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What to Look for in a College

So you are looking for the perfect college?   Bad news, there’s no such thing.  The truth is there are any number of colleges out there where you could be happy and get a great education.  But there are also some schools that won’t be good for you.  Someone else’s top choice may be your worst nightmare.  That’s why we always talk about finding a good match, or good fit.  The college search is about exploring who you are and what you want and then finding colleges that will meet your goals.  The best college search begins within you. 

Take some time to consider the following criteria:

 Size – Consider both the physical size and population of the campus as well as the average class size.  Ask yourself: do I need individual attention from professors?  Do I like being on my own and finding my own way?  

 Location/Setting – Colleges can be found in large cities, small towns, and rural country sides.  Ask yourself: do I prefer natural beauty or bustling downtowns?  Do I prefer a particular climate?

 Distance from home  - Even in-state schools might be a five hour drive away.  Students should not overlook the costs and logistics if home is a plane ride away.  Ask yourself: how often do I want to come home?  How much support do I want from my family?

 Academic Programs – If you don’t know what you want to study, look for schools with a wide variety of majors.  Most colleges expect students to change their major at least once and some even encourage students to spend a semester or two exploring options.  Ask yourself:  Do I have a career in mind?  Do I need flexibility?  Do I want to study abroad?  Take internships for credit?

 Housing options – Some colleges require all students to live on campus and provide a range of options (dorms, apartments, suites, etc).  Other colleges are mostly commuter campuses with no weekend activities.    Ask yourself: Do I want the “on campus” experience?  Do I prefer single-sex living, substance-free dorms, or some other specific housing option

 Campus Life: This one can be tricky – you usually have to visit a few campuses to get a feel for the subtle differences.  Ask yourself:  Am I an avid learner who wants to put academics first?  Can I handle a highly competitive campus?  What kind of things do I like to do on the weekend Do I prefer a more liberal or conservative environment?  Is there a religious or ethnic community I can participate in?  Do I want to join a Greek organization?

 Available extracurricular activities – If there is a certain activity or opportunity you want to continue, make sure to look into its availability.  Ask yourself:  Do I want to be involved in a lot of different things or focus on one or two core activities?  Can I compete with others if spots are limited?

 Admissions/Selectivity – Some colleges admit most applicants while others are incredibly difficult to get in.  Ask yourself: What is the acceptance rate?  How do my GPA and test scores compare to the average?  Is this school a sure thing or a long shot?

 Cost –  This is an important criteria, unfortunately it’s tough to know just how much a specific school will cost you personally.  Ask yourself (and your family): How much money is available to me from savings, scholarships, and family income?  How much can we afford per year?  Then when looking at colleges ask: How much financial aid does the average student receive?  Would I qualify for any scholarships?

 You may be very flexible on some of these criteria (“I could be just as happy in the country as the city.”)  Still, other criteria may be deal breakers (“There is no way I’m going to a school where 60% of the people are in sororities.”).  In some cases you may not know what you like and don’t like until you see it (which is why the college visit is so essential!). 

 If you are having trouble getting in touch with what it is you want, consider a few of these questions:

What do I like most about South Western?

If I could change anything about South Western, what would it be?

How do I learn best?  What do I need from my teachers?

What activities have been the most important to me?  Why?

Who are my friends now?  Do I want relationships in college to be similar or different?



A Note on College Rankings

Use College Ranking publications and lists very sparingly. These rankings rely on college self-report and often use factors like acceptance rate and faculty salary to keep the same colleges on top year after year. You wouldn’t judge a hospital based on doctor salary or the healthiness of people when they are admitted.  What you really need to know is what happens to the patients (and students) while they are there.

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