying. After all, isn’t that what college is truly about? Sure academics are important, but will you be the best student you can if you are miserable on campus and hate every single part of the school but your dorm and classrooms? No. College is a time to strike a balance in your life.
A balance between getting down to business and studying, and enjoying yourself, however you decide to do that. College is a time where you learn to manage your time, to ensure that you can study for your organic chemistry final, play football on Saturday, and go out with your buddies later that night, all without having a panic attack. To ensure you get the best experience out of college you can, you need to pick a school that fits all of your needs and interests.
In my opinion, many guides or “how to’s” of this sort miss critical points that potential college students should know. I think many of these guides conform more to what parents are looking for than what a student is looking for. Through my own personal trial and error, I have come to the conclusion that when a student is choosing a potential college they need to be completely honest with themselves. They need to be honest about what they hope to achieve in four years, what they hope to do while they’re there, etc. I hope the following provides some assistance to potential college students – I know it did for me.
1) Talk to students at the college.
It is okay to ask the tour guides questions, because yes they are students. However, if you are going to ask the tour guides questions you want to do so out of earshot of your parents and other parents. You want the tour guide to be honest about their life and their experiences at the college. When tour guides are leading groups around campus or answering questions they tend to be politically correct. By this I mean, they tend to answer everything about the college in a positive light and in a way that will please the parents present. When you are selecting potential colleges to attend you do not want to consistently hear the positives about the school, the new eight million dollar auditorium, or the brand new wing in the library.
You may be wondering, “Why wouldn’t I want to hear positives about the school?” I should clarify. You do want to hear positives about the school, but if you simply based your selection on the information the tour guides provide, every institution of higher learning in the United States would be perfect for you. Every tour guide will tell you about all the money spent towards new science labs, improved technology in the library, safety on campus, and teaching faculty ratio. But do you really care? Remember my advice from above, be honest with yourself.
In my opinion, it may be best to go on a tour with the tour guides to see the campus, but save the questions for the students not being paid by the college. In fact, the best thing you can do is visit the school without your parents and without being guided by a tour guide. Meet up with people you already know and pick their brain, ask random students, or simply explore for yourself. You are trying to find out everything you can about the campus. You want to know positives and negatives. If the nightlife at the school is lame and everyone is in bed by ten thirty on Saturdays, that is information you want to know which you will never get from a tour guide.
Before I attended my second undergraduate college, I visited and hung out with people I knew. I also asked people I knew who had attended the college to tell me about the school. I learned how daily life was, I learned what classes were like, I learned about the best places to go for wings, cheap beer, and women. I learned everything, and it was practical. I didn’t learn about how many science labs there were or what year the library was built because I didn’t care, and it would have no bearing on the school I chose.
As a potential student you need to find out everything you can, both positive and negative about the place you will be spending the next four years.
2) Visit the college on your own.
I already covered this a bit in the previous section, but it cannot be stressed enough. I am a big advocate of staying overnight at the school before you choose. Go out, even if it’s by yourself, and see what the school is like at night. See how the parties are, see how the bars are. Let’s face it, you will be spending a lot of your time doing this if you actually attend the college, so you might as well scope out the scene before you write that check.
If bars and parties are not your thing then check out the activities the school puts on. Pretty much every college in the United States puts on some sort of activity each weekend. Usually there are a whole slew of them, too many to choose from. You can find out about these activities by simply walking around campus and checking out the flyers hung up on every wall. Often times these events are free and include food, which are both huge bonuses to every college student.
If the school has sports teams you are interested in watching then go check out a game or two while you are there. See if students attend the games and what kind of spirit they have. If you are a big time college football fan you will most likely want to attend a school that is passionate about their football team. I actually am a huge college football fan and attended a school that didn’t even have a football team. It was strange at first but I found other things to do.
If you are interested in music, arts, and theatre, check out if the school has live performances either at the school or in the area surrounding it. If this is a major interest of yours you will want to know if it is possible to partake in that interest during your four years on campus. This brings me to my next point.
3) Find out whether or not the school has organizations, clubs, sports teams, bands, etc. that interest you.
This may be a rather hypocritical topic for me to write about since all I cared about going into college was playing football, and then I ended up at a school without a football team. However, I had other interests. I liked going to parties and bars. I liked music. I played baseball in high school and would have loved to continue playing a few more years. The college I transferred to had each and every one of these things available for me. This was not a surprise to me either because I had already done the first two steps, and found out what the school had to offer and what people thought about these activities. I spoke with kids who liked bars and partying and got some information on that scene. I spoke with music fans and got information on that scene. I spoke with a former member of the club baseball team and got information on that organization.
