There are around 5,000 colleges in the United States and hundreds of new schools open every year. How can you swim through such a vast sea of choices and land on the right college for you? Here are five simple strategies to navigate those waters.
Think Big. College will be more than just classes, dorms, and parties. A world of opportunities will open up the minute you set foot on campus. You could study abroad, try out professions through on-the-job courses, on-campus jobs, and internships, join teams and clubs for everything from soccer to pickle-making, and, most importantly, invent new groups, new activities, and even new courses of study if you have a mind to. Look for schools that offer innovative learning programs such as these alongside traditional classes to ensure that you get the most from your college experience.
Lists, Lists, Lists. The best way to know if you’ve found what you’re looking for is to define what you want. Make two lists: “Must Haves” and “Do Not Wants.” Never be afraid that you’re being too picky. There are so many options out there; you need a way to narrow them down. Picky is good!
Here are some questions to consider: Big school or small? Near home or far away? Big city or small town? Structured program or independent study?
In addition to the lists you make for yourself, you’ll see a lot of other lists out there. Some track academics, cost, and even which is the best party school. The best advice, however, will come from lists that look at the whole college experience and not just one isolated aspect. Colleges of Distinction is one such site that looks at the entire experience a school offers.
Don’t forget, though, the most important opinion about which college to choose is yours.
Make a Plan. Maybe you aced the SAT, rocked your GPA, and have a huge college trust fund. Lucky you! Even when luck is on your side, however, getting into and finishing college requires persistence and patience.
So stay determined! If necessary, you can start at one school and transfer later on. If you are low on funds, look for a lower-cost school that will allow you to go part-time while working and saving up. If your scores aren’t ideal, look for a school that’s easier to get into. Over 30 percent of college students transfer at some point, so you’re in good company.
The important thing is to have a plan in mind that will get you where you want to go in the end. In other words, finishing strong is a lot more important than starting out on top.
Ask Questions. The college system is big and confusing, for everyone. Don’t let the complexity get you down, though. The solution is to ask a million questions until you understand. And don’t worry—they’re used to answering them.
Go to the college’s website, find the department you’re looking for, and zap them an email. If even figuring out the website is a pain, do it the old-fashioned way: pick up the phone, dial the college’s main number, and bumble through your half-formed question to whoever picks up. The college operator has probably heard every question a million times before and will be able to route you to the right person in seconds.
Most importantly, though, do not be afraid to ask questions until you understand. Don’t worry. Even the professors and administrators have trouble understanding the system at times. Really.
You’ve Got This. Graduating from high school and the years afterward are a busy time. You might be juggling grades, a job, saving for college, and saying goodbye to your hometown. It’s a fun time, too, of course, with new freedom to stay out late, travel, and make your own choices. However, all that adds up to having a lot of other things to do besides deciding on a college, writing essays, and taking all the necessary steps on the road to becoming a college student.
So, just don’t forget: you don’t have to decide everything at once. Start early by gathering information from sites like Colleges of Distinction, building your lists of Must Haves and Do Not Wants, and making plans for how you will get in, pay for, and finish college. If you give yourself time to plan, you’ll have the luxury of blowing off college planning when you’re busy and then picking it up again later. After all, this is your plan, your life, and your adventure!
The most important quality you will need to make it through applying to college is persistence. The right college plan will eventually take shape the more you find out about colleges. By the time you know what you want, you’ll be ready to go for it and give it everything you’ve got.
*All statistics through the U.S. Department of Education.