Junior year of high school is the best time to begin, though it is never too early (or too late) to think about what sort of college is right for you. A good way to begin is to ask yourself a few basic questions, then look for schools suggested by your answers. Here are a few to start with:
» Do I want to go to a big school or small? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. If
you happen to go to a large high school, don’t rule out colleges that are smaller than your high
school; you’ll eliminate a lot of fine schools, including most Presbyterian-related colleges.
» Do I want to be near home or farther away?
» Would I be more comfortable in a city, a suburb, a small town or a more remote area? There
are good schools in all of these locations.
» What do I want to study? Note, there is nothing wrong with not knowing the answer to this
question, but if you have a particular subject in mind, you can look for colleges that offer that
» In what extracurricular activities (sports, music, fraternities and sororities, etc.) do I want to participate?
» Will there be opportunities to study abroad, do research or have an internship?
» Does the school have programs that will help me get into graduate school?
» What about religious life?
One question you should not ask, at least in the early stages, is “Can I afford it?” Financial considerations may determine your final decision, but don’t begin by ruling out a school because of its “sticker price.” Most students receive financial aid that can make even the most expensive colleges affordable.
The Internet makes it easier than ever to explore schools that might be a good match. Nearly every
college has a Web site with a wealth of information about the school. You can find links to more than 60 colleges that have historical connections to the Presbyterian Church at www.presbyteriancolleges.org. Other Web sites, such as www.collegeboard.com, can help you find schools based on location, size, tuition, degree programs, sports and other criteria. Use them to begin narrowing your choices.
Talk with students who attend the colleges you are considering; the admissions office can connect you with some, or you can often chat with current students online. Once you have identified schools that meet some or all of your criteria, it is time to schedule a visit.
The campus visit is the most critical step in the selection process. It can come after you’ve been accepted — particularly if the school is far from home, it may make sense to wait until then — but visiting while you are still deciding where to apply can help you narrow the field. Many colleges schedule visitation weekends that offer prospective students a more in-depth experience, but you can schedule a visit at any time through the college’s admissions office. Nothing is more important in helping you decide than a detailed look at any school you are seriously considering. Here are some tips for getting the most out of a campus visit:
» Visit while school is in session.
» Take notes. If you don’t, after a couple of visits you’ll forget what you saw and heard where.
» Try to meet the admissions officer who is likely to read your application. He or she is likely to be the one responsible for your state or geographic region.
» Sit in on a class.
» Eat a meal in the dining hall.
» Tour a freshman dormitory.
» Check out the library, the student center and the surrounding community.
» Talk with students and faculty members.
» Ask Mom and Dad what they think.
Throughout your visit, think about how well the school meets your selection criteria. At the end of your visit, write down your impressions and follow-up questions. Your research doesn’t end when you leave the campus.
During your visit, ask students what their chief gripes are about the college. Find out who teaches the classes — professors or graduate assistants — and how accessible faculty members are. How easy is it to get the classes you want? How long does it take most students to graduate? What is the freshman retention rate? Some experts say it should be 93 percent or better. Why do students leave? What is the social life like? What happens on weekends? What opportunities are there for students? How good is the school at helping students find jobs or get into graduate school?
There are right reasons and wrong reasons for choosing a particular college. Don’t pick a school because it has a famous name of “Top 10” sports team, because Mom or Dad went there, or because one or more of your friends are going there. Select a school because it feels like a place where you belong, reflects your values, and will challenge you, provide opportunities to learn more about yourself and equip you with skills that equip you for life.
Choosing a college is a big decision, often the biggest decision you will make at that point in your life. The process can be unnerving at times, what with forms to fill out, deadlines to meet, essays to write, and more. But others have done it and you can too. Here are a few things to keep in mind. Refer to them often as you navigate the selection process:
» The reason for going to college is to get an education, not just a degree.
» The test for finding the right college should not be how selective the school may be but how suitable.
» There are many good colleges (including some you’ve probably never heard of) to which you can be admitted.
» Finding the right college is worth the effort. Take the time to do it right.
» Colleges care as much about finding the right students as students care about finding the right college.
» Start early, but not TOO early. The beginning of your junior year is early enough.
» Pay attention to deadlines.
» Visit before you decide.
» You CAN afford to go there. The financial aid office will show you how.
» Mom and Dad can help, but the final decision should be yours.
Remember, the best college is the college that is best for you. Jay Mathews, author of “Harvard Schmarvard,” says the worst college to attend is the one your friends say you cannot turn down. “The best college,” he says, “is the one that looks like an adventure, a place that will take you where you have always wanted to go.”
GARY LUHR is executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities.