The right college for you

The right college for you

Don Rauf

When it comes to choosing a college, it’s all about you. Finding a school that fits who you are and what you want to get out of your education takes a little introspection–and a lot of research.

“It’s important to look at your personal priorities,” says Kelly Y. Tanabe, coauthor of Get Into Any College (Supercollege, 2006). “Develop your own personal college rankings. Don’t just rely on what the magazines or your parents or friends say–take a good hard look at yourself.”

Your priorities might lead you to a leafy green campus with professors who know students on a personal basis–or a fast-paced urban setting with a constantly changing sea of faces and a wide range of activities. Whatever your preferences, they’ll set the starting point in your search for the right college.

To help define your priorities, answer the following questions:

* What Really Interests Me?

Jamie Heisler, who graduated last year from William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri, had been singing, dancing, and acting since she was four years old. So when she looked at colleges, her preference was a school with a strong theater program.

“There are lots of schools with good theater departments,” says Heisler, “and some of them, like NYU, are very prestigious. But the important thing to me was to get stage experience right off the bat.”

So she researched schools near and far from her home in Portland, Oregon, and finally chose William Woods, where she landed a lead role her very first semester.

“Your major should be a primary factor in choosing a college,” says Carol Descak, director of admissions at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. “Talk to faculty, current students, and alumni. Ask what makes the program at one college different from or better than the same program at another school.”

Descak also recommends that students ask about special opportunities for research, internships, and mentoring. Be sure to observe the campus facilities–are the labs, art studios, and other resources up to date and fully equipped?

Don’t forget to consider extracurricular activities–after all, college life is about more than just hitting the books! Evan Coughenour, from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, was involved in lots of activities when he was in high school, from track and lacrosse to the jazz combo. His diverse interests were a major consideration when he chose Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was a member of the Whiffenpoofs, the school’s well-known a capella singing group.

* What is Realistic for Me?

Be realistic about your academic abilities and look for a school that matches them. Before you invest time and money in applying to a school, find out the average GPA and test scores for freshmen, and the percentage of applicants who are accepted. Apply to schools that best fit your academic profile.

“Given the increase in the number of students applying to four-year schools,” says Keith Gramling, director of admissions at Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana, “many universities haven’t increased the size of their freshman class [and they have grown even more selective]. See if you are a likely fit for that academic community.”

* How independent Am I?

Some students thrive in environments where they can call the shots. Others prefer to have a little handholding, at least during the first year. “If you’re not sure which category you fit into, ask yourself, ‘Do I take the initiative to deal with teachers and administrators?'” advises Kelly Tanabe. Also, talk to current college students about the campus style–are there lists of rules and regulations to follow, or are things more laid back?

Also, think carefully about how far you’re willing to stray from family and friends and how visits back home will affect your finances.

Remember that applying to a school that’s farther away from home may actually increase your chances of acceptance. “Geographic diversity is a prized commodity for a college community,” says Michael Maxey, dean of admissions and financial aid at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, “so a student coming from an underrepresented area can be a positive [factor] in the admission process.”

* How Will College Compare to High School?

Think about your high school: Are you bored attending a tiny school with kids you’ve known since kindergarten, or do you find it comforting? Do you love your big, noisy suburban high school, or does it make you feel overwhelmed?

“I went to the second-largest high school in Oregon,” says Jamie Heisler. “I knew that when I went to college I wanted something different. I wanted to push myself and grow as a person.” Part of the reason Jamie chose William Woods was because with only about 600 students, the school boasted small classes, involved faculty members, and a strong sense of community.

Your high school experience can also tell you something about your learning style. When Rachel Emery attended Annville-Cleona High School in Annville, Pennsylvania, she asked questions incessantly (which sometimes got on her teachers’ nerves!). “The best way for me to learn is through interaction,” Rachel explains. At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she found an environment that fostered her learning style with small, discussion-based classes and involved professors.

On the other hand, some students prefer big lecture halls where they can soak up the basics and then go to study on their own. To find the college that matches your learning style, ask about average class sizes–especially in the subjects you’re most interested in. Find out as much as you can about how classes are structured: is there opportunity for interaction and discussion, or are most courses taught through lectures?

* Am I Serious About Athletics?

Athletics can add a whole new dimension to your college search as you realistically consider your abilities and decide which schools will be likely to give you a team jersey. Talk to the coaches at your high school and at the colleges you’re interested in and ask them to assess your chances at making the team.

“If you’re a student athlete,” says Mike Frantz, dean of enrollment at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, “be honest with yourself and expect the same level of honesty from your potential coach. Discuss what skills you have and what you will need to improve to become an impact player.”

For more information, visit the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s website: www.ncaa.org.

Weighing Your Options

Once you’ve determined what’s important to you, it’s time to look at the colleges that fit those priorities. Here are some factors to consider:

Public or Private? Public or state schools usually charge less for tuition than private schools, especially for residents. But private colleges often offer more financial aid, which may offset the difference in cost. And while state universities have a reputation for large class sizes, don’t base your decision on this generalization: Many public schools offer the same personal, student-centered environment typical of smaller private colleges.

Large or Small? Large schools offer a wide variety of courses and majors, but the bureaucracy can be daunting, and professors may be less accessible. Small schools generally offer a low student-teacher ratio and plenty of interaction with faculty, but course offerings and activities may be more limited.

Urban, Rural, or Suburban? In a big city, you’ll discover a plethora of exciting activities that can enrich your college experience, from concerts and art exhibits to shopping and club hopping. However, if you’re an outdoors type who enjoys hiking, or a nature lover who prefers starry skies to city lights, you might be happier at a more rural school. Looking for the best of both worlds? Consider a suburban school with a leafy campus and easy access to the city.

Consider Other Options

Perhaps a four-year school simply isn’t right for you at this point in your life. For a look at alternatives to a four-year college, turn to page 32. And always keep an open mind about your choices–that will lead you to the education that is best for you.

COPYRIGHT 2006 360 Youth LLC, DBA Alloy Education

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group