How to Choose a College


Choosing a college: Part Science, Part Art


  • Consider all the factors of the college in your decision—including how it “feels”.
  • Don’t rule out any colleges or factors until you’ve really explored them as an option. Students often change their mind about what they think they want in a college.
  • Find information about programs and majors, make sure they offer the kinds of opportunities that you’re interested in, even if it’s just a general area of study. But, choosing the “right” school for you is also very much an art. I often see students who search the Internet and find a place that, by all counts, seems to be the perfect fit only to find that they just aren’t really jazzed by it once they get to campus. Similarly, a student will visit a place about which they were lukewarm in their initial research only to fall in love with it once they visit.

Ethnic cuisines and the importance of keeping an open mind when choosing a college

I think it’s kind of funny that we ask 16- and 17-year old’s what kind of characteristics they want in a college when they’ve had, at best, limited exposure or experience with many of these variables to be able to respond in any kind of educated way.

Students in the best position to find colleges that fit them well are those who have had the opportunity to experience what they like and what they don’t—firsthand.

I’ve worked with students who really believe they want a characteristic in a school, only to change their minds once they’ve experienced it.

The best college search might just have no real, definitive beginning. You won’t announce that today is the day you will begin to define their future, instead, you’ll tacitly pop onto a college campus on the way to your grandparent’s house simply because you’re nearby. If you enjoy soccer, why not take in a game to get a flavor of a given campus. Take advantage of concerts or art exhibits in your hometown and as you travel. You will learn about what you like and what you don’t, and for some underachievers, this very exercise may well excite you about college and motivate you to work hard.

Other Ways to help determine if the shoe fits

So, you want to be an English Major (you could easily replace that with the major of your choice). There are more than 300 four-year colleges with a large English program, so how do you possibly know which one to pick? After isolating your geographic region of choice, size, and selectivity, you may still find the list is longer than you can manage, and you can now look at some nitty gritty to help you determine which places are best suited for you.

It’s here that you will want to begin looking at the personality of the college. Is the campus very conservative and you consider yourself liberal? Is the percentage of students belonging to fraternities and sororities a number that excites you or scares you?

Comb through the school’s website, but also remember that the world of college admissions is a business, and carefully crafting the message that you read is an important element in that business. It’s important to look beyond that finely-honed admissions message by looking at some “unofficial” information like the college newspaper. This will give you a real look into life on a given campus, good, bad, and ugly.

Remember to carefully evaluate all the information you get and consider its source. Remember too that no place is perfect, so don’t be afraid to look for a school’s shortcomings to ensure that you can live with them.

I always ask current students at a college, “If you could change one thing about this school, what would you change?” If they tell you it’s the quality of the ground beef, that’s one thing, but if they tell you that they can’t get into the classes they need, won’t graduate on time, or find it difficult gaining access to their professors, you might feel differently.

How NOT to choose a college?

Key things to consider

  • Ask current students about the shortcomings of the college. Every school will have strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you can live with the worst weaknesses at any college you’re considering.
  • Don’t jump at the first big-name college you can find. Consider how important a college’s prestige might be in relation to other factors that are also important.
  • Rankings can help you compare colleges but be careful not to let them make your decision for you.
  • Use statistics like retention rate and graduation rate to determine if students generally stay at the college and ultimately graduate.
  • Don’t wait to reach out to a college if you’re interested. Not only can you get more information from campus staff but demonstrating interest may affect your admissions chances.

Did you know that only about 10% of Fortune 500 CEO’s received undergraduate degrees from Ivy League schools? Did you know that the Ivy League was nothing more than a college of football teams at its inception? U.S. President Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College (IL) and President Chester Arthur graduated from Union College (NY). Famous Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas attended Modesto Junior College (CA), Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau went to Yale, while late night talk show host Jay Leno attended Emerson College (MA).

Hopefully you understand that the point I’m trying to make is that the name on your college diploma is not what defines your lifetime success. In fact, in his book, Harvard Schmarvard, Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews refers to a study that succinctly makes this very point. The study examined two groups of college-educated workers. The first group graduated from an Ivy League university while the other group was accepted to an Ivy League school but opted to attend a non-Ivy alternative. The study determined that the first group did NOT make more in lifetime earnings than did their non-Ivy League graduate counterparts. The hypothesis is that it is the characteristics of the person who was accepted to these colleges that determines their success and not the name of the school on the diploma.

High school students and often the high schools themselves prize the prestige associated with admission to highly selective colleges and universities.

In one high school, students announced the schools to which they’d been accepted in homeroom, and the volume of the applause was directly correlated to the perceived prestige of the college.

