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How to pick a college? 10 tips for seniors from their peers

December 24, 2010

Published by The Christian Science Monitor

Christmas vacation is often no vacation for college-bound high school seniors, many of whom spend these weeks refining their list of schools, polishing their essays, and completing their applications. The application process can be exhausting, but it’s making the final choice that keeps you awake at night. Which school is “the one”?

There’s no shortage of advice from parents and guidance counselors. But people who’ve recently been through the process – and come out the other end – have words of wisdom, too. Here are 10 things your future classmates say you should consider before sending in that deposit.

1. Location, location, location

The real estate mantra holds true when it comes to picking a school. Maybe you applied to schools all over the country, or even abroad, to keep your options open. But now it’s time to choose: stay close to home, or live somewhere new? Pick an urban school, or one that’s suburban, or rural? There are pros and cons to each option. Small-town colleges have those idyllic rolling hills perfect for impromptu Frisbee games, but the city can be your playground at urban schools. Depending on what you want to study, there might also be more internship opportunities in a big city than in an isolated college town.

As for proximity to home, for Brent Alex, a public relations major at Arizona State University, the decision was easy. “Opportunities aren’t going to find you sitting by yourself in your bedroom,” says the Chicago area native. “But if you go out into the world and to a new place for college, you’re going to find the opportunities. There’s no better time to leave home than after high school, when going away to college.”

2. Big vs. small

At a big university, there will always be new people to meet, things to do, and probably more course options than at a smaller school. But some students are more comfortable, and perform better, in a tight-knit community.

“It’s easy to get lost in the crowd at a big university, like Arizona State, but I recognized this and realized it was up to me to make something of my time at ASU,’ says Mr. Alex. He followed through by joining a fraternity and getting an on-campus job giving tours to prospective students.

If you end up at a big school, get involved to find your niche. Remember, too, that a big school will most likely be broken up into several colleges – one for liberal arts and sciences, business, engineering, education, etc. – and these may have the feel of a smaller school.

3. Program offerings

If you know what you want to study, consider schools that have a strong program for your intended major. The tip seems obvious, but consider this: Perhaps you want to study international business. Some schools have a general business major, but with only one or two international course offerings. Or you might want to major in journalism, but one of the universities you’ve applied to doesn’t offer the specific degree, just an English major with a few journalism class options. Go to the college where you’ll be able to take many classes for what you want to study.

Haven’t quite figured out yet what you want to do for the rest of your life? Make sure the curriculum at the school you choose allows for flexibility. Find out: When do you have to declare a major? Is it easy to switch if you change your mind?

4. Academic rigor

You’ll hear this everywhere: Apply to a couple of “reach” schools, one or two “safeties,” and then a few that fall in the middle. It might be tempting to take it easy in college, but go to a school that will challenge you academically, says Julia Ball, a senior marketing major at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. There’s still plenty of time to have fun, she says, even at a school with a demanding workload.

“It’s more rewarding to work hard for your grades, especially when you’re applying to jobs later,” says Ms. Ball. “I had this one crazy marketing class that everyone says will take over your life, and it did take over my life. But afterward I was able to talk about it in job interviews.”

Still, getting into a “great school” may not be the right academic fit for you. Ball wants high school seniors to remember this: “Just because it’s a great school, doesn’t mean that it’s a fit for you.” Consider all the factors.

5. Job prep

Ultimately, the reason you go to college is to prepare yourself to get a job after you graduate. You’ll need to decide which school will help you do that best. Look for one with a career services center that offers résumé and cover letter critiques and mock interviews, and that posts internship and job opportunities. Many schools host networking events and career fairs, as well.

Find out how many recent alumni scored jobs within a year after graduation, and where. Ball has already landed a job, and can finish up her senior year stress-free. “Notre Dame has a good relationship with a number of companies. We’re a feeder school,” she explains. “When these companies need to hire, they come looking for Notre Dame students.”

