As an IB senior halfway through my first semester, I can share that college is something that’s been circling amongst my top priorities for a while now. I first started looking at colleges seriously about a year ago, upon which I quickly realized two things. One, I had a lot of things to think about. With over 4,168 recognized colleges and universities in America to choose from (not even including international universities) there is a lot of narrowing to be done. And two, I knew way less about the whole process than I thought I did.
For starters, applying to college is costly, not only financially (at $75 an app my original vague plan to just apply everywhere I was remotely interested in and consider my options later was wildly unfeasible), but time-consumingly as well. There were supplements to write, scholarships to be applied for, unique essay topics be thought of, resumes to craft, interviews to prepare for, recommendations to request, and overall a lot of tedious paperwork to be done. With all the effort it takes to apply genuinely to a school, putting some thought into what you’re looking for in a college (before worrying about what colleges are looking for in you) can really alleviate the process.
The first step when you’re considering any major life choice, whether it’s investigating potential careers or choosing a college, is to take a minute to reflect on yourself. While it might seem easier to pick the highest paying job or most prestigious school and work backwards, envisioning your future as a Harvard pre-med student, the truth everyone is different, and there’s no one-path-fits-all to be successful (or happy). As Howard Thurman once said (coincidentally also the prompt of an essay I recently wrote), “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Before considering schools take a minute to think about your strengths and your weaknesses; the things you’re more naturally good at and enjoy, and the things you might not be so good at, that you don’t like, or don’t have a passion for. School subjects are a good way to judge what you might be interested in pursuing in the future, but keep in mind there are also dozens of other subjects and professions out there that you might not have been exposed to yet. For many, undergraduate colleges can be a safe place to experiment in different fields, and discover more about the person you want to be, as an adult.
That’s not to say it isn’t valuable to have a plan for the future, and many also find it beneficial have a more specific idea of what they want to study and eventually pursue as a career. It’s important to consider this when looking at colleges; do you prefer large public schools with a variety of majors, smaller humanities-based liberal arts schools, pre-professional science and engineering schools, purely creative-focused art schools, trade schools, or a combination?
Financial considerations are also extremely important in determining what colleges and universities would best fit your specific situation. Need-based aid and merit aid, as well as federal or nonfederal loans, and outside scholarships, can all contribute to lowering the cost of attendance. Even if financial need is not one of your biggest priorities, it’s important to sit down with your parents or guardians sooner rather than later to make sure you’re all on the same page, so that you can all work together to make sure you have a list of colleges you both love, and are also realistic. Keep in mind as well that while in-state public universities are most often the least expensive immediate options, public schools in general do not always give the most scholarship money, and private schools, while appearing more expensive, often have a higher endowment and can therefore give equal or greater financial aid packages to students.
Other main aspects of colleges to think about include location (do you feel more comfortable in a rural, suburban, city, or other type of setting? How far from home do you want to be? Are there particular states you would like to live in?), size (both school and class size), class type (do you learn better in small discussion based classes, or larger lecture-based ones?), school culture (would you prefer a liberal, conservative, or equal leaning student body? How important is diversity or religious affiliation to you?), and national or regional rankings.
Overall, while portraying yourself in the best light possible in applications is important, the most important deciding factor when narrowing your college list is whether or not you know you can be happy and successful at a school. But when starting your college journey, remember- your future isn’t sealed by the school you choose, and no matter where you end up going everything will be okay. College is just one step in the grand scheme of things; you still have your whole life ahead of you.
Class of 2017