With college application season ramping up, millions of high school seniors have begun hunting for their "dream schools." No matter what grade you're in, knowing your goals and options can help reduce the stress of finding the college that's right for you.
"It's about self-discovery and finding a focus," said Peter Van Buskirk, founder and president of BestCollegeFit.com, and former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
There isn't a magic formula, but there are several steps to gaining a better understanding of how college can match and support your unique personality.
"It's going to differ widely for students," said Matthew Gazda, manager of research and data at Peterson's, a leading test preparation book publisher and website for college information, career exploration, and scholarship searches. "Finding a college is really an incredibly personal experience."
Van Buskirk, formerly vice president for college planning solutions at Peterson's, offered five considerations to take into account about every prospective college:
1. Does an institution provide an academic environment that meets your needs?
"Students should first look at if an institution provides an academic environment and program that meets their needs. Many students are uncertain about what they want to do at this point in their lives. Find a school that will allow you to explore," Van Buskirk said.
2. Does the college's teaching style match your preferred learning style?
"A student needs to reflect how they want to receive the content before they even look at colleges," Van Buskirk said. "You can get access to the content most places, but it will be presented differently. Would you rather read about biology, or do biology in the lab? Would you rather listen to the lecture in a room of 300 students, or rather be around a conference table with a dozen students? There's very different styles of instruction and kids need to understand best where they fit in."
3. Is the institution's difficulty level suitable to your ability and preparation?
"Some kids try to overstep. They try to reach to challenges that might be too great for them, or they look at colleges that won't challenge them as much. In either case, it's not a healthy reach," Van Buskirk said. "What they should be looking for are places that will find them the right kind of challenge, following their high school experience."
4. Does the institution have a sense of community that feels like home?
"You're going to move out of your parents' home and then create a sense of independence for yourself. You're excited, and there's anticipation, but you're also a little worried," Van Buskirk said. "If you choose a place that has a sense of community emanating from shared values of interest, more people will accept you for who you are, support you towards the things you do well, and pick you up when things aren't going so well."
Gazda said size and setting also affect a student, "going a long way in determining long-term satisfaction."
5. Does the college value you for what you have to offer?
"These schools want kids. They see what the students have been doing in school, and recognize the trajectory of these students. They want to be part of that trajectory for four years. As a result, they will admit the kids and they will give these students the financial assistance that they want or need," Van Buskirk said.
Although it can sound like an almost overwhelming list, Van Buskirk suggests tackling the college by starting small.
"Reflect on who you are, what you need, and how you can best function in a learning environment," he said.
He urges students to ask these questions: "Why do you want to go to college? What are three things you want to accomplish before you graduate? There's no right or wrong answer, but when students begin to articulate these things they're getting a sharper focus to their agendas."
Through self-reflection, students can find places that will allow them to accomplish their goals most effectively. Excellent options can be found through online college search filters and websites, Van Buskirk and Gazda agree.
Some students might consider special colleges, such as single-gender institutions, liberal arts colleges, religiously affiliated colleges, or specialized-mission colleges. Van Buskirk says it comes down to "making sure you're looking for a place that provides the program of study you want and also a style of instruction that creates an engaging environment. It has a lot to do with the level of comfort and community.
"Ultimately it's important to have experience within the community and culture of the institution," Van Buskirk said.
Campus visits can give students more perspective.
"It's obviously not possible for every student to visit every college, but it can be an absolutely important and incredibly useful resource," Gazda said.
Selecting a college is an exciting and important process, but it's not an easy one. Online and physical resources can help narrow the vast number of choices, but ultimately, it's about evaluating yourself and your aspirations. Careful assessment can be incredibly rewarding as you prepare to embark on the next four (or more) years of your life.