August 18, 2008

Weigh these factors to help you pick school

As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”: 'If you don't know where you're going...any road will take you there.'

As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”:

If you don't know where you're going...any road will take you there.” The first step in finding that right path is finding colleges that fit. While there is some art and interpretation involved, here are some steps to make the college search process more manageable.

Create a list of colleges of interest. Make your own list or use an online assessment tool. (See last week's column at

Below are traditional college search factors. Brainstorm with family members and friends to add your own personalized factors to this list. Review the list and determine the importance of each factor (high, medium and low).

Size: Would you like to know most of the people in your class or would you be happy knowing a few people within a larger community? How important is getting feedback from professors?

Many students often equate big with bad. Big can mean more opportunities and may mean bigger classes. Students also often assume big equates with more spirit, better sports, more social life, etc. This is not necessarily so. Being able to stand out at a bigger college usually requires more initiative on the student's part.

Remember: It's easier to make a big school smaller than it is to make a small school bigger.

Location: How far away from home is a good distance? Consider both the emotional and financial costs.

Setting/Climate: Is your mental picture of college an ivy-covered campus in a small town? How comfortable would you be in a high rise dorm in the city? How important is access to cultural opportunities and shopping? How tolerant are you of cold weather?

Academics: Do you know what you want to major in? Research the online course catalog. Get a sense of the depth of the departments by viewing the number of courses and number of professors. If you are not sure what you'd like to major in, make sure there are a variety of options.

Extracurriculars: Classes generally take up less than 10 hours per week. You will have time on your hands. Make sure the campus offers the kind of social environment where you'd feel comfortable. How pervasive is the influence of Greek life? How important is sports?

Cost/Financial Aid: How much can your family contribute? Are you willing to take on loans? Will you qualify for need-based or merit-based aid? Are you willing to consider going to a less prestigious college that offers you more scholarship money?

After you have rated all of the factors, take a look at your college list and see how each college performs against each factor. You might be surprised to learn that a college you hadn't seriously considered rises to the top of the list.

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