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How to choose the right college

In Part I of this two-part series, we discussed time lines to help keep parents and students on track during the college preparation process. Part II focuses on college selection.

Ever-larger numbers of students are applying for college admission, and the application process is more competitive and controversial than ever. It’s been said, “The process makes normal people act nutty and nutty people act crazy.”

The ultimate goal is to find a college or university that fits the student. Usually the first concern is financial. This is where Mom, Dad and the high school junior must sit down and determine what’s going to fit within the family budget. Once you have decided on how much Mom and Dad will contribute, how much the student can realistically contribute, the student can begin looking into schools that fit the financial parameters.



Educators tell us that students who are happy with their college choices usually fare better than those who are not. So how does a student go about finding the best fit?

First and foremost, the student must know him or her self. Many college counselors suggest that at the beginning of junior year high school, students should make a realistic self-assessment. What are the student’s interests, aptitudes, and what does he or she want from a college or university? Equally important is the fact that students should also be clear about what is most important to them, i.e. the school’s academic programs, its setting, the social life, etc.



Some of the questions that should be answered: What distance from home is comfortable for the student? Does the student want a small, intimate college setting or does he or she want to attend a school with 35,000 students? But remember, small schools don’t necessarily mean small classes. Even mid-sized universities have lecture halls with up to 200 students.

What academic programs will offer choice and challenge to the student? If the student knows what he or she wants to study, then look for schools that offer the best programs in those fields.

If the student doesn’t know what he or she wants to do (most students fall into this category), they should opt for schools with a broad range of academic programs. College counselors and the Internet are good places to gather this type of information.



The student should investigate whether full professors or teaching assistants conduct most classes. There is no right or wrong to this issue; full professors bring experience to the classroom, but teaching assistants frequently conduct the most lively and energetic classes.

Other factors that should be a part of the selection process: Is the school near other schools, thus creating an academic community? What will a degree from this school do for the student in terms of finding a job after college? How big of a community surrounds the school? Antioch College in Antioch, Ohio, is a far cry from NYU in New York City.

If at all possible, a student should visit a small school, and then visit a large campus. They should get a feel for them. After all, it’s four years of a student’s life. There’s a world of difference between enrollments of 1,000, 5,000 and 35,000. Students may want to know if the campus environment is liberal or conservative. A student from a staunch conservative background could receive a very unique education at Berkeley.

What job opportunities are available on and off campus? If the student stays for summer school (a growing phenomenon), campus jobs may be limited and the bigger the town, the better the job opportunities. Female athletes may want to find out where their prospective school stands on Title IX.

Also, what types of internship programs are offered in the community? Students attending Loyola University in Chicago will have far more to choose from than, say, a student at Western Illinois University in Macomb, 70 miles away.

Campus visits are important. Too many students show up with little or no planning. If a student is going to the trouble of visiting a campus, he or she should get their money’s worth. So here are a few tips before taking those trips:

Prepare a list of questions in advance; ask a college counselor for help. The standard campus tour is like touring Universal Studios, so a student should venture off on his or her own. Find out what the campus is like on a Tuesday night in February. Walk into the library; is it crowded, are people using computers? Eat in the cafeteria. Sit in on a class if at all possible. Learn if there are any outstanding issues on campus.

Remember, while the Internet and college fairs are good starting points, nothing compares to an actual visit. Read about the college before the visit. Learn what special interest groups (clubs, intramurals, etc.) and activities are available. Be sure to visit and speak with both students and department heads.

If you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of researching all of this material, it’s important to keep two things in mind:

n Students and counselors share information. A student needn’t do it all alone.

n There is no one ideal school for a student, so don’t get hung up and choosing the perfect fit, because it doesn’t exist.

Finally, a word to the wise: The search for the right college belongs to the student, not the parents. Students need to own this entire process. If they don’t, perhaps it’s better to gain a year of maturity before venturing off to college.

Butch Mazzuca of Singletree writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz@centurytel.net


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