Choosing the Right College

Congratulations! You’ve worked really hard for almost 12 years in school. You’ve completed hundreds of homework assignments and you’ve taken test after test. You’ve poured over the application essays and paid the fees. Finally, you were rewarded with the grand prize—an acceptance. But then, another, and another, and another. “Holy cow! What do I do now?”

Simply stated, you now must make the big grand daddy of decisions—you must decide which college you will attend. It may feel like the BIG one; but in many ways it’s really just like an answer to another multiple choice question; it matters, but it’s just one of many important decisions that you will face in your lifetime.

Your first “big” decision came last fall, when you chose the colleges to which you would apply. Remember asking, “Do I apply early decision?” The answer to that question depended upon a lot of factors, but included in your decision may have been the questions: “Have I seen a representative sampling of colleges? Do I really know what’s out there? If I applied to 25 colleges and got in to all of them, is this the one I would attend?” If that’s what happened–if you were accepted through early decision–your decision is already made. After all, early decision is a binding agreement—as valid and binding as any contract you will sign later in life.

Let’s assume that you were rejected or deferred from your early decision college, or that you did not apply using early decision. No problem. You selected schools at which you felt you could be happy and would get a great education. Guess what: the schools selected you back! They think you can be happy there, too. You proposed and they accepted—for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer.

Now, take a moment to leave the crazy circus in exchange for some silent reflection. Your whole life, people have told you not to daydream. But on the verge of such an important decision, it is wise to allow yourself a moment of private contemplation. Sit in a deep comfortable chair. Put you feet up, close your eyes and sink right in. Relax. Take a deep breath and daydream away.

Picture yourself away at college. Are you at a large school or a small one? Are you close to home or far away? Are you in the city or the suburbs? What is your field of study? Are you enjoying your classes?  Did you have to take out student loans? If so, for how much?

Now, process and synthesize all this input. How do you feel? The answer to that question just might provide you with the answer you are looking for. Your perspective is now from the home stretch of your senior year. Take a moment to think about what is most important to you. The answers may be the same as they were earlier in the year when you filled out your applications, or as they were last spring when you began dipping your feet in the swift ocean current of college admissions. Conversely, the answers may be quite different. After all, we form opinions and make decisions based on the experiences we have, and you’ve had many new experiences since November or perhaps even since January. You have grown and changed. And that’s okay, because that’s what people do; they grow and change. In fact as a teenager, it may seem like that is all you ever do.

Now go back to the list of accepted colleges. How do they fit the answers to your questions? Here is a checklist of questions and suggestions to consider: 

  • If you have decided you want to be close to home, cross off those college that are on the other side of the country.
  • Put a “+” next to the college which will give you money in the form of scholarships and grants.
  • Put a “+” next to the college(s) that have the major you want, or that have the best resources to allow you to blossom and flourish in your intended field of study.
  • Attend “Accepted Students Day;” this is the college’s final push to close the sale by showing you how truly fantastic it is. Why on Earth would any accepted student not attend? Heck, they may even throw in a meal or two to show off their exceptional cafeteria cuisine!
  • An acceptance is a clear and unequivocal message that the college wants you to be a part of its freshman class and campus. As such, it will continue to roll out the red carpet. Walk on it! Take full advantage of its hospitality and learn as much as possible about what it has to offer you.

Note: While on your red-carpet luxury cruise, be sure to go “off tour” and see the grand ship’s less-than-luxurious engine room:

  • While you are in the cafeteria taking in all the ambiance and aromatic indulgences, seek out a few students to ask if the food is “always this good.”
  • Go on a tour and see the freshmen housing choices. Go beyond the furnished model. Are the bathrooms clean? Co-ed? Are you ok with that?
  • While on tour, ask any student (other than your tour guide) what is best and worst about the campus, the school, and the extracurricular activities. Ask why he/she chose this school and if it has lived up to his/her expectations. Ask about safety and drinking and drugs and parties. Every campus has these issues and you should know as much as possible before signing on. Don’t be easily swayed; every campus will have its pros and cons as well as its advocates and grumblers.
  • Visit the career center. Find out what percentage of graduates get jobs, what kinds of jobs and, in particular, jobs in your chosen field. Find out what percentage of graduates go on to graduate school and which schools they attend? Ask about typical schedules for students in your major.
  • Try to visit the college during the week. Get in touch with current students at the schools you’re considering. If you don’t know anyone there, ask your high school to recommend a recent graduate or two.
  • Many colleges offer overnight visits during which you can attend a class and perhaps even stay in a dorm room. Take advantage of this opportunity.
  • Even if you can’t stay over, talk with professors in the department of your intended field of study. Talk with the coach of the team you want to try out for. Find out what kinds of academic supports are available. Ask if there is a freshman orientation or transition program? If so, when is it and what does it entail?
  • Check out social media (as if you didn’t already do this!). On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, College Confidential, and others you will most certainly find admission counselors and students who are talking about the school. Join the “accepted students” group. Ask questions. Just understand that this may not be an “official” site and therefore the information may not be entirely accurate. It may, however, be enough to give you a sense of the kinds of students that are attending or considering doing so.
  • Finally, come up with a two column list of “pros” and “cons” for each school; pros on the left and cons on the right, for example. This will provide you with a visible representation of the choice you are about to make. You may choose to add additional weight one or more criteria, just as schools weight your GPA to account for higher levels of difficulty.

Seems like a lot to consider. But as you weave your way through all the factors that will ultimately lead to your decision, you should understand that you are, after all, in a very good place! You have choices. You have narrowed down the list of more than 4,000 U.S. colleges to perhaps a couple. Now you need to narrow it down to one. Think of all the high school juniors who are just getting started—now that should bring a smile to your face!  Yes, you are in a very good place indeed!

Want to know what makes it even better? This does not need to be a four-year commitment. If the school you ultimately choose proves to be less desirable than expected, you can pull out the transfer card. Hopefully, however, you’ve chosen the school that hits a 100 on your personal happiness scale.  Enjoy the ride.

Carol Cohen has an M.Ed. in School Counseling and is a college counselor at Chyten.

Neil Chyten is CEO and founder of Chyten Educational Services.