When figuring out which colleges to look at and apply to, many students consider three main factors: Academics, Financial Aid, and Student Life. However, a lot of students completely gloss over other characteristics that are equally as important and should be thought about before attending a college.
Note: Prestige/Reputation of the school should NOT be the sole factor that you consider.
Do you know what you want to study? Are you undecided? Does the school offer your intended major? Can you double major? Minor? Can you switch majors once you declare them? Can you explore other interests? Do you know if the school participates in grade/GPA inflation or deflation? Are there research programs available?
Prepare a short list of colleges that fit your interests and answer the questions above. A college that has a variety of programs available or an open curriculum (like Brown) would be suited for those that are undecided or prefer being in charge of their own learning. Programs like the Core (Columbia) require students to develop holistically across all disciplines and then decide on a major. Figuring out what works best for you based on your comfort and level of interest should be explored prior to committing to a college. Most of this information will be available on the college’s website, virtual information tours/sessions, student panels, or YouTube vlogs.
- Financial Aid:
Will you graduate with debt? How much? Will you take out loans? Can you afford the cost of attendance? Will you work an on-campus job? Or a part time job over the summer? Is the school need-blind? Need-aware? Do they have grants or subsidized loans? How much will your family be expected to pay? Is there aid available for research programs?
The cost of tuition coupled with other ones like room and board, books, travel, health insurance, and other fees can account for thousands of dollars of debt that can last your whole life. Stay on the lookout for other scholarships you might be eligible for; these are usually used by students to cover personal expenses.
Each college has net price calculators and cost estimators that take less than 5 minutes to complete and can provide a somewhat accurate look at your financial aid package if you are admitted, based on several factors (income, untaxed income, others expenses, household size, residency and citizenship, etc.).
- Student Life:
Are there mental health services available to students? Are they stressed a lot? What do current students say about the school? Is there an alcoholic/party scene? Is Greek Life a prevalent part of the campus community? Are the students cliquey? How do administrators help students?
Figuring out what you want from a college is probably the most important factor you should be considering. Keep in mind you will be spending at least 2-4 years in college, most likely on campus, so knowing if you will be happy is crucial. The aforementioned questions can usually be answered by reaching out to current students or referring to student vlogs on YouTube, reviews on websites like College Confidential, Niche, Unigo, and Reddit.
- Location and ‘Vibe’:
Is the campus warm? Cold? Snowy? Sunny? Is the school in an urban area? Suburban? Rural? Which one do I prefer? How far away is it from my home? How close is the nearest airport? Train station? ATM? Is the city welcoming? Are there things to do outside the campus? Is the campus safe? Are the students happy? Can you see yourself walking down the hallways of the school?
Many students want a completely different environment in college in comparison to their high school. If you are one of them, it is important to research the city and college town, which can usually be done by a simple Google search. Some schools take pride of the location and it is usually one of the reasons many students choose to go there, like Columbia University in New York. It is also crucial to take into account campus safety and measures a college takes in ensuring that their students are safe. Some schools, like Yale, have their own safety apps which can be used to contact campus police. Many students also consider life outside of campus and choose to attend a place where they’re not bound within the walls of the school. Off-campus activities should also be taken into account and whether the weather is suitable for you. If you previously lived in a warmer climate, are you ready for the snow? Or vice-versa? Would you be willing to move across the country? Or move continents?
- On Campus Amenities:
What meal plans does the school offer? How many dining halls are there? Do they have special services, like Halal, vegan, or gluten-free food? How many residential halls are there? Is it a lottery system? Can you choose to live in a single? Can you choose your roomate? How many years are you required to live on campus? Is there a medical center? Are there specific resources, like an LGBTQ+ center, FGLI support, immigration and international student support?
You will be living on campus for a very long time. It is important to make it feel as comfortable as possible with all the resources you want the school to have. Again, most of these questions can be readily answered on the school’s website.
Is there a recreation center? How many clubs and student organizations are there? Is everyone welcome? Do you have to apply to be in a club? Can you attend events outside your major? Are there resources available for you to explore other interests? Does the school pride themselves on sports and athletics? What are some of the campus traditions?
Some schools offer a limited amount of clubs and organizations, whereas some schools have over 500 options available for students. Some schools accept anyone and everyone into their clubs, where some schools require students to apply and/or audition to join clubs. College is a time to explore your interests and get involved in extracurriculars that you find interesting and comforting.
- Opportunities: Career & Research:
Does the school offer career counseling? Internship opportunities? Can you study abroad? Is there financial aid available for that?
The most basic point of attending college and continuing academics after high school is to secure a good job and attain financial stability. Thus, going to a college where guidance on these topics is available and a place that provide opportunities that provide first-hand experience is also necessary.
Although this may seem a LOT, once you begin a working list of a college (TIP: create a spreadsheet with all these factors) and begin researching, you’ll find that many colleges will fit into your definition of your ‘perfect’ college and a college that best suits you.