Where will I go to
college? That's the question on the minds of many high school
students. Typically, students are wondering what big-name
college will accept them. Comparatively few students, however,
ask the question from the opposite point of view: is the
college of my dreams a good place to invest four years of my
life and thousands of dollars?
No matter how
famous the name, after all, a college or university is a
business, and you should ask hard questions about whether its
particular product is right for you. "You can get a good
education at virtually any college," says Illinois educational
consultant Jim Bixby, "to the extent that you walk onto campus
expecting the best they have to offer." Going to a famous
school, Bixby says, "doesn't assure you a Rolls Royce and a
house with an ocean view." Don't pick a school on a name alone
- be very sure of your reasons for wanting to attend any
institution, famous or not. The substantial differences
between colleges, Bixby and other experts say, lie in the many
other factors that can make a school a good fit for one person
and a poor match for another.
Asking the right questions
How can you decide which school fits you best? Begin by
finding the answers to some tough questions. It's important to
remember that there are no "right" answers to these questions
- only answers that can help you decide where you'll make your
Do you want to be close to
home or far away? Many
students and their parents feel more comfortable with
schools that are no more than two or three hours from home.
You could be one of them, or you might want to explore more
of the country or world.
Do you prefer big or small? Students
from large urban high schools may feel hemmed in by a small
college. On the other hand, some may want a smaller, more
personal experience. Graduates of small high schools might
want to continue being big fish in small ponds, or could
feel ready for the bustle of a large university. Do you
recognize yourself in either camp?
What are your chances for
getting financial aid and what's the average financial aid
rates keep going up, but "a school should not be eliminated
because it has a very high tuition, according to
Philadelphia-based educational consultant Wendy H. Robbins.
Instead, Robbins says, aggressively seek scholarships, and
remember that many schools offer terrific financial aid
packages. Get enough financial aid, and a more expensive
school could cost you less in the end than its moderately
What study options does the
school offer? Of
course you want a college or university that has strong
programs in your interests - but leave room for your
passions to change. A new major shouldn't force you to
change schools, too.
Does your choice include
foreign study programs? Many
colleges and universities have overseas programs, but some
emphasize that opportunity, even offering students their own
overseas campus. Ask if financial aid is available to help
cover foreign study.
What is your personal impression about the school? Read its
website and any materials the school sends, but remember that
"no college is going to make a video or CD-ROM to discourage
you," Bixby says. Visit the colleges and universities that
interest you "early and often," says Robbins. "I'll go
after I'm accepted is
the wrong approach." While there:
Have conversations with
just talk to the tour guide - it's his or her job to promote
the school. Seek out other students and ask them what they
like and don't like about the school.
Attend a sample class. Whether
it's taught by a professor or a teaching assistant, the
quality should be high and the atmosphere welcoming.
Read the campus newspaper. Read
to learn more about campus politics and activities. "You may
discover that the student view is different from what the
admissions office is putting out," Robbins says.
Is the climate to your
you're from a warm climate and are considering a school in a
cold one, visit in February to make sure you can deal with
the winter weather.
Are the buildings in good
good college spends most of its money on classrooms,
professors and a library, but even so, Robbins says,
buildings "shouldn't look shabby. There should be enough
money for maintenance." A read through the Chronicle
of High Education, which is available in most libraries,
can also tell you whether a school is having financial
Use this chance to (gently)
get away from your parents.Your folks want to explore
the place, too, but if you enroll you'll be there on your
own. "Send them for a cup of coffee or to check out the
bookstore," Robin says. You could also arrange to stay
overnight on your own with host students - if the college
offers that possibility - to get a better sense of daily