There are thousands of colleges to choose from. It is hard to figure out which ones are worth applying to. What things am I supposed to look for? What should I consider?
Money. How much can you afford to spend on your education? Granted, it is not uncommon to come out of school with loans, and out of all the investments you can make, an investment in your education is one that will always be a smart move, and let's not forget about scholarships and FAFSA, but at the end of the day, you don't want to have to drop out because money was an issue and serious out-of-school debt is nothing to sneeze at. Tuition payment is a big deal here, of course, but other considerations might include things like travel -- if you want to go out of state, can you afford to travel home for the holidays?
Programs. If you want to be an engineer, but you haven't checked to see if your potential colleges have an engineering program-- well that is a serious issue. If you're not sure what you want to be, you still need to make sure your potential colleges have a variety of programs in which you might decide to take part in.
Location. When you pick a college, you are not just going to pick where you get your education-- you are also picking the area that you live in for the next 4 or so years of your life. Maybe you want to live in a city. Maybe you'd prefer to live in a small town. Consider things like climate, crime rates, travel (as mentioned earlier), and the type of life you'd want to live in college. There are people who transfer to different schools because they can't take the heat or humidity or the unending cold or rain. It may seem silly to worry about, but like I said-- you are living here. You don't want to be miserable in college over something as silly as snow.
Credit. How much of your AP credits will go through? Do they offer transfer credit if you choose to take summer classes closer to home? Do they offer credit for internships? What is the structure of their credit system and requirements? At William and Mary, Credits are divided into thirds, with one third being General Education requirements, one third devoted to major related work, and the last electives. Not all schools are like this, and it's good to know what educational requirements you are locking yourself into.
Private schools. These are often overlooked, but for people who feel they are on the lower end of the income spectrum, they can provide a surprising opportunity. Scholarships are often need-based, and need-based depends on the pool of people going to that school. If th
e majority of kids attending a private school are high income, you may, as a member of the middle class or working class, get more scholarship money thrown your way as compared to if you applied to a public school where there is a smaller pool of scholarship, and tons of people attending college who need that money more than you do.
Size. Size of a school has a lot to do with your education. Larger schools can make it easier to find your place because statistically, there will be at least one group you get along with. But it can also make it hard to feel recognized as an individual, and you can get lost in a sea of students. Small schools offer more attention for you, in the class room, as well as socially, but for some that can be smothering.
Feel of the Campus. I recommend always visiting a campus if at all possible. You get out of it things that you can't get in a brochure. How much diversity is there? Is this a very sports-oriented school? Is this a very clothes-oriented school? Is there a huge drinking scene that I will be expected to be a part of? Is this school very Greek-oriented? Are there clear social divisions? How open are these people? Where do they hang out? How do they interact? These are the things you need to know. Also, check out where the money goes. Money shows what a school cares about. If they recently built very nice academic buildings, you can bet that that's what they care about. If the recently spent millions on a huge football stadium, that's what they care about. If they recently built new, healthier fitness and dining facilities, that's what they care about.
- counseling center - Whether you are just stressed out, or something more sinister rears its ugly head-- like an eating disorder or late on-set mental disease. Or maybe you need to help a friend or roommate.
- health/medical center
- sexual health help - if your school does not offer sexual health help, I'd say that's a big reason not to go or even apply there. I firmly believe that for the health of the students it is imperative that every college offer sexual health services like free STI testing, free condoms, information on contraceptives, and counseling services for people who want it. Even if you choose abstinence, there is nothing wrong with knowing that they people around you who have made different choices stay safe, and that the school has taken step to ensure that.
- escort services - these are for if you need a ride home. We have two on my campus. These people will get you home safe, whether you are drunk, or just afraid to walk home alone.
- sexual assault services - 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime by the time they get out of college, and 3% of college men also report sexual assault in their lifetimes. You or your kid needs to go to a college where there are services and counseling in case the worst happens, or almost happens. Make sure they go to a school where they can get the help they need and where students go through an orientation where they are educated on the truth about sexual assault, how it happens, and the perils of victim-shaming and slut-shaming.
- legal services - sometimes you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whether you're in hot water for an alcohol related offense, a cheating accusation, getting blamed for something your roommate owns or did, or worse, you'll want to have legal services available. Are there legal services available for students at an affordable rate? For some people, this is something that you're not too concerned about, but it's a definite plus knowing there's something to back you up just in case.
- Police - campus police are important, at least to me, to have around. They deal with issues specifically affecting our campus, and we are their priority. They'll even drive you home safely if the escort services are having a busy night.
Career outlook. Does your school have a career center? How good is it? How quickly out of school do they get jobs? Are those jobs ones that set them on a career path, or have they counted ones like working at the mall? Do they welcome underclassmen? Do they have specialists in fields like Education, or business, or science? Do they run frequent workshops on how to write a resume or network, or interview? Do they have good connections with employers? How good is their alumni network at finding people work? Can they talk to you about things like Grad school? Can they help you figure out how to pick a major? Do professors helpout students with career-related questions? Are they willing to talk to you about research, and give you research opportunities? Knowing about how well your college can put you on track for the future is a huge deal.
Study Abroad. For some people, this is a huge deal-- for others, not so much. Some schools have worked out deals with other colleges-- for example, W&M offers tuition-exchange programs at colleges around the world (meaning, you pay the same tuition to the foreign school that you would to W&M, and you don't have to pay anything extra to W&M for them to hold your spot), others offer joint degrees, which mean you get to spend half your time at one school, the other half at the other school, and get a diploma stamped by both (W&M does this with St. Andrew's in Scotland), other have scholarships specifically for study abroad, and some guarantee studying abroad (Center College in KY does).
Food. You are going to eat it for a while-- you may as well know what you're getting into.
Social Life. Are there things to do that interest you? At schools where there aren't a ton of things to do, typically they tend to turn to alcohol-- which is fine if you want it, but most people prefer to have a third option instead of just being faced with either boredom or getting smashed. Does the school sponsor events for fun at night? Are there a good number of clubs and sports and activities to get involved in?Like I said, You're going to be living here for 4 years, but on top of that, your college friends are likely to be your life-long friends. Depending on the social activities, it can really filter and affect who you meet at school. Are you going to meet people and hang out with them solely through a sweaty party scene, or maybe someone through a charity organization, or a nerf-gunning club, or a church organization? Granted, people don't fit neatly into little categories, but I think you can see what I'm saying in that people spend time on activities they care about, so you want to be able to have enough places to find people who share your common interests. It's nice to have options when it comes to fun.
Well there you have it-- some of the most important things to look at when it comes to picking colleges.
This is a part of my College Series. If you have any questions regarding college, dorm life, admissions, test strategies, course selection, essays, health, services, how to pick the right college for you, fact from fiction about college, etc. please comment below or email me you questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will also answer questions about William and Mary specifically, because that is the school I go to.