Making sure the college you attend has something to fit your interests is a no-brainer, but I am sure there are kids out there who go to schools simply because they got a scholarship, or their parents went there. While these may be legitimate reasons for attending a school, I believe you will be happiest and most satisfied attending an institution that has things that interest you.
4) Take any class that interests you.
Most students going to college for their first year think a lot about graduating on time. Their entire schedule revolves around picking classes that will allow them to graduate in four years. Yes, graduating on time is very important, and, obviously, so is filling all of the requirements for your major. However, college is a time to explore, a time to find out who you are as a person and find out what interests you. There is plenty of room in the college curriculum to do this as well as fulfill the requirements of your major.
I am an advocate of taking classes that pique your interest. If it’s in the catalog of courses, chances are you can take it and it will count for something down the road. If you are not sure, ask your guidance counselor, that’s what they are there for.
I went into college intending to major in accounting. Two semesters into this I hated it. I thought about switching to math, decided against that, and ironically decided on Petroleum Engineering. Ironic because science was easily my worst subject. Even though I changed my major during my sophomore year I still managed to graduate on time. I know plenty of other students who have done the same thing. Some have had to stay an extra semester to finish degree requirements, but hey, there are worse things in life than having to stay at college a little bit longer.
I am actually an advocate for not declaring a major until late freshman or sophomore year. If students are undeclared going into college I think they will be more likely to take classes that interest them, rather than trying to complete their major requirements in a year. I also advocate going into college undeclared because of the frequency at which students change majors. You can spend most of your first year taking core classes and electives you need to fulfill, and in the meantime you get used to college coursework and material and might find something that really interests you that you had never considered before.
If you have a real zest or passion for something before school and know you absolutely want to major in that, go for it. More power to you. But if you’re on the fence between a few majors, go undeclared, take some classes in each subject and see what you like.
Moral of the story, take classes that interest you. Take classes that are foreign to you and you want to learn more about. If you hate the class, so what? It was only one class and I am sure you learned some information you can throw around at a party to look smart.
5) Do not attend a college simply because it has your major.
This is very much tied in with the previous topic. Again, if you have a real zest and passion for something then by all means, go for it. But if you think you want to be an architect because your great uncle was and he made a lot of money, please don’t attend a school just because they have that major. Chances are you will switch to another major, and then you may not want to be at the school you chose. I went into school as an accounting major because my grandfather advocated it and guaranteed there would be jobs available, which there were, I just hated it. It didn’t hurt me in the long run because I didn’t go to schools simply because they had my major.
There are probably many people out there who would disagree with this topic, and that is fine. However, it is a fact of life that college students change their majors once, twice, maybe even three times. Therefore, I do not think attending a school solely because they have your major is a good idea.
6) Finally, be proactive and be honest.
If there is something you are interested in go out and do it. Who cares if you can’t find anyone to go with you? Most people won’t notice you’re by yourself, and if they judge, who cares? Just go to the activity or event. You may even meet people there who have similar interests as you.
When I first transferred to my college I was interested in the club baseball team. I sent out some e-mails, found out about the team, and was invited to their first party. I didn’t know anyone else interested in the team so I went by myself. It was awkward at first walking in by myself, but these were guys similar to me and I fit in very quickly. This was one of the best decisions I made after transferring. I met some of my best friends playing on that team and had some truly wild times.
I am glad I did this, and wish I had done it more often. In fact, I lucked out because the one thing I attended because I was interested in it, ended up being where I found many friends. If this had not been the case I would have been more willing to go to other activities I was interested in, whether I had someone to go with or not. You will never find people interested in the same things as you if you’re not proactive and don’t attend events and organizational meetings.
Disclaimer: All of the above information is not meant to say that academics do not play a huge part in selecting the school of your choice. It does. However, most students apply to schools that have great academics that will be a challenge for them to get into, schools whose academic range they are right in the middle, and schools that are a little below their credentials, or so called “safety schools.”
The above information takes this into account and is assuming you are making a decision between a few schools you really liked. Essentially, the above information is what I see as a good mechanism to narrow down the choice of where you will attend school. If you are interested in twenty schools before applying, it can also be a way to narrow down the amount of schools you will apply to.