What to Consider When Choosing a College

If you have decided that college is the next best step in your education  and your life, you are still faced with a lot of choices.

When looking at schools, it's worth taking the time make sure the ones on your list are a good match for you before investing energy (and money!) applying to them all.

There are a lot of facets to look at, and this process can be exhausting because it often brings up as many questions as it answers.

But here are some places to get started so that you feel more grounded about the process. Trust me, it will be a lot more difficult to make the final decisions if you haven't tackled these biggies first! 

What kind of degree do you want to earn?

This can be a big question that stops students in their tracks. Don't panic. Take 20 minutes and browse through the degree options of your current top three schools. You might be pleasantly surprised and inspired. Many schools offer dual majors and innovative degrees that speak to the growing trend of cross-discipline thinking.

Need a more general idea? This browsing time will still prove helpful because it will act as a menu. If you're not sure what a degree is all about, look for a page on the school's site about what alumni go on to do.

Or ask Google! Here's an article that popped up when I searched "What kind of job can you get with a Bachelor's degree in psychology?" (The page actually breaks down different careers in psychology based on degrees earned, from AS through PhD, and in various specializations.)

Think of this as brainstorming. You certainly don't have to choose your major before you apply to school. In fact, once you're at a college or university, you should get input from your professors and academic advisers about which classes, programs, and careers will fit your talents and interests.  

But if you know the general area you're interested in for study and career, it will be a lot easier to narrow down your list of schools.

You don't have to go to the school that's ranked #1 for your potential major. In fact, there will be a lot of competition for that school. Instead, look for schools that have excellent resources in your area of interest, including many options for degrees, a variety of courses, and a large faculty. 

What kind of academic environment will help you thrive?

After you have figured out the broad strokes of what you want to study, consider how you want to study. 

Not all schools are equal, and the one that suits you might be completely different from the one your best friend wants to go to, or the ones where your parents or older sibling thrived.

Remember, there is no such thing as “the right school”—there is only the right school for you!

  • Are you very independent? Will you thrive even as one of several hundred students in a lecture setting? Are you proactive and ready to take charge of your own education at a larger institution? Are you chomping at the bit for the research centers, libraries, and other resources and opportunities available only at larger schools?
  • Would you prefer some more support? Should you look for a smaller school where you will know your professors and fellow students more intimately? Do you know that you work best when you have accountability systems in place, such as a guidance counselor or academic adviser?

What features do you want?

Are you really looking forward to practical experiences? Will you be sad to discover that there are no labs in your freshman year? Are you ready to get your hands dirty with school-organized trips or projects? Did you have your heart set on a semester abroad?

Go through your top 10 schools and research the kind of learning and student environment they offer.

  • Find out what kinds of study abroad programs are available.
  • Look into research opportunities or internships. 
  • What is the sports program like?
  • Is there an active art community? 
  • What is the library like?
  • What kind of lab facilities are there?
  • Are there practice rooms where you can get your hands on a piano or play your flute without disturbing others?
  • Is there a theater space?

It's important to find a school that nurtures you as a person. You will learn best in a place where you feel happy and free to practice your passions.

What type of school speaks to you?

Traditional Universities

There are thousands to choose among! From public universities to private colleges, you can find the right match for you in courses of study, specialization, location, and academic opportunity.

When looking at a four-year school, think about where you would like to be in five years. Because part of what you pay for in a big college or university is the networking. As you research schools, check out what their alumni go on to do. What is their career center like? How do they help students land internships or jobs during summers and after graduation?

Quirky Colleges

These colleges are off the beaten path. From rejecting textbooks to not requiring (or in some cases even accepting!) SAT and ACT scores, these small institutions thrive on student energy. They are places to discover your own path through intellectual investigation and meaningful discussion. With unorthodox classes that hearken back to the roots of liberal education and the apprentice philosophy, these schools offer unique educational experiences that help students pursue their passions and discover their strengths. Check out these off-the-beaten-path colleges:

Junior College / Community College

For some students, the best approach is to start slowly. I’ve known many students who are grateful that they were able to start out at smaller, more navigable, more supportive community colleges while they honed their skills and discovered their interests.

I know two people who attended classes at West Valley College right out of high school, before transferring to four-year schools. This step helped them acclimate to the college environment, especially as both struggled with dyslexia and benefited from smaller classes. But they both agreed that the classes they had there were top-notch, even when compared with the four-year universities they transferred to—one went on to San Jose State and the other to Syracuse. 

The junior college route will allow you to explore your options at a much more reasonable cost. You can take more time to determine your path and set up a transfer plan with the counselor. If you want to transfer from a local community college to a UC, make sure to use the TAG program so that you line up a class schedule that will make transferring straightforward and realistic. 

Can you study what you love and still make a living?

Since college is such a huge investment, it’s only right that it should benefit you financially as well as mentally and emotionally.

This can often be a sticking point for parents and students: if Mom and Dad are footing the bill, they naturally have a say in what students pursue.

But of course, a student completing a degree program that makes him miserable is not likely to achieve! There needs to be a balance between what parents want and think will be a good investment, and what students are passionate about and likely to succeed at doing. 

Here’s a story I heard recently that was a good reminder that when it comes to majors, there is plenty of room for compromise!

Mom and Dad were both engineers and wanted Junior to major in engineering as well. They knew that this was a lucrative and reliable degree to have, and they wanted to make sure that their son didn’t face the difficulty so many college grads have been facing in the last 5 - 6 years: graduating with top grades but having no job prospects due to decreased demand in many sectors of the job market and a flood of qualified applicants. They knew that with an engineering degree, he would always be employable.

But Junior was passionate about music. He loved listening to it, playing it, and talking about it. He wasn’t opposed to engineering and had some talent for it, but he didn’t want to let go of his dream of music!

After some serious discussion and a bit of research, the family came upon the field of acoustic engineering.  Junior was thrilled—he’d had no idea that he could put his musical interests to use in this way, and Mom and Dad were delighted, knowing that their son would have a highly-marketable skill, not just a passion.

The end result didn’t look exactly like what anyone thought it would. Junior wasn’t going to buy a bus and head off on tour with his band, but he also wasn’t going to be stuck designing bridges. A little bit of research into what was actually available—and some help from a college planning expert—helped this family see a compromise that made everyone happy.

You've got options.

If the college path seems right for you, get moving on your research so that you can start on your personal statement.  

If you're interested in one of the "quirky colleges" I wrote about and have some questions, leave a comment and get the conversation started.

Don't see yourself here? Maybe the career, internship, or certification path is right for you.