The college search is a daunting process. It can feel like looking for buried treasure without a treasure map. Sure, you can scan U.S. News and World Report’s Top 50 Schools, or spend hours scrolling through College Confidential conversations, but are those really the best ways to determine which college is right for you? Here are 8 things I wish I’d done during my college search to help answer that question for myself.
1. Talk to students
As informative and overflowing with statistical descriptors as a college webpage may be, it will never fully convey the experience of being a student at that school. Current undergraduates may be the most valuable resources for prospective applicants because they are the best window into what everyday life is like at a particular school.
Though academics and extracurriculars are obviously essential considerations, it’s equally essential to consider what your day-to-day life will be like. After all, you’re not just choosing a pre-professional program. You’re choosing the place you will live for the next four years of your life.
2. Go on an overnight
Getting the opinions of other students is great, but most likely those students are exactly like you. How can you learn how you would feel at School X versus School Y? Many schools offer an overnight program. You submit your name and the school pairs you with a current student. Once on campus, you live in that student’s dorm, attend classes, and have some time to yourself to walk around campus.
Though obviously one night should not determine your college choice, it can be a great way to get a sense for the culture of a school and whether you can feel at home on its campus.
3. Learn about specific departments and possible majors
Even if you don’t know for sure what you’re going to study, it’s never a bad idea to learn about the unique opportunities that each school has to offer. For instance, some schools offer special interdisciplinary programs of study that may pertain more directly to your interests than any one classical major would have. Or if you know you want to study, say, Spanish, then take the time to look into what makes one school’s Spanish department special.
4. Investigate professors’ research
Another way to learn how a school’s academic opportunities align with your interests is to learn about what professors are researching. This is part of the college search process that often gets overlooked, but could be immensely helpful both in selecting an institute of higher education, and also in gaining experience that lead to jobs or graduate school later on.
Many colleges encourage undergraduates to get involved with research early on. If you find a professor at a specific school who is conducting research that excites you, it would be well worth your while to reach out to that professor and ask about their work. At the very least it never hurts to have more contacts with faculty at your dream school.
5. Find clubs/organizations you like
Getting involved in campus organizations is a great way to meet people with similar interests. Every school offers something different, and the same clubs at different schools might have totally different cultures or group dynamics. Take the time to research what organizations exist at each school, and if you get the opportunity, try to get first-hand details on what it’s really like to be in that organization.
A particularly important example is that of Greek Life. At certain schools, the presence of Greek Life may impact campus culture even in non-Greek settings. Determining ahead of time which groups and which group environments may be of interest to you will be invaluable once you actually arrive on campus.
6. Use binoculars
Sure the big universities are hard to miss, as are the schools with big names or big sports teams. But don’t forget about the little guys! When it comes to choosing a college, don’t let yourself get swept along with the masses. There’s a school out there that’s right for you–it just might not be the same one that’s on the top of your friends’ lists. Keep your eyes wide open and try not to overlook any possibility.
7. Pay attention to food/AC/living conditions
To reiterate: academics are important. Social culture and extracurriculars are also essential to keep in mind. But again, you aren’t just choosing a place to study, or even a community with which to surround yourself. The physical space in which you reside can have a profound impact on your mood and your overall outlook on life.
Is the average temperature of the school somewhere between hot and scorching? Then it would probably be a good idea to check if that school has effective air conditioning. Do you have very strict dietary needs or preferences? Look into on-campus dining options to make sure they’ll satisfy your gastrointestinal desires. For every college on your list, try to picture yourself on its campus. Envision each day from your perspective. Then ask yourself: where would I be happy?
8. Find opportunities for funding
In addition to national and local scholarships, many schools offer merit or need-based scholarships to its incoming students. I’m sure you’ve been told already to check financial aid statistics and to apply to as many scholarships as possible. Beyond scholarships, however, certain schools continue to offer generous funding possibilities to current undergraduate students.
For example, some schools offer relatively lucrative grants for student artists to pursue a specific artistic endeavor. Other schools will host frequent contests or hackathons with monetary incentives. Don’t overlook these ongoing opportunities to make back some money while in school.
Though it may not be a treasure map, hopefully this list points you a little bit closer to your dream school.