Choosing a college can be scary, but it doesn’t need to be! Going to college is an incredible opportunity. You’ll meet new people, see new places, and achieve things you never thought were possible. College will be such a large part of your life, so you want to make sure you choose the right place for you. As I say in Chapter 6 of my new book Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, “The only opinion that truly matters is your own!” You want to pick somewhere where you will not just be successful, but also happy and at home. With so many colleges out there to choose from, this can seem daunting at first. Here are some important questions to help you pick the best school for you.
Consider Your Major When Choosing a College
Your major is the foundation of your college experience and future career, and therefore, one of the most important things to consider when choosing a college. It will determine not only your future career choices but also the skills you’ll gain and the opportunities you’ll have. During your time in school, you’ll build upon your major and gain connections and experiences that will propel you towards reaching success and accomplishing your dreams.
Think about what your dreams are and what you’re passionate about. Above all else, what do you enjoy doing? What do you hope to accomplish? You want to choose a college or university that will help you achieve your goals and find success.
Do you have no idea what to major in? Don’t worry; you’re not alone! Roughly two-thirds of students report they feel overwhelmed by this decision, and 51% say they are not confident in their choice. Look at schools like liberal arts colleges or big universities with a wide variety of courses available for you to explore. Also, when does the school require you to choose a major? Some schools require your major to be declared at the time of applying, whereas others give you two or even three years to decide! Consider picking a school in which you’ll have the options and time to fully explore all the major options and decide what you want.
Whatever you are thinking about majoring in, pick a school that helps you learn all about it. Look into the major program. What are the professors like? What’s the classroom environment like? Your preference is important too. Do you prefer larger classes (lecture halls) or smaller classes (seminar style)? Class sizes are particularly important to think about because how they’re set up impacts your personal learning style.
Also, ask about the requirements to graduate! Do you want to be taking classes solely in your major, or do you want to explore a wide variety? At Wellesley College, where I went, even though I majored in biology, I had to take classes in history, the arts, English, languages, math, and more! I personally loved this as I wanted to be educated on a variety of subjects and work on building skills that weren’t as used in biology; I cared about being well-rounded. I also just love to learn! Find a college with class requirements that fit your desires.
Support Beyond the Classroom
Your school should support you beyond the classroom, too. When you need help in a class, what resources does the school have to support you? Peer tutoring programs? Office hours with teachers? An advisory program? You can typically find this information on your school’s website. College can be very different from high school, so you want to make sure there are resources available to assist you during your transition.
Beyond your classes, college is a key component in finding a job, conducting research, and making connections with important people in your field. Research what resources your school provides to help you with doing so. Are there research and internship opportunities? Is there a career education center and an alumni program? While these resources may not seem important as a first-year, they are invaluable as you seek to find your place in the working world. Get started early!
My career services at Wellesley allowed me to have 1:1 mentorship and meetings with the career advisor in my field. Not only did I get advice and feedback on my career plans post-graduation, but they were able to review my resume, cover letters, and more! They also provided helpful workshops throughout the year and even had a suit rental program if you needed a suit for an interview! These services helped me feel supported, knowledgeable, and confident going forward into my internship and job searches.
Consider the Location When Choosing a College
College will be your “home away from home.” You’ll be living there for quite some time, so you want to be somewhere you feel comfortable. For some, that may be a city, but for others, that may be somewhere more rural. If going to college is your first time leaving home, you may not know exactly what you’re looking for in a location. Tip! Visit a school’s campus if you can. Being there and seeing the school can really help you determine if it feels right for you. Here are three questions I asked myself when making my decision.
How Will Location Affect The Social Scene?
Going to college is more than just studying! It is important to take a break from your academics sometimes and spend time with friends. What is there to do off-campus? For me, my college was near the city, so I could hop on a bus and head to museums, gardens, or sports games on the weekend. However, I liked having the peace and quiet of a rural campus to focus on my studies when I needed it. What does the social scene look like at your prospective school?
