Tip of the Month: So You’re Starting Your College Search…

The truth is that I when I started this process myself, I went about it in all the wrong ways. I focused only on looking at colleges that I had heard of, the ones with the big reputations. While it all worked out in the end (HMC Class of 2010!), I wasted my family’s resources as I engaged in this process, from the time we spent over summer visiting schools that didn’t really fit my personality, to the money we spent in application fees to schools that I never really saw myself attending. Here are a few things I wish someone had told me back in the day, as I started looking for colleges:

Connect With Yourself

College will be your home for the next few years. This is why you shouldn’t just search for schools based solely on what you think your major will be (only searching for schools that offer chemistry or math as a major wouldn’t help you narrow down your list by much anyway). You should definitely think about the way attending college will relate to your life goals and about the ways you expect to grow and change while you are in college. But you should also think about the things that make you YOU!

What type of classes have you enjoyed in high school? Perhaps you learn best by listening to your teacher lecture, or maybe by engaging directly with the material through discussions or hands-on projects. How have you struggled, and what has gotten you through those struggles? Some students like having access to their teachers, whereas others just like to have time to work through issues independently. Maybe you’d like to attend a college with a well-established tutoring program, or one with a very active student affairs office.

Think about your hometown and the types of experiences you’ve had so far– not just about the types of people you’ve interacted with, but also the kinds of activities you’ve been able to engage in. How have these inspired or discouraged you? Are you interested in staying in a similar environment or are you ready for a change?

It doesn’t matter if you are visiting the website for a specific institution or casting a wider net by using a search engine, make sure you keep these things in mind as you search for colleges.

Connect with Colleges

Don’t be afraid to join the mailing list for colleges you are considering. This is the best way to get up-to-date information from these institutions.

Joining the mailing list tells the college in question that it’s ok for them to send you their brochures. While the internet is great, a school’s website contains information for everyone (students, faculty, staff, alumni, etc.); the literature you receive from colleges has been created only with you in mind – it contains any and all information that could be relevant to you as a prospective student.

Colleges will also use their mailing list to inform you of any upcoming events on campus (such as their open house or fly-in programs) or in your area (like if an admission officer is visiting your high school or hosting an information session near you). Events such as these can be great help when determining if a college is the right fit for you and joining the mailing list is the best way to stay in the loop!

Here’s one last motivator for you to join the mailing list: some colleges will track your level of interest, meaning they will keep a record of the ways you interact with them prior to submitting your application. While not all colleges do this, it can’t hurt to stay in touch!

Connect With Your Family

The cost of college can be restrictive to many families. You should discuss this openly with your parents.

All colleges are required to have a Net Price Calculator on their website. A Net Price Calculator uses your family’s financial position to make an estimate on the amount of need-based financial aid that may be available to you. Your family’s “net price” is the difference between this estimated aid and the total cost of attendance (basically, what your family would be expected to contribute).

If cost is a big issue for your family, then make sure to check your family’s net price for each of the institutions you might be considering.

And Then?

My suggestions above will help you start thinking about your college list. Here are a few other things you should keep in mind:

  1. Take people’s opinions with a grain of salt.  This includes the guidebooks and rankings! You are the one that will be living and learning at the school of your choice, so why should you let what others think affect how you feel about it? You are looking for a place that will work for YOU!
  2. Remember you will be pursuing your undergraduate degree. The faculty and resources available to graduate students might not be accessible to undergrads. Make sure you research what opportunities will be available to you.
  3. Keep track of the different deadlines and application requirements to these schools. Soon you will have to begin planning and preparing for standardized tests, and before you know it, you will be asking teachers to write recommendations on your behalf – it is common for different colleges to ask for different things!
  4. Make sure your list shows a range of schools. It’s sad when students keep themselves from applying to institutions where they could be accepted just because they are worried that they won’t be. It’s also sad when students only apply to schools where they have a low chance of being admitted. Make sure you look both at colleges where you could be a definite admit and at colleges where it might be a reach.
  5. Try to visit the colleges you are considering. Visiting campus helps many students figure out whether or not they can actually see themselves spending the next few years of their lives at that particular institution. Can you see yourself walking through the halls and studying in the library? What about attending events on-campus or at the neighboring town or city?

My last piece of advice is for you to be open to change. The things you look for in a college at the beginning of your college search might not be the same as the ones you look for as your list becomes more concrete. This is ok! A big part of this process should be frequent self-reflection and re-evaluation.

Lastly, I will leave you with a little survey I stole from Peter Osgood, Harvey Mudd’s director of Admission. This should help you kick-start the college search process by allowing you to learn what you value in a college… at least for now! Remember, things will very likely change.

15 Questions to Evaluate Yourself
Choosing a college based on your values

Why do you want an education? Why are you going to college?  To make friends? To learn how to learn?   To get a good job? To become independent?

Throughout your high school years, what have you enjoyed most? Is there anything you’ve missed that you would want to do in college? Any regrets?

What do you care most about? What concerns occupy most of your energy, effort, and thought? What excites you intellectually?

What do you like to learn when you can learn on your own?  Consider activities you pursue outside of class assignments:  What do your choices show about your interests and commitment? What level of challenge is best for you?

How do you learn best? What teaching methods or styles of learning work best for you?  (Group projects? Individual research? Lectures? Discussions? Readings from text or from other sources?)

In what ways do you contribute to your school and community?  Is it likely that you will want to continue these roles in college or develop new roles?

Consider your hometown, your school, your family: How has your environment influenced your way of thinking?  How have your interests and abilities been encouraged or limited by your school and home?

What do your parents, teachers, and close friends expect of you? How have their expectations influenced your goals and the standards you set for yourself? What pressures have made you feel the need  to conform?

How comfortable are you with people different from you? Have you interacted with people who thought, acted, and believed in ways different from you?  How do you respond? What viewpoints challenge you the most? What have you learned about yourself and others?

How have you grown or changed during your high school years? How do you want to grow in college?

With whom do you associate? Who are your best friends; your best critics; your best advocates?  In what ways do you prefer to associate with people different from you or those similar to you?

How much independence do you want? What are the best decisions you have made recently? How much do you rely on direction, guidance, or advice from others? Have you chosen to do something because it was new or interesting?

What satisfactions and frustrations do you expect to encounter in college? What are you most looking forward to in college? What worries you?  What do you hope to gain from college?   What is the most important consideration for your choice of college?

What kinds of surroundings are important to you? Are there certain places, activities, terrain, weather or pace of life that influence you significantly?

How free do you feel to make your own college decisions? Do you and your parents agree about your plans for college?   Does your college counselor agree? Do you care what your friends think of your choices?