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Tips & Info: How to Choose Colleges
 

Choosing where to go for your undergraduate, graduate, or professional education is one of the most important decisions you will make. Where you get your degree can have as much impact on your future options as the type of degree itself.

Although your choice of where to go to college may be limited by financial factors, your past academic record, geographic, or other considerations, it is most logical to aim for getting the best education possible within your means. Achieving this goal will require diligence and forethought. You need to study the schools and programs, figure out which ones you can possibly get into and afford, and then apply strategically to a range of institutions so as to maximize your options, allowing you to make the optimal final choice. Here are some suggestions about steps to take to guide you through this process.

SELF-ASSESSMENT The first step in deciding where to apply to college is to assess your self. What are your interests, strengths, and weaknesses as a candidate? Here are some practical measures you can take to help you gain perspective:

  • Think about what you want--and do not want--out of your college experience. Ask yourself the following questions. Some of the answers may be self-evident, some may take time to develop. It may help to clarify your thoughts by making lists of what you want and don't want and refining them over time. What sort of degree do you want? An associates or bachelors degree? Graduate or professional degree? Masters or Ph.D.? A combined degree?
  • What do you want to study? What subject(s) do you want to major in? Minor in? Study on the side?
  • What do you want to get out of your studies? Practical career training? A liberal arts education? An education in math and science? Professional training?
  • Do you want to start working right after college? Do you want to go to graduate or professional school?
  • Do you want to work in a highly competitive college setting?
  • Where do you want to live?
  • What experiences do you want to have outside the classroom?
  • Create a curriculum vitae, resume, or portfolio of your work. List your degrees, courses, grades, and dates of completion. Include information about any research, publications, conference papers, jobs held, etc. Also list any references you may have (see "Getting Good Recommendations" for more information).
  • Get copies of your transcripts and board exam scores. See if you can also get an official document confirming your current class ranking. (Not all institutions provide this information.)
  • If you are enrolled in high school or college, make an appointment with your guidance counselor or academic advisor to discuss your application plans and status. Ask them to evaluate your competitiveness as a candidate. Also, ask their opinion about where they think you might consider applying to school. Seek the same feedback from teachers or professors who know you well.
  • Evaluate your financial resources. List all existing and possible resources, including financial aid (loans, grants, scholarships, fellowships, tuition waivers, stipends, work study, etc).

STUDY THE SCHOOLS The next step is to gather information about many different schools and programs. Depending on your priorities, you might start your search geographically (looking at all schools in an area you want to live), by major (looking at schools which offer degree programs in a subject matter you want to study), by special programs (looking at schools which offer a special program of study which interests you), etc. There are many reference guides available which can help you to learn about colleges across the world. Consult comprehensive reference sources which cover a broad selection of schools. Many such reference sources are listed in our Bookstore.

Once you've acquired a feel for the range of choices, begin to look more closely at the schools which appeal to you the most. What information sources should you investigate?

  • Study college and degree program rankings. Learn where colleges and/or departments stand in the rankings as well as how likely you are to be admitted to them. Look at rankings of degree programs you're interested in as well as schools overall. Keep your eyes open for schools you hadn't noticed before. If you're uncertain where to look for college rankings data, see the College Rankings Section of our Bookstore.
  • Visit college web sites.
  • Visit campuses. Interview with admissions officials and program or department faculty. Talk to enrolled students. If possible, visit while the regular semester or term is in session, preferably before mid-term exams begin. This is the best time for talking to students and professors as it's still early in the academic schedule and fairly relaxed.
  • Email faculty, students, alumni if possible. Sometimes arrangements are made for this by the college's admissions office.

BEGIN EARLY It's important to start the process of deciding where to apply early. If you're considering applying to top-tier, nationally-ranked schools or degree programs, it is advisable to look into the entry requirements early--in your freshman or sophmore year of high school or undergraduate college. This allows you to tailor your course loads over the next few years accordingly. (Waiting until your junior year does not mean you absolutely won't get into the best schools, but you may find that you're ineligible to apply because you did not take pre-requisite courses.) Even if you're not headed to top-ranked schools or degree programs, however, you should start thinking about where to apply at least one year or several months before applications are due.

REQUEST SEVERAL APPLICATIONS Solicit applications and promotional material directly from several colleges. Order your applications early (typically, the summer or early fall before the application is due) and all at once so that you can compare them, digest the questions, and strategize how you'll respond.

APPLY TO SEVERAL SCHOOLS ACROSS TIERS How many schools should you apply to? Unless you're focused on just one or two schools where your admission is assured, it is advisable to select at least three schools, but more (6-8 or more) if possible. The more applications, the more offers and choices can potentially emerge. In addition, unless you're set on applying to top-tier schools only and are guaranteed admission, it is advisable to apply to schools that fall in two or three different tiers--or categories of selectivity--and to apply to at least two or three schools in each tier. The three tiers of schools would include:

  • "Reach" schools that you'd really like to attend, but which are the most highly competitive schools you could possibly hope to get into, and which may or may not admit you
  • Safer schools where your admission is more assured
  • Back-up schools that are not as selective, will almost certainly admit you, and will still adequately serve your needs and interests

A word on financing application costs: it is expensive to apply to several colleges or programs at once. Budget money early to pay for college applications. If your resources are limited, look into sources of assistance to cover the cost. It would be a shame to limit your college choices because you couldn't afford to apply to several schools across tiers, as suggested above.

RESULTS? If you follow all the steps above and make correct judgments about your chances for admission at the schools where you apply, you should receive acceptance letters from multiple schools, including the most competitive school(s) accessible to you.

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