How Far Do You Want To Be From Home?
As I mentioned before, going to college may be your first time living away from home. While college is an exciting, new adventure, you are bound to get homesick every once in a while. Do you want to be a car ride or a plane ride away from home?
Each, of course, has pros and cons. One plus side of staying close to home is coming back on the weekends and having your parents do your laundry (thanks, Mom!), but you may not get to experience as many new things if you stick to the area you already know. If you’ll be heading farther out, you’ll have the chance to explore a new environment that may be different from where you grew up and grow your perspective and worldview, but you’ll have to navigate being far from home and the challenges and inconveniences that can bring.
(Remember! There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They are based on your own preferences to help guide you to the school best for you.)
What Do You Want Your Campus To Look Like?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been dreaming of going to college for quite some time. You’ve imagined setting up your dorm room, studying in the library with classmates, and grabbing food with friends. Reflect on this for a moment; in your head, what does your school look like?
For instance, I wanted to be somewhere with lots of greenery, where I could read outside on a warm day and take a break from studying with a nature walk. Wellesley provided me with just that; I often did my homework at Green Beach and went on a daily run around Lake Waban.
Oftentimes, what your campus looks like depends on its location and size. A school in the city will look different than a school in the suburbs, and the layout of a small school will be different than the layout of a larger one. Whatever you’ve been imagining, find a school that will turn your dream into a reality.
Consider the Extracurriculars When Choosing a College
Choosing a major can be intimidating because it seems like you’re discarding all your other interests in favor of choosing one. But I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t have to be that way! Of course, you are going to have other interests, and it is important to choose a college that lets you pursue all of them. That’s where extracurriculars come in.
Check out your school’s club catalog! Many colleges and universities offer a wide variety of organizations you can join. Some you may have never tried before, and others you may have never even heard of. (I was a proud member of the Botanistas at Wellesley, my school’s botanical club!) College is the time to try new things and learn where your interests lie. Get out there!
So, what clubs are there for you? If you like to write, check out the school newspaper. If you enjoy dancing, join a dance team. If you are looking for a community with similar cultural experiences as you, join a multicultural group! Find a club or organization that’s all about your niche. Research it and meet other members. This is also a great way to make friends and meet new people with similar interests!
Extracurriculars are also a great way to help you land internships and, eventually, a job! Running for a position in a student organization gives you valuable leadership experience and skills. Especially when you’re first coming into college, you may not have any real job or internship experience. Participating in an organization may be the experience you apply to your first internship with!
There are other ways to pursue your interests, too. What other on-campus activities does your school offer? When there are no classes or club meetings, what is there to do? Being able to do the thing that makes you happy will instantly brighten a stressful day.
At my college, there was a beautiful lake and when the weather was nice, I could take out a boat and spend time canoeing on the water. When the lake eventually froze over, my friends and I could head indoors to the pool and fitness center. On the weekends, we could go to dance shows, theatre productions, and cultural shows. We often had late nights competing against each other at bingo (yes, even college students can love bingo!) and having snacks at the student-run cafe.
What does this look like for you at your prospective school?
Consider Your Values When Choosing a College
Another thing to consider is your school’s values. You want to choose a school whose values and beliefs are similar to yours. This will ensure you feel comfortable and are able to express your most genuine self. Take these questions into consideration.
Many schools have a mission statement, motto, and pillars they are built around. How do you feel about these statements? How does your school turn its words and promises into actions? Do you want to get behind their mission?
Many schools have volunteer opportunities for ways you can get involved. For example, Wellesley has a civic engagement program where students can conduct social justice work across various fields – no matter their major. Wellesley also has numerous clubs, like Wellesley for UNICEF and EnAct, that students can join to get involved with volunteer work. Volunteering is a great way to really dive into your school’s values and make a real difference.
What are the beliefs of the study body? What is important to them? How do these values align with yours? These people will be your friends and your peers. You want to be able to stay genuine to yourself and feel accepted. College is the time where you grow into an adult and (not to be too cliche) figure out who you are, find the people who support you unconditionally, and discover what you want to spend the rest of your life doing. You don’t want to waste that time pretending to be someone you’re not.