Think about how demoralizing this is for the student who is going to a less selective college or a learning-disabled student who has worked his/her tail off to gain admission to college, regardless of the reputation of the school.

While elite colleges may offer a lot in terms of their programs, rigor or opportunity, they certainly aren’t the only colleges that can offer students a world-class education and a whole host of on- and off-campus opportunities. It is important that you make decisions for the right reasons, and perceived prestige is NOT the only thing that matters.

There is a moment when you can relish the joy that comes from being able to tell your family and friends that you were admitted to a highly selective college. After that, however, what really matters is your personal happiness. Don’t pursue the most selective colleges just for the name or the prestige that you think will come from attendance.

You will spend an awful lot of time and money at this place, make sure you will like it and benefit from it.

Use college rankings—but carefully!

What makes one college better than another? Is UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) better than UNC (University of North Carolina)? Is Colgate University any better or worse than Rice University? College Raptor is obviously not the only place to find rankings of colleges. This in and of itself—that many different sources may provide different rankings—is a telling consideration. Each site or publication likely uses their own combination of factors, with different weight placed on each one, to come up with their own rankings.

Rankings can certainly be valuable in understanding how a colleges and universities stack up against each other. But even metrics that seem straightforward—like ACT/SAT scores—may not be quite as telling as they seem.

Rankings are not evil because they can be manipulated. Rankings do a disservice to brand conscious teens who are giving credence to schools based on someone else’s priorities. A school may employ multiple Nobel prize winners, but that’s not enough. You want to make sure they teach classes for undergrads, otherwise the simple fact that they receive a paycheck from a given institution means little to you. College counselors work tirelessly to find colleges that are a good academic and interpersonal “fit” for students, yet the rankings put disproportionate wait on reputation, something so subjective, it defies precise definition.

Colleges have different strengths for different student populations. Some schools have produced a disproportionate number of authors, other engineers, and still other artists or actors. The best school is one that gives you the forum to stretch your comfort zone intellectually and socially. It will challenge your thoughts and introduce you to new ways of thinking. It will prepare you to make your mark on the world. To make this determination does not mean to put like colleges on a level playing field, it means to look at them individually and to look at the quality of the output and the resources they put into getting you there.

We cannot all use a similar ranking system because we do not have a similar set of priorities. For some students, a politically active environment is key. Others may want a Holocaust teaching and research center while still another may want Division III intercollegiate water polo. I’ve had many students who place a high priority on the “feel” and “warmth” of a campus while still others want the spirited environment of a large sports powerhouse. Your priorities are not right or wrong. Your challenge is to know what you want (or some of it, anyway), and to proudly pursue it. Be proud of who you are and what you have the potential to become. Find the place that you believe will best let you do this and enjoy it.

Meaningful ways to help evaluate colleges: Numbers that tell stories

College admissions professionals are often adept at showing you the human and personal side of a school, no matter how big or small. They can give you example after example of the personal interaction between student and professor that lead to research opportunities, internships, mentoring or friendships. Schools want you to know that you are part of a community–not just a number–and that is extremely important.

Numbers, however, do have a place in the college selection process because they can reveal information that tells a story about the school.

Not all numbers, however, are created equal.

Some numbers aren’t really all that important. The number of volumes housed in the library used to be a bragging point, but thanks to the Internet and intra-library loan, this number is not significant in determining the quality of the education offered by a college. Some numbers are nice but not vital.

Still other numbers can be deceiving. For example, many prospective students will often ask for the student-to-teacher ratio. While this number may make the environment sound intimate and personal, it simply gives you the number of students per faculty member.

Does that include teachers on sabbatical or those who do not teach lower level coursework? You want to know how many people will be in class with you, so average class size is a much more meaningful number.

There are still other numbers that will give you a very clear picture of what a school does well (or not), and I highly recommend that you seek out these numbers. The two big numbers that I always ask are retention rate and graduation rate.

The retention rate is the number of first year students who come back for their second year. This number will never be 100% because students and families may encounter circumstances (personal, financial, academic) that prevent them from continuing, but a high retention rate is the sign of a school that does its job well and whose students are happy.

In 2007, the average retention rate for all four-year colleges and universities was 75% according to the NCES. If you visit a college whose retention rate is in the 80th or 90th percentile, it’s likely that these students are very happy with their decision to enroll and are likely to persist to the next year. This statistic alone should certainly not be a sole factor in deciding, but it is an excellent measure to include in your decision-making process.

