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    Picking Colleges: How to Look Beyond Size, Location, and Rankings

    Posted June 29, 2022, 3:00 pm by Lauren Lindstrom

    Picking colleges can be quite difficult. With more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, it can sometimes feel impossible to even start your college search.

    Maybe you’re thinking about a large university that offers more than 150 majors for you to choose from. Maybe you’re considering a school in a city so that you never get bored. In the end, you’re only going to major in one (maybe two) subjects, and an urban campus may leave you feeling lost without a grassy quad. Perhaps size and location aren’t all that important then. 

    It’s no wonder then that families often turn to sources that rank schools from best to worst to help. However, rankings like the Princeton Review or U.S. News & World Report tells you much more about who is coming into the university, not what kind of students are coming out. So, when families rely on rankings alone, they may be setting themselves up for disaster. There is still no proven link between the selectivity of a school and the earnings, learning, or well-being of its students. 

    But, if size, location, or prestige don’t matter, what does? How do you choose a college that really fits? What's the best way to go about picking colleges? 

    This article is part of TeenLife's brand new 2022 Guide to College Admissions. Featuring more than a dozen articles from college pros and admissions experts, this new TeenLife guide is the perfect resource for tackling college admissions head on. Download it for free today

    How to Start Start Picking Colleges

    A female professor helps two students in a library

    A good place to start is by asking why you are even going to college in the first place. Are you eager to challenge yourself intellectually? Meet people whose high school years were nothing like your own? Are you dead set on your career path, or would you like a little more time to decide? These are the questions that will lead you to the university that’s right for you.

    Once you’ve started answering those questions, consider evaluating your college list by the following criteria: 

    Your Professors

    When it comes to career and lifetime satisfaction, the relationships you develop in college do much more than the university name on your diploma. Find a teacher that makes learning exciting and cares about you personally. Look for schools where the professors are interested in teaching (not just research) and will invite you over for Friday night discussions at their place. 

    Your People

    Who you surround yourself with matters more than you think. They could push you to be your best self by getting you out for a hike or talking through your research proposal. Later in life, they might be the ones to land you that CFO position or the reason you got to travel through Africa.

    Beyond your inner circle, what do you want the personality of your community to be? Will they fight for social justice and try to correct inequalities on campus? Will they compete over the number of classes and activities they’re involved in?

    Your Opportunities

    In terms of the number of choices in front of you, bigger isn’t always better. Your state’s flagship institution may offer those 150 majors and 200 student-run organizations you were eyeing, but they may also be harder to access due to fierce competition. At a school with closer to 2,000 students, you could be the star of the musical and the football team - just a couple perks of being the big fish in a small pond. 

    Check out your options off-campus: those provided by the school and others you could create nearby. Do you want a career counselor to send internship opportunities for the summer, or will you naturally seek those out yourself? Be honest. This isn’t about who you wish you could be, but who you are now and what you will need to succeed in the future.

    Your Cost

    What you will ultimately pay for an education can be hard to figure out. The posted ‘sticker price’ might look astronomical, but don’t let that scare you away. Here are a few money-saving secrets that might surprise you. 

    Private schools aren’t as expensive as you think. Colleges know that paying up to $75,000/year on tuition is not feasible for most Americans, so they figure out how to cut down the cost for almost all of their students. If you have limited resources, that means meeting your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which you can calculate on any college’s Net Price Calculator. If you don’t meet the income cutoffs, there is still money out there. Many excellent colleges will give scholarship packages of $40,000 or more, especially if they're in regions you haven’t considered or accept more than 20% of their applicants.

    Don’t discount in-state education. One of the public institutions nearby might have exactly the program you’re looking for. Be sure to check out the Honors College, which allows ambitious young adults to get the discussion classes and close professor interaction of a small college with the big school experience and price tag. There are also several inter-state agreements, such as WUE (the Western Undergraduate Exchange), that discount in-state tuition for their neighbors.

    Picking Colleges: Conclusion

    A college campus in fall picking colleges

    Hopefully by now you’ve picked up a few more ways to evaluate your colleges. It’s fine to think about the number of students or part of the country that would suit you best - but these might not be the first place to start. Identifying your deeper preferences for campus culture, educational opportunities, and financial parameters will likely lead to your very best fit. 

    If you save space for reflection in your college search, you will easily build a list of 9-12 schools that you know and love. In the end, though, it is not the college you attend that determines your success; it’s what you do with your time there that counts. 

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    Lauren Lindstrom

    Lauren Lindstrom

    Lauren Lindstrom is Director of Strategy at Corsava, a service that introduces students to a broad scope of college characteristics, helping families understand student preferences and encouraging them to find a college that truly resonates with their wants and needs.