Choosing the Best College for You &endash; Part 1

With hundreds of colleges and universities across the country and around the world, the whole idea of choosing one specific school can seem like an overwhelming proposition. You may already be receiving information and viewbooks from places that you never even knew existed. Today more than ever, schools are aggressively recruiting students via telemarketing, direct mail, college fairs, radio, publications, television and of course, the Internet. With so many choices, where do you begin?

The following steps are designed to help you sift through the myriad of options by asking questions that will eliminate some schools while drawing your attention to those that will best meet your needs.

STEP 1 - FINDING THE TYPE OF SCHOOL THAT IS BEST FOR YOU.

The first important step in choosing a college or university is to decide what type of school you most want to attend. You can quickly eliminate many schools by establishing an initial set of requirements. Ask yourself the following questions:

Am I most interested in a:

  1. Two year or four year school?
  2. Christian or a non-religiously affiliated school?
  3. Location - how far am I willing to go from home?
  4. Urban, suburban, or rural campus?
  5. Larger or smaller enrollment?
  6. Nationally revered or regionally known?

You should try to have the answers to most of these questions midway through your junior year. Begin by talking with your parent(s) or guidance counselor. Speak with college students at different types of schools. Whether you are in a traditional high school setting, graduated high school years ago, or are homeschooled, seek the opinion of those people you most respect. Ask yourself what aspects of high school you most, and least, enjoy(ed). However, in the end, remember that you are the one who will be attending the school.

You may notice that cost was not mentioned above. The cost of the school should not be a factor at this early stage. I believe that one of the mistakes made by students and their families is that they eliminate colleges based on cost too early in the decision making process. They often do not understand the financial aid process and how affordable even a private college education can be!

Before moving on, let's address the issue of academic reputation. Schools that have an exceptional academic reputation can offer unique opportunities. However, there are also many schools that are not as well known that can offer excellent programs and opportunities.

A smaller or lesser-known school may provide you with the opportunity to become more involved. Holding student leadership and/or student work positions will allow you to gain valuable experience. This can be especially important when considering the competitive job market after graduation. The opportunity to stand out and be recognized will translate into a more impressive resume. These types of schools may also provide more direct interaction with college faculty and staff - individuals in a position to help you with information and recommendations as you consider employment or graduate school.

The higher profile school certainly has advantages as well. In addition to name recognition, these schools may provide a greater challenge, forcing you to "stretch" yourself further than you have before. The final result may produce a more confident person, better prepared for the rigors of a competitive job market. If the school is larger in size, it may also provide a greater selection of majors, on campus employment and resources.

Each type of school has its strengths. Your challenge is to discover which is best for you!

STEP 2 - FOCUSING ON YOUR BEST OPTIONS.

Once you have established the type of school that will best meet your needs and interests, you can consider numerous factors to further narrow down the field. Some of the factors discussed below may not be important to you, while others may play a critical role in your decision. Remember…it's your call!

Academic Standards

By looking through a school's admissions material, or placing a call to the admissions office, you can easily learn the academic profile of the "average" student. If your scores and grades place you at the lower end of the academic profile you still may be accepted, but realize that it will likely be a greater challenge. If you are on the higher end, your position as an applicant is obviously enhanced.

Career Planning and Placement

I believe this may be one of the most overlooked issues when students consider colleges and universities. Make sure that you ask what career planning and placement services are available. Ask about the percentage of students who go on to graduate school and/or find employment in their chosen field after graduating. Also, try to learn the specific placement rates for your particular major/program. One of the primary goals of any college or university should be to help you gain employment in your field or assist you in attending graduate school.

Internships/”Real life experience”

Ask what internship and co-op type experiences are available in your area(s) of interest. These opportunities may be paid or unpaid. The important thing is that you can gain valuable work experience while still in school. This will help you become more marketable upon graduation. You should view any such opportunity as a chance to build your resume.

Accreditation

Most schools are accredited by a regional accrediting agency while some individual programs may have a professional or national accrediting agency. For example, The National League for Nursing and the National Association of Schools of Music, professionally accredit some nursing and music programs respectively. If you are looking at a particular program at a school, this may provide a good indication of its strength. However, remember that some majors/programs may not have a professional accrediting agency, but for those that do, this can be an objective way to measure the strength of that program.

Majors/Programs

You need to be confident that your needs and interests will be met as you consider your major or program of interest. We have already considered two ways to help you determine the strength of an academic program - the job placement rate and professional accreditation (if applicable). However, you can also ask about the percentage of faculty with a doctorate or terminal degree. If you are considering a pre-professional program such as Pre-Medicine, Pre-Pharmacy, Pre-Dentistry, Pre-Veterinarian Medicine, or Pre-Law, be sure to ask about the placement rate for graduate school. This will provide yet another indicator of the program's strength. Learn what percentage of students who begin the program, actually complete it. Some colleges or universities may allow many students to begin a program and then "weed out" a large number along the way. This may help the school gain a higher placement rate.

Attrition

" Attrition" is a term that refers to the number of students who drop out or leave the school. You should be aware if a college or university has a lower number of it’s students returning after their first year, or if the school graduates only a small percentage of it's students in four years. It's important to know whether or not a school has many students who leave before completing their program. Students may leave for a variety of reasons - they may change majors, can no longer afford the school, were not challenged enough, could not handle the academic program, or perhaps they just didn't like the atmosphere. If you discover that many students are leaving the school because of finances, this may be an indicator that financial aid awards decrease substantially for continuing students, or the cost is increasing at an especially high rate. Ask an admission representative and current students these types of questions to gain an understanding of the attrition rate.

Enrollment History

You should ask about the school's enrollment history over the past few years. Is enrollment increasing, decreasing or unchanged? There may be good reasons for any increase or decrease in enrollment. Some schools remain at a constant enrollment by choice. They may not have the facilities for additional students or they may have made a decision to increase the academic standards and maintain their current enrollment.

Faculty-to-Student Ratio And Class Size

Colleges and universities recognize that many students are not content to sit in lecture halls with 300-400 classmates. Learn what you can expect in terms of class size and faculty-to-student ratio. If you are considering a larger school it may be wise to ask for the specific faculty-to-student ratio in your chosen major. If the faculty-to-student ratio is high, be aware that you may be competing with many other students for your professor's ear.

Find Out Who "Teaches" The Classes

The "instructor" may not always be the professor you thought would be teaching the class. At some colleges and universities, graduate assistants may teach courses, especially the lower level ones. You may be comfortable with this, but learn ahead of time what to expect.

Academic Assistance

Find out what type of academic assistance is available. Schools may have academic assistance for students with special learning needs, seminars on improving study skills, tutoring, assistance on research papers, supplemental instruction, and/or study groups. Whether you are an "A student" or "struggling", everyone encounters the need for academic help at some point.

Organizations, Clubs And Athletics

Although probably not as important as other areas, clubs, organizations and athletics can all add to your college experience. Ask about your specific areas of interest. This can be particularly important if, for example, you would like to major in journalism and the school has little opportunity to work on such projects as the yearbook or student newspaper.

Computer Labs And Equipment

Computer labs and other computer opportunities for many students are essential. Are computers widely available - in dorms, libraries and/or labs? Your dorm room may already be wired to the school’s network. Some schools even provide a computer for every freshman.


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