Graduation rate is the other variable that is important for you, the good consumer, to know. We tend to care a lot about who a school lets in, but we should really care as much, if not more, about who gets out. Schools are required to report graduation rates to the federal government as a six-year graduation rate; that is, the number of students who graduate within six years. Nationally, the average is 56%.

If I were to invest my time and money in getting a college degree, I think I would want a place with better odds but continue to bear in mind that no place will be 100%. SUNY Binghamton, for example, has a retention rate of 90% and a 6-year graduation rate of 78%, both significantly above the national average. University of Connecticut has a 93% retention rate and a 76% graduation rate. University of Southern Mississippi has a 72% retention rate and a 43% graduation rate. These schools may have factors that influence their retention and graduation rates (like the affluence of their student body), but the stats do tell you something.

Judging schools: Look beneath the surface

Society often prizes delivering life in bite size morsels. Twitter, Facebook and text message updates are all fractions of thoughts which, communicated effectively, can give us a sense of a greater thought or idea. High school students often try to categorize prospective colleges into these same info-bits: nerdy, preppy, middle of nowhere, small, etc., and while it has been said that stereotypes are often rooted in the truth, they can be short-sighted and can leave us seeing only half of a story.

Let’s take the University of Maryland, a large state school with over 25,000 undergraduates on their flagship (main) campus. Sound like a daunting number, so you cross it off your list. Well, U of Md certainly isn’t right for everyone, but before you toss it by the wayside, consider this: beyond the introductory level, class size is very manageable. The school’s various honors programs subdivide the larger student population into smaller, cohesive communities. Dorms and clubs further dissect the originally amorphous sounding number into manageable groups. Many big schools will tout the fact that they have the resources of a big school with the feel of a small school, and U of Maryland has gone to great lengths to ensure that you feel like much more than just a number.

Similarly, schools that have a student body barely larger than your high school will have some of the same advantages and opportunities as a larger university, so don’t judge the proverbial book by its cover, instead, read the pages within.

Don’t lurk: Using the internet in your college search

Thanks to the electronic superhighway, you could conduct an entire college search from the confines of your home. College websites, virtual campus tours, school sponsored blogs and chats, and online college newspapers allow you to collect a tremendous amount of information without a school ever knowing who you are or that you exist. But, simply lurking on the internet can be the wrong approach when it comes time to make your decision.

Often influenced by college rankings, colleges seek to fill their first-year class by being as competitive or selective as possible (this is their “admit rate”, which they want to be as low as possible), but they want the number of students who choose to enroll to be as high as possible (this is their “yield rate”). Statistically speaking, these colleges know that your odds of enrolling are better if you have shown some demonstrated interest in them by registering as a prospective student on the school’s website, visiting with an the admissions representative that comes to your high school, attending an open house or the like. Many schools will keep track of these meaningful interactions and take this into account when determining how sincere your interest in them really is. At schools that need ways to delineate between similar students, your demonstrated interest could potentially push you off the bubble and into the acceptance pool.

So, bottom line, do your homework using all the tools available to you (including the internet), but don’t just lurk. Let schools know you exist and that you’re interested in them!

The story told by the campus newspaper

When you visit colleges, you hear the finely-honed messages carefully crafted by college admissions offices that intend to appeal to teens and parents. Tour guides, often the cream of the school’s crop, are instructed to be honest, but they’re often the students who are genuinely happy with their school and adept at expressing their enthusiasm.

So, how do you get the real view of what goes on at a school? No college is perfect, but in a visit that often only lasts a few hours, it can be hard to get the whole picture. You’re going to spend a lot of time and money at whatever school you choose, so it’s important to get all the information you can.

The campus newspaper can provide a great window into the real life on campus…the good, the bad and the ugly. Campus newspapers are (largely) uncensored by the administration because free speech and the first amendment are priorities for faculty and students alike. Some examples of how the campus newspaper can give you the real scoop:

One college, trying hard to shake its image as a party school, sported a large article in the student newspaper entitled, “Best Places to Buy Booze Part 2”. It took two parts. What might that say about life on campus?

Yet another newspaper had a large article on a series of break-ins and burglaries, while students at an urban campus worked to make the campus bicycle friendly. You can also find out how tight budgets are affecting how schools do business.

You can’t just read a negative or controversial article and eliminate a school from consideration. Every school will have its issues and its controversies. Keep these in mind and keep them in perspective. Are these issues important to you? Do they even matter? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps you should continue to follow them, but whatever the case may be, they are a source of information and with more information, you become a better consumer.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FREE eBook“Finding the Right College” Academically, Financially, & Socially