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How to Choose Your College: Advice from Students

Featured Image: CU Boulder from the air. Courtesy of CU Boulder. CC0 1.0 UPD.

For a school year as tumultuous and unpredictable as this one, it’s hard to believe that we’re already coming to the end! College decisions have been released, and it’s time for high school seniors to start thinking about where they want to end up next year.

Current seniors have only a few days left to make their final decision and commit to one college. In our last Capstone article, Shelley listed many ways that seniors can evaluate their colleges for fit. Another previous article also discusses different approaches for finding a good college fit.

This week, we’ve spoken to two students who graduated from high school in 2020 and are now happily enrolled in college. They’ve provided helpful insight on how they evaluated the colleges where they were accepted and ultimately chose their school.

1. Pay attention to your criteria

Brendan is currently enjoying his first year at USC. Last year, he applied to colleges across the country and was torn between several intriguing options. “When looking at colleges, I really wanted to find schools that reflected a sense of well-roundedness and offered opportunities outside of my major,” he says. “As a result, I was especially drawn to schools that offered excellent engineering programs but also a competitive athletic culture and lots of extracurricular opportunities.”

Focusing on the criteria that were important to him helped Brendan narrow down his choices. Identifying a few select considerations, such as the availability and quality of extracurriculars and social activities, is a good first step to identifying a school where you might feel at home. However, as Brendan found, even if you prioritize those criteria you might still find it difficult to identify one college that truly stands out. “All of [the colleges where I got in] offered great opportunities in terms of engineering programs and extracurriculars so it definitely took me a while to decide. I could honestly see myself as a student at any of these universities,” he remembers. Which brings us to our next point…

2. Take advantage of colleges' resources

Nearly all colleges offer some kind of recruiting event for admitted students in the month of April. Keep an eye out for emails about virtual student panels, information sessions, sample lectures or classes, or school spirit days that your college may be offering. These can be great ways to learn more about your colleges, including each college’s unique "vibe" and whether the students, professors, and admissions officers seem like your people.

According to Brendan, “Student panels were the most helpful resource in my opinion. I really enjoyed hearing the perspectives of different students and hearing about their various experiences at the universities. Virtual tours also provided a nice glimpse into the campus culture of each university, which was very exciting.”

COVID-19 has made travel complicated. However, students who have the option to safely visit their top-choice colleges or the surrounding communities can assess how it would actually feel to be a student at those schools. Charlotte, a first-year student at CU Boulder, got even more excited about her ultimate choice after visiting during her senior year. “[Boulder] was beautiful! All the trees were in bloom and the kids were all running around and preparing to rush fraternities and sororities!” she recalls. “I highly suggest touring your college of choice because you may get there and realize you don’t like the campus or the people.”

Brendan also advises that students go on department-specific tours, whether in-person or online, for their major of interest at a college. “I participated in a tour of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering… [that] allowed me to visit various makerspaces, talk to engineering students and professors, and experience what being an engineering student at USC is like. Major-specific tours were very helpful in selecting the right school for me.”

Many college tours, major-specific and otherwise, have been converted into an online format along with the rest of most schools’ recruiting events. Research your colleges’ admitted student website or read the emails they send for updates on the activities they’re offering, and plan to ask a lot of questions during the events.

3. Trust your heart!

Even when you have the chance to visit a college, and you’ve weighed pros and cons and considered all other details, students’ final decisions often come down to gut feelings—and that’s totally fine!

To current seniors deciding between colleges, Charlotte says, “Trust your heart! Take advice from others who have already gone down this path. It is a very stressful time right now—believe me, I remember—but don’t be afraid to reach out for help from family and friends. They can lend so much help and wisdom in the process.” She also suggests reaching out to a college counselor, if possible, for further insights and advice.

Brendan recommends that students pick a college “not based on ranking or prestige, but whether or not you can truly see yourself thriving there.” He continues, “I am an avid supporter of mental health and I believe that selecting a school that provides a safe and productive environment for their students is the most important factor to consider when committing to a college. Choose a school that reflects your own values, embraces your interests (career-related or not), and challenges you to be a better student both in and outside of the classroom.”

Choosing a college can be a stressful process. Just remember, wherever you go will not define your life. College is what you make of it, and it is possible to have a great experience wherever you go. As you finalize your decision over the next few days, make sure to take some time to celebrate your accomplishments. College will work itself out in the end. In the meantime, please remember to be proud of yourself for the hard work it took to get to this point!

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