If you’re comfortable at your school and around your peers, you’ll be more inclined to participate in your classes and the school community. In turn, the more you participate, the more fulfilling your college experience will be.
The Realities Of Choosing A College
It is no secret that attending college is a costly endeavor. College tuition has increased drastically over the past decade, further complicating the college decision process. Luckily, there are ways to help better manage costs so that students everywhere can make an investment in their education.
Private Versus Public Schools
Public colleges and universities typically cost less than private ones. Public institutions will still offer many of the opportunities that private ones do, meaning you can still get a quality education at a smaller cost. In addition to this, public schools in your state may cost even less because you can apply for in-state tuition. Attending a public college in your state can cost a fraction of what tuition would be at a private university. So, if there is a great public college in your area, consider applying! You’ll be able to get a quality education while saving money for other endeavors.
Scholarships are a great way for you to put money towards your education. They are often used for tuition, housing, or textbooks, but many programs also allow you to use the money how you deem best. Scholarships amounts can vary, from a few hundred dollars to full tuition, and you can earn multiple at a time. Many programs look for specific kinds of applicants, so be on the lookout for opportunities related to your unique talent, skill, or story. You can earn some extra money just for being you!
Scholarships can come directly from your school or from outside organizations. Visit your prospective school’s website to see what kind of opportunities they have and what the requirements are to earn a scholarship. If your school’s selection is limited, check out outside scholarship opportunities. Many companies and organizations put together scholarships to help people pursue their dreams and go to school. Check out these resources to find a scholarship looking for an applicant like you:
Taking Out A Loan
When you apply for financial aid at your school, your school may offer you a loan that you borrow and pay back with interest. There are many different types of loans, but they are most often broken up into two groups: federal student loans and private student loans.
Federal student loans include Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans. These are loans made by the government and include benefits like fixed interest rates and income-driven repayment plans. Private student loans, on the other hand, are made by private organizations (like banks or credit unions) and have conditions that are set by the lender. The US Department of Education has a helpful chart to help you decide what kind of loan works best for you here.
Living on campus is a large piece of a school’s tuition bill. If you are looking to attend college close to home, consider living at home and commuting to campus for classes. This will also help you save money on things like laundry and food. If your school is farther away or living at home is not an option, look into opportunities for living nearby off campus. Getting an apartment off campus can be cheaper, especially if you and some friends move in together and split the cost. Either way, you won’t have to worry about late night commotion in a dormitory anymore!
Post Secondary Enrollment Options
If you are in grades 10, 11, or 12, look into Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) and Dual Enrollment Programs. These are opportunities that let you, as a high school student, take college classes. Most commonly, students will take courses at a local community college. The cost to take these courses is less, and you can get graduation credits out of the way early on. You can also enroll full time at a community college, especially for the first few years of your higher education. Community college is a great way to get acclimated to the college life, and you can spend time figuring out what you want to study before you invest and enroll at a different college or university.
If you are looking into dual enrollment options, visit the website of the school you want to take courses at and learn how to apply. You can also visit your state website and see what kinds of opportunities are available in your area.
Even when taking a realistic approach to finding a college that works best for you, there are ways to make the search for the best fit for you enjoyable!
You’re On Your Way!
College is such an exciting adventure! You’ll have the opportunity to take your dreams to the next level and bring them to life. You’ll meet new people, see new places, and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Choosing a college can be intimidating, so I advise you to focus on your major, location, extracurriculars, and values. Think about what is important to you and makes you most comfortable. Consider the realities behind picking a school. Above all else, you want to feel at home at your college, and by answering these questions, you’ll be able to find that perfect school.
If you want more tips about picking a college and chasing your dream, check out my new book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars. With helpful graphics, anecdotes, and advice, you’ll be able to make your own plan to reach success and accomplish your dreams!