When you’re considering a school, investigate its connections with companies you may like to work for someday. High unemployment in the still-downtrodden economy makes it tough for recent graduates to find good jobs. You’ll need to know how your potential college helps students overcome this daunting obstacle.

6. Financial aid

This, of course, is often the biggest make-or-break. Which schools can you afford?

For the many, many high school seniors who have not earned academic or athletic scholarships and whose families can’t afford full tuition, financial aid packages are a big deal. Fill out the FAFSA and wait patiently until March, when the majority of schools send out their offers. In the meantime, find out how much aid you need, discuss with your parents how much they can contribute, and look into student loans.

Plan ahead: Is a private school over a public one worth the extra 10 years of loan payments? How much do your favorite universities give on average, and to what percent of the student population? Do you need a certain test score or grade point average to qualify for academic grants?

Look into work-study options on campus. If you don’t qualify for that, are there other job opportunities for students? Don’t forget that tuition, room, and other academic extras (read: hundreds of dollars in textbooks each semester) aren’t the only costs of college. You’ll want to do other things: participate in Greek life perhaps, study abroad, or play intramural sports.

7. Student body

The people you’ll be spending the most time with in college are other students. You’ll live (as a freshman, probably in very tight quarters), study, and spend your free time with them. So you need to decide what kind of student body you’re looking for. Would you want to be among a diverse group, with a lot international students maybe, or more homogenous? Would you prefer peers with a liberal reputation, conservative, or somewhere in-between? In reality, it’s impossible to define an entire student population in such sweeping terms. But this, say peers, you do need to know: Are the students happy?

“Talk to the people who are already enrolled in the school,” advises Evan Prendergast, a freshman business major at Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant. “When you’re visiting, go up to current students and ask them what they think.”

Ask them how they would describe students there, and anything else you want to know about, before committing. If you’re not planning to visit the school again, call the admissions office and ask for a student’s e-mail address.

8. Professors

Find out what the student-faculty ratio is. Colleges often use a low ratio as a selling point, because smaller classes mean more student-teacher interaction. Some students thrive in small discussion-based classes, but some don’t. You know your learning style, so pick a school that capitalizes on it. Remember, though a large state school might have a high student-faculty ratio, say 50:1, it’s often only the introductory level courses that are huge lecture hall classes. Find out the case for the specific program you’d like to be in.

Also worth noting: What did professors in your potential department do before they started teaching? Are they experienced and connected in the field? Schedule a class visit or meeting with a professor while on campus, and then stay in touch. Even if you won’t take that particular teacher’s class until your junior year, it’s never a bad idea to maintain a relationship with a contact.

9. Course requirements

Many prospective students don’t look into the specific classes they’ll be taking their freshman year and beyond, but those now in college say it’s important to do so. What are the course requirements for your potential major? When will you be able to take the classes you want to take? What if you’re planning to study English, but one school requires students take two years of math and science before allowing them to delve into the intricacies of Shakespeare?

It might not be easy to find degree requirements on an admissions website. Call the school’s student services office (where current students go for academic advising) and ask for a copy of curriculum guides. At the same time, find out if your high school test scores – from AP, IB, and SAT II exams – will count for anything toward graduation requirements.

10. Extracurricular activities

If you might want to study abroad, volunteer, or join a specific club, make sure the school you pick has that activity.

Are you a huge sports fan? Have you always dreamed of joining your mom’s old sorority? Maybe you’d prefer a school with low-key athletics or barely any Greek life. Extracurricular activities might not seem as important as academics and networking opportunities, but getting involved outside of the classroom is one of the best ways to meet people, cultivate passions, and yes, pad your résumé.

“I didn’t think about any of those things when I was applying to schools,” admits Andrea Sobieski, a junior advertising major at Boston University. Though they weren’t on her mind three years ago, she’s involved now: She joined BU’s student-run advertising agency, went on a community service spring break trip her freshman year, and will be studying in Australia this spring. Her advice to high school seniors: “Go to a college where you can surround yourself with the kind of people and activities you’re interested in.”

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