Some people make their college choice early, some wait until the mailbox starts filling up, and others follow the aid dollars. But everyone can benefit from a few sage bits of advice. Ten sage bits, to be exact.
Watch the mailbox.
You've probably been thinking about college since freshman year. By junior year you'll start getting a lot of materials from schools. There could be good reasons you're on their list. Find out why.
Do your research.
It's more exciting than any project you've been assigned so far, but exploring your college options can be more intense, too. Reading up in print and online is a must, but asking around is useful, too. Go to college fairs in your area and talk to admission representatives when they visit your school.
Talk to your counselor.
He will help steer you in the right direction (and occasionally steer you away from a dream college). It's his job to help you succeed. Put him to work for you.
Meet with a graduate.
When you find a school that interests you, it becomes easy to talk with someone who went there (alumni love to relive their college days). They can give you valuable insights—and cool stories.
Talk to your favorite teacher.
The things she learned in college made her the teacher you like today. Who knows? Your teacher might have even attended one of the schools you're leaning toward.
Go on campus visits.
There's a right way to do this (and we have a "Ten Things" card for it), and you can learn a lot of things that aren't in print. Get a feel for campus life, the facilities, the professors, and all the things that make a college the right fit.
Do the math.
College is a big investment in your future. But with the proper strategy, it can be done. Remember to look at more than just the price tag—see what scholarships and other sources of funding are available.
Make a list.
Write down your top college choices in order, with your dream college as number one. Now look at the last college on your list and come up with five reasons why it might work out better than number one. Why? Read on.
Prepare for disappointment.
Your first choice might not happen—not right away, at least. Being flexible and dealing with setbacks are great skills to have in college and in the future.
Prepare for excitement.
No matter which college accepts you, it's an amazing feeling. Planning your next steps will be more challenging than the last nine. (And we look at those steps in the box above.)
You'll study. You'll learn. You'll prepare for your future career. But when you're not doing that stuff, there are thousands of other things you'll want to do on campus. Here are ten things to consider about life outside the classroom.
Student government and other campus groups allow students to make real decisions and influence campus life. Find out how you can get involved.
Do you act, sing, or play an instrument? Look for theatre groups, choirs, or instrumental ensembles that fit your style. At a smaller school, you'll have a better chance to star in the show; at a big school, you may stand on an impressive stage.
Small colleges have more opportunities to join the team. Some have more specialized sports, like disc golf, equestrian, or curling. Find out your chances of making the team or leading it.
Supporting the team.
At larger schools, sports are often more competitive, and it can be harder for students to make the team. But these schools might also have a fiercely active fan base and play on the national stage. You may not know anyone on the team personally, but you'll still be part of the crowd.
Want to join a fraternity or sorority? Greek life is the cornerstone of social activity on some campuses and nonexistent on others. Ask a current student about the importance of Greek life.
Are you lost without your elliptical? Only feel at home in a weight room? Fitness facilities vary greatly at colleges of all sizes. If you'll be using them, make sure they meet your needs.
Many private colleges have a specific church affiliation, but nearly all of them welcome students of all faiths and offer campus groups and worship services for everyone.
You'll be busy during your college years, but you'll have to sleep eventually. Ask if you'll have roommates. Wi-Fi. Laundry facilities. Are the rooms comfy? Are there any unique housing options? See how you'll live for the next four years.
You'll eat a lot of meals in four years. Find out if you'll have to purchase a dining plan. See if you'll have access to options outside of the dining hall, like coffee bars or sandwich shops. And most importantly, stop by for lunch and check out the food for yourself.
College traditions often take the form of distinctive annual events. Ask around—you'll probably find surprising (and occasionally bizarre) traditions that will create your most cherished memories.
So, where do you want to go? To help you answer this big question, here are ten little ones you'll want to ask first.
Does it have my academic program?
Not only should it have your intended major, but also other academic fields that interest you in case you change your mind. Remember, it's much easier to change your major than to transfer to a new school.
What's campus life like?
Look at the range of campus clubs, groups, and activities available. Read the college's Facebook page to see what's going on. Can you do the things you like to do? Any new experiences you want to try?
How far do I want to go?
Some students want to experience entirely new terrain, and some like to have a short drive to their parents' house for the weekend.
Can I afford it?
This is about more than the cost of tuition; it's figuring out a total financial aid solution. Scholarships, grants, and loans can significantly reduce the amount your family will pay.
Are athletics important?
Whether you want to play or just cheer from the sidelines, sports might be a big part of your college experience. Or not. The size of the school may be a big factor here.
How are the campus facilities?
Look at the library, the science labs, the residence halls, the fitness facility, and any other campus building you'll spend time in. The quality of these facilities will tell you a lot about the experience you'll have.
Is it the right size?
There are lots of reasons to select a big school. There are just as many reasons to attend a small one. Medium-ish, too. Be sure to try them all on for size.
Does it have a good mix of students?
When you visit a campus, you may see students who are just like you. You'll also see students who are nothing like you. Some of both is usually best, so find the mix that feels right.
Will I be challenged?
Ask if this is a place where you'll be pushed to grow and learn. Also determine if you'll be able to handle the work. Find out what level of academic rigor seems best for you.
Does it feel right?
When you make your final decision, it often comes down to your gut. Maybe it's the helpful professor or student you met—relationships you develop will be a core part of your college experience. Maybe it was the amazing research lab or art studio you visited. Sometimes you can't put your finger on it — maybe you just knew this college was right for you the minute you stepped on campus.
Of all the things to consider in your college search, there is one important factor that is a fundamental part of every college education. Namely, the education. Gauge how the schools you're considering stack up academically by asking these ten questions.
What kinds of students are typically admitted?
Look at the average test scores and high school GPAs of admitted students. Higher scores equal greater selectivity, which means increased academic rigor. Make sure this equation works in your favor.
What special academic opportunities are available?
See if student research, honors courses, or other specialized programs are available to undergraduate students. Your very first groundbreaking research project? Finding out if research opportunities exist.
How career-focused are the academic programs?
Check out how the coursework in your major syncs up with your career. If you need special certification (for a career like teaching), make sure you'll be able to get it.
How much emphasis is placed on essential professional skills?
Effective writing and problem-solving abilities will be valuable in any career. Although you'll concentrate on your major, these vital skills should be an equally important focus.
What are the qualifications of the faculty?
And what priority do they place on teaching undergrads? Research your potential professors, and be sure that the most qualified aren't only instructing at the graduate level.
How much out-of-class interaction is there between faculty and students?
Ask current students, or check individual faculty Web pages to see policies on office hours. Make sure your professors are just as invested in your education as you are.
Will you have access to career planning?
Determine whether the college has a dedicated career planning office. A top-notch academic program is much more rewarding if you can use it to get a job afterward.
What internship opportunities are available?
Many colleges have relationships with certain businesses or a deep reach into a particular industry. Maybe you'll find your dream job before you even leave campus.
What off-campus learning experiences are offered?
Want to travel the country or the world to dig deeper into your studies? For many students, the best thing about a college campus is leaving it every once in a while.
What successes have previous alumni had?
Find out where a college's graduates have earned advanced degrees and what they have accomplished in their careers.