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Work & School College Bound: starting the search and finding your fit

Sep. 17, 2018
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College Bound is an ongoing series focusing on demystifying the college application process. This column will discuss how to search for colleges, what to include on your application, and how to apply for financial aid. Above all, we want to emphasize finding a school that works for you. 

As a current high school senior, I’m also going through this process! Some installments in this column will include peeks into my own experiences, so you can follow right along with me as I apply to college.

College. The mere word alone is enough to send even the calmest of students into a panic, and for good reason. The idea of having to decide where to live for the next few years of your life, the thought of choosing an academic subject to which those years will be devoted—it can all seem too daunting at times.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be so scary. 

In this guide, we’ll be walking you through the process of finding a fitting college. But we’ll be de-emphasizing all of the things that other people love to build up (Prestige! Rankings! Acceptance rates!) and focusing more on viewing this process as a journey of self-discovery. You’re exploring your unique interests, talents, and ambitions, and such a beautiful thing cannot—and should not!—be easily reduced to a singular number.

So, before we dive in, a few reminders:

Admissions can be unpredictable. If you look at a college’s profile of admitted students, you’ll see a smattering of scores, GPAs, and other data. This can be off-putting. But remember that there will always be students below this data who were accepted, and there will always be students above this data who were rejected. Which brings me to my next point...

You are not defined by numbers. Almost every college practices holistic admissions, meaning your test scores and GPA will never be the only thing considered. While test scores and GPAs are very important, your abilities, extracurricular activities, and essays all carry weight as well, and these things paint a much clearer picture of the type of person you are than a single test score ever could. 

You are not defined by where you go to college. If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you care about where you’re going—but don’t let yourself get so caught up in the application process that you lose sight of what’s important. This is not a competition to attend the highest-ranked school. The prestige or ‘brand name’ of a school most certainly does not define you, and it should not be the central focus of your search. Remember that college is only four years of your long life.

Don’t compare yourself too much to others. Avoid comparing your test scores or activities to those of others. Everyone’s story and path in life is completely different! You are moving at your own pace, and it is more than good enough. 

You will end up where you belong. Applying to college can be a bit of a crapshoot! But, somehow, after applications have been submitted and decisions have all come back, you will find, and attend, the place that you were meant to be.  

Without further ado, here is Adolescent’s guide to finding colleges that fit you.

Decide which characteristics of a school are most important to you, then use these factors to refine your search.

Example factors to consider, along with questions to ask about each one:

  1. Academic offerings. Does this school offer majors in my area of interest? Are there several colleges within this university, each specializing in a different thing? If I have multiple interests, does this school have an opportunity to double major—even across disciplinary departments? (For example, could I be a journalism major and a biology major, even if one was in the Communications college and the other was in the Arts & Sciences college?) What degree of academic freedom do I have? Is there an ‘open’ curriculum, with few general requirements and an emphasis on freedom, or is there a strong ‘core’ curriculum, designed to create well-roundedness by exposing you to several areas?
  2. Unique opportunities. If I’m interested in research, does this school offer opportunities to get involved, even as an undergraduate? Does this school boast a particularly strong extracurricular activity, like a campus radio station or newspaper? 
  3. Internship availability and successful employment/placement rate. Does this school offer strong career resources, such as counseling and advising to get me where I want to be? Does this school boast connections with nearby companies that could serve as potential internship sites? What are some of the places at which recent graduates have worked? What is the percentage of students who, upon graduation, had job offers, were immediately employed, or were in graduate school?
  4. Size of school. What size of school can I see myself at? Do I want to go to a small school with under 2,000 students, where I’ll get to know everyone’s name in an intimate environment? Or do I want to go to a large school of over 20,000 students, where I’ll constantly be experiencing something new? Maybe I’d prefer a mid-size school of 3,000 to 10,000 students, where I can experience both.
  5. Type of campus and location. Do I want a traditional college campus, with beautiful Gothic architecture and rolling green lawns, or am I better suited to the center-of-the-city lifestyle, with a less-defined campus and more buildings spread out across a major metropolitan area? Do I want to be in a rural area, a suburb near a large city, or in the heart of the city itself?
  6. Diversity and inclusion/culture of the campus. Would I like to attend a school with strong representation in a particular minority group? In general, what is the makeup of the student body in terms of racial, gender, socioeconomic, and sexual diversity? 
  7. Social scene. Do I want a school where a large percentage of students are involved in Greek life, or would I prefer not to join a sorority or fraternity? If there is Greek life, how big is its influence on the social scene? Do athletics play a large role on campus, with weekends revolving around games and tailgate parties, or do parties tend to be smaller and uninfluenced by sports? What’s the drug-and-alcohol policy? Do students stay on campus or gravitate towards the surrounding nightlife? 
  8. Financial aid. How much does this school cost, and what are the options for reducing that cost? Does this school offer merit scholarships, rewarding me for my academic performance? In past years, how much money has this school dedicated to supporting students with financial need? What is the average aid package here? Does this school have a special policy pledging that all students with a household income under a certain number may attend for free or at a reduced cost?
  9. Acceptance. How selective is this school? Although we emphasize not letting scores and grades control your search, what is the average academic profile of an accepted student here? Am I realistically close to that average? (We’d like to reiterate that, again, while you should be realistic in your search, remember that there are always students atypical of the admitted student profile who are accepted, and you shouldn’t give up hope on a school you truly love just because you don’t ‘match’ a statistic.)

There are a wealth of websites that will provide you with a customized list of colleges that you may like, based on your preferences and answers to these kinds of questions. 

BigFuture allows you to enter a preferred location, type of campus, majors of interest, and tuition limit in order to guide you towards schools that you may like.

CollegeView offers a more advanced search, with options to filter by political preferences on campus, availability of disability services, level of support towards LGBTQ+ students, and degree of the party scene, among other factors.

Finally, although we advise you to avoid getting caught up in rankings, we do encourage you to use the Princeton Review’s non-academic rankings. These include rankings of schools with the most interaction between socioeconomic classes, schools the with most active student governments, and even schools with the least or most religious students.

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The next installment in this column will focus on how to narrow down your list, how to begin applying using the Common Application or direct-to-institution applications, and how to weigh the pros and cons of different decision types.