How to Choose Between Two Colleges
Step 1: Take Choice Seriously
As the first major decision a young person makes, the choice of a which college to go to can seem overwhelming, even though it is also exciting. Having gone to a small public school and worked at both a large state school and a large private University, I've seen students go through the trauma of this choice. The first step is to think about this choice carefully and seriously. Preferably, you should also start early in your Junior year.
Public vs. Private College?
Step 2: Look past the Glamorous Advertisements
All Universities and colleges put their best foot forward in order to have you choose their school, so you will need to read in between the lines of advertisements and ranking guides.
All colleges have some advantages and some disadvantages. A small liberal arts college will let you get to know your professors and classmates more easily, but you may end up taking many of the courses in your major from just one or two people. A large college offers more choices and opportunities, but if you get homesick easily or dislike a lot of change, that environment may make you feel lonely.
Why do you want to go to college?
Step 3: Think About What Is Most Important to You
All colleges have something great to offer, but not all colleges are the best for you. So your first job is to decide what is most important to you in each of the following areas:
- Building friendships
- Choices in Majors and Classes
- Opportunities for Volunteering and helping in the community
- Study abroad
- Honors classes and colleges
- Opportunities to participate in research
- Living and Learning communities
- Contact with Internationals (or even "all Chinese" or "all French" dorms)
- Club sports, intramurals and exercise/workout facilities
- Coffee houses or other hang-out areas
- Lectures, music concerts, festivals and academic conferences
- Student clubs
- Greek Life
Step 4: Make a List of What You Want
Take the above list as a start and then make your own list of what is most important to you when you think about the college you want to attend. Give yourself a chance to dream and imagine yourself at college. What do you think will make the biggest difference in whether you are happy there or not? Do you:
- Want to have a lot of friends? (look for colleges that have living and learning communities, lots of activities or a Greek culture)
- Often need the support of family? (you may want to look at colleges within driving distance from home)
- Have high ambitions and want good grades? (look for an honors college, places you can go for quiet study and professors which offer undergraduate research)
- Want to broaden your horizons? (look for colleges with a large population of international students, people from out of state, or study abroad opportunities)
- See your faith as defining? (you might want to go to a school which supports your faith or at least has student groups or off-campus mentors for your faith)
- Love sports? (look for a school with a big sports program and/or lots of opportunities for you to participate in structured and pick-up games.
What to do on College Visit
Step 4: Study the University Website!
Don't neglect this very important step. The website is your best source for detailed information, plus it gives you links to people that you can contact.
Now that you have your list of what is interesting to you, take a close look at the websites of the colleges or universities you are considering. Sometimes their websites are almost overwhelming in the amount of information they provide. Give yourself time to look around, not only at what is provided for "prospective students" but also what the school has for students who attend. Take your list and see how each school stacks up.
Step 5: Use Email and Social Media to Get Personal
Nothing gives you a better feel for a school than having a personal conversation. You have the opportunity to get to know a school better by using email (or face time or other social media) to contact people at schools. This is especially helpful if you know you can't make a campus visit, but it is also helpful to do before you visit so that you can meet with someone while you are there.
Sometimes, you can get contact information from someone at a college through friends or family. If you can't, you can often find their email addresses through the college websites. You may not always get a response because people at college get busy, but if you do, you have a great chance to get good information and a feel for what that college will be like. Who can you email?
- Students in Leadership: Look for a list of student organizations. Many of these will include an email address of the students in charge. Pick a couple of groups you think you'd like to belong to and email to ask them what the group does and how you could be involved.
- Professors: Most faculty have web pages with email addresses. You can find them by going to a department (say, English or History) and looking for a list of professors. Often these web pages will also list publications or areas of interest. Look for someone who is an expert at something you are interested in studying. What should you say? Tell them who you are and that you are considering attending their college. You can ask them about courses, or else ask about what careers are open to people in that major. If you are going to visit the college, you can ask if you can come meet them or sit in on a class.
- Graduate Students: Although graduate students are very busy with their own studies as well as often teaching classes or researching, they are also a great resource because they are in the middle of their own career preparation. Especially if you are interested in doing graduate studies in law, business, medicine, social work or science, you might want to email a graduate student to find out what opportunities they have had at that school and why they would suggest you go there. You can generally find their emails on department websites also.
How to Evaluate a Campus
Step 6: Make a Campus Visit Count
The most important thing to do on a campus visit is to talk to as many students and professors as you can. This might be a bit uncomfortable because it means going up to people and starting a conversation, but how can you really know what it is like to go to school somewhere if you don't ask. If students and professors believe in their school they will be more than happy to talk with you. In fact, if your questions aren't welcomed, that is a very important signal about that school.
Step 7: Ask Questions
- Does this college offer the financial support I need to finish my degree?
- Does this college have a good degree to prepare me for the career I want?
- What is the graduation rate at this college?
- What happens if I change my mind about my degree? Are there enough other degree choices and majors for me?
- Does this college offer support to help me do well in classes like:
- writing center
- regular office hours when you can talk to professors
- librarians who can help with research
- study groups
- special help for learning disabilities (if you need them)
- a policy for re-taking classes if you fail
- places to study alone or in groups
Step 8: Get Advice From Family and Friends
Still confused? Don't worry, you aren't the only one. If you've gathered a lot of information and thought it all out and still not come to a conclusion, you might want to talk it all out with your family, friends or even a school counselor or teacher. Chances are, you will come to understand what would be best as you talk it all through. If not, you might find that other people have a perspective on you and what would be important to you that helps you decide.
Step 9: Enjoy the Process and Look forward to your College Years!
Finally, don't let the question of "which college should you choose?" get you down. Even if you don't end up at the perfect college, chances are you will make a lot of friends, get a great education and enjoy everything about going to that school.
In fact, that is exactly what happened to me. I wanted to go to a small, out-of-state, private liberal arts school. For financial reasons, I ended up at the medium-sized public University near home. In the end, I was very lucky to get small classes from some fabulous professors who instilled a great love in me for writing and literature. Exactly what I had wanted!
Step 10: Remember You Can Change Your Mind
I decided I needed to add this step after having two students last year who transferred from another college to the one that I work at. Both of them had similar stories of spending a lot of time choosing a college and then finding out after their first year that the college really wasn't the right fit for them.
Although it can take time, you can change your mind and transfer to another college if you find your first pick wasn't what you expected, you've decided you want a major not offered at that school, or you want to move closer to home.
While most students are very happy with their college choice and I certainly hope you are too, it may help to know that change is possible. Good luck and have a lot of fun deciding!