Start by asking yourself the following questions. Don’t worry if you are uncertain about your answers. You must start somewhere and you will get clearer about your likes and dislikes as you go along.
• What size school appeals to you? Do you want to attend a large school whose freshman classes could have hundreds of students? Are you willing and able to compete for attention in this type of environment? Or do you prefer a smaller school, where you can have lots of interaction with professors and actively participate in class discussions? Think about how you have been successful learning in the past. Your best learning style is not likely to change, and it would be unwise to challenge it during your first year in college—especially when so many other things are changing for you.
• Where do you want to live for the next four years? Do you prefer sticking close to your home state or do you want to explore somewhere different? Do you like big cities, towns or country settings?
• How do you feel about a change in weather? Are you willing to exchange the temperate climate in California for the variety of four different seasons with snow every winter? Would this change be fun or present a hardship?
• What kind of campus environment suits you best? Do you thrive on pressure? What type of intellectual atmosphere do you enjoy—highly competitive, or more laid back? What ratio of college work to free time appeals to you? What about diversity along gender, ethnic, racial and geographic lines? How important is the political leaning on campus and the surrounding community? How do you want to spend your weekends? Do you want to join a fraternity or sorority? Do you want guaranteed campus housing, at least for the first year?
• What are your academic interests? Do you want to attend a smaller to midsize liberal arts and sciences college or a larger research university? Do you know the difference? Are your interests considered applied, for example, architecture or nursing? Or perhaps you are interested in attending a specialty college to study the fine arts or music. Whatever you may want to study, you want to be certain the schools you apply to are well-regarded in the areas that draw your interest.
Now take what you’ve learned and move to the next level. Here’s how:
• Tell your parents and teachers and others who know you well about what you’ve learned and ask them for their ideas. Head over to your school’s counseling office and ask your counselor to combine his or her knowledge about colleges with your academic record and the factors you have identified to help generate a list to get you started. Many high schools now have a program called Naviance that keeps data on colleges students in prior graduating classes have attended. Take a look at these data as well. Just remember not to hold any one source of information too dear. There are many exceptions and you are a unique person not a dot on a graph.
• Invest in a couple of good college resources and read up on schools you have identified. I recommend CollegeBoard’s very comprehensive 2013 College Handbook (for objective information, including financial) as well as the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2013. Fiske’s guidebook is updated and published each August, and gives informative profiles of several hundred fine colleges nationwide. Consider reviewing a copy of the Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, or other student impression guides; these offer anecdotal information and are best used as supplements.
• Do an on-line search. Try the CollegeBoard site (www.collegeboard.com) or the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator site(Web Link). These sites contain useful information about all aspects of college search and selection. Counselor’s Tip: In the beginning keep your search factors general or you will not get much of a list. Use visits to the actual college websites to streamline your search.
• Contact the undergraduate admissions office of each college you are interested in and request placement on the mailing list as well as their college guide and financial aid information. Counselor’s Tip: This step has the additional advantage of letting the colleges you contact know you are interested.
• Visit college websites and take an in-depth look at the academic offerings; do virtual tours to check out aspects of the college environment, but, remember, nothing beats an in-person tour.
• Meet with college representatives when they visit your high school. Check websites for colleges that sponsor regional events and attend those that interest you.
Your preliminary list could be as long as 20 or more schools. However, when you have completed your research, including strategically chosen college visits, you should be applying to about 8 – 10 institutions—each one a college that you would be happy to attend. A couple of these should be a bit of a stretch given your academic record, 3-4 should be good bets, and a couple should be colleges very likely to offer admission. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as the perfect college, but there are many colleges that are a good match for you.
Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an independent college advisor. Dr. LaScala draws on 23 years of experience in higher education to customize the college search, list and admissions processes for students and their families. Dr. LaScala can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (925) 891-4491. Or visit www.doingcollege.com.
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