How to Choose a College: Advice from Experienced Admissions Counselors
CC Editor's Note: Which school is the right school for me? The College Confidential forums have been buzzing with high school seniors and their parents discussing this question and debating where to send their enrollment deposits. We asked college admissions gurus Dr. Michele Hernández and Mimi Doe Ed.M, founders of Top Tier Admissions and co-authors of the bestselling book Don't Worry: You'll Get In, to weigh in on a couple of real students' dilemmas from the forums, and to share some advice on how to choose the college for you. Read on to hear their tips, and remember, there is no or right or wrong choice when it comes to picking a school. There's only the right choice for you!
College selection: Making the Right Choice for You
You've worked hard in your high school classes, taken standardized tests, submitted college applications, and it all paid off! You've been admitted to college—in fact, you've been admitted to several colleges. But now you face a new challenge: how do you choose? Which school is the best fit for you?
From the forums: Cornell vs. Notre Dame: Where should I go?
Hi all! I was recently accepted to the University of Notre Dame and Cornell University. I have absolutely no idea which one I should attend, and would love some thoughts about both. Any unfiltered opinions are appreciated!
This is the list of pros and cons I quickly drew up…add more if I missed some.
- Pros: Rural, diverse, good research, can't go wrong in any department, Greek life, prestige and name recognition, vast
- Cons: More diverse in terms of the type of student (for example, more not as outgoing and those who were told since birth they had to go to an IVY), feels more uptight, less community feel, bigger class. My biggest concern is grade deflation, how much I will have to grind to do well in classes, and the cut-throatiness. If you went to Cornell, please give me your thoughts on the rigor!
- Pros: Football, school spirit and all around fun, super strong alumni network, strong community on and off campus
- Cons: less diverse, not as built up in STEM (I think?), less name recognition in Northeast, no greek,
They are of equal ranking – last year Notre Dame was ranked higher, this year Cornell is by only one. So I am not considering ranking. I assume I will get a good education at both, but to make a decision I have to consider all the minute details. Thanks!
Top Tier Admissions Weighs in: Cornell vs. Notre Dame
As you point out, you can't go wrong. Much will have to do with your particular major and area of study. In terms of academics, we would rate Cornell higher than Notre Dame because it offers an Ivy League education that will open doors around the world. Notre Dame is more regional and may not be as appealing to employers in other parts of the country and world simply on name recognition alone. We've had dozens of students who have just loved Cornell so we'd lean that way.
From the forums: USC vs. UPenn: Help me decide!
I seriously can't pick between the University of Southern California and University of Pennsylvania and it's stressing me out a LOT so maybe you all can help! Here's my pros and cons list:
University of Southern California - 18k per year (on a full tuition scholarship)
Pros of USC:
- Less stress probably
- Trojan scholar society
- Already have a few friends there
- Seems like it may be easier for me to stand out
- Honors suite dorm is the perfect fit for me bc I can't do communal bathrooms
Cons of USC:
- Can't do freshman science honors program because didn't take physics
- Not as successful as UPenn in getting students into medical school
- May be harder to get an internship bc so many people
- Not as prestigious/recent scandals have made it seem not so great tbh
University of Pennsylvania - 28k per year (waiting on appeal for more aid)
Pros of UPenn:
- Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences
- Better pre-med program and opportunities
- More prestigious
- Already know i like the campus bc visited
- School of medicine is on campus + children's hospital nearby
Cons of UPenn:
- Environment seems way more stressful
- More expensive
- Will be harder to maintain gpa and be top of the class
- Campus is not as pretty/weather can suck
Thanks for your help!
Top-Tier Admissions Advisors' Weigh In: USC vs. UPenn
We think it might be worth stepping out of your comfort zone a bit and picking Penn. After all, not only is it a top Ivy (which will help down the line when you look for jobs/graduate school) but it's a world class institution with some of the best professors in the country. Weather is less of an issue. We think it's good for kids to attend college away from where they grew up to expose them to different parts of the country. Naturally if price is a major issue, you could pick USC with its cheaper price tag, but Penn is one of the top universities in the world and that degree will pay dividends many times over.
Four Things to Do When Choosing a College:
- Review Academic Programs
- Talk To Students and Faculty
- Consider Costs
Review Academic Programs
You applied to schools with academic opportunities that interest you, but now's the time to explore them in depth. Which school has the most robust programs in your area of interest? Does it offer classes on your ideal subjects? Does it help students gain internships and get involved with local community projects? How easy does the school make it to study abroad within your major?
If you have multiple interests or think your focus might change during college, you'll also want to pay attention to opportunities for double majoring and minoring. If you're thinking of transferring to another school within a university (e.g., from the College of Arts and Sciences to the College of Engineering), how easy is it to accomplish that? Perhaps you've been admitted to a school that's part of a 3-2 Engineering Program. Contact the program supervisor and ask for more specific details on how to qualify.
We realize that reviewing the details is hardly the most exciting part of the college acceptance process, but doing that work now ensures that you'll end up at a place with the resources to support your interests.
When it comes to college, you're picking not just the place you will study and grow as a student, but also where you'll live for the next four years. With that in mind, you'll want to select a school where you feel comfortable and where you can find a community that suits you. How will you know which school that is? By visiting!
Visits have been difficult this year, but schools are working hard to give admitted students a sense of the college experiences they offer. Some colleges—including Tulane and Colgate—are now allowing admitted students to attend in-person tours and information sessions. Others have put together virtual programs and events to introduce admitted students to campus offerings. Take advantage of all available opportunities to explore your potential colleges. You might be surprised by which schools end up feeling like the best fit for you.
Talk to Students & Faculty
One of the best ways to learn about an institution is to talk to the people who are already part of it. Almost all colleges will provide opportunities for you to speak with currently enrolled students and faculty members. Dartmouth, for example, offers faculty presentations and "Pine Pods" to help introduce students to the community, while UVA's Days on the Lawn gives admitted students an opportunity to chat with current undergrads. You might also reach out to friends and family members who have attended your schools of interest to see if they can give you any insights. Your school guidance counselor might be able to put you in touch with former students who have enrolled at particular colleges within the past few years.
If you want to get a better sense of the academic opportunities at a school, you might also reach out to faculty members to learn a bit more about their department or to request the opportunity to sit in on a class. While not every faculty member will be able to assist you, some might have a few minutes to answer your questions, which will give you a better sense of the department you might be joining.
Consider the Costs
No matter how you cut it, college is expensive. For this reason, you'll want to consider the price tag of each institution carefully. How much is the annual tuition? How much will your living expenses be? If some schools are offering you scholarships or better financial aid packages, make sure you take that into account when reviewing offers. You can adjust your financial aid package during the coming years if your situation changes, but you don't want to count on that when deciding among several offers.
You've Earned It
Once you've had a chance to explore a college and its programs, to chat with those who already attend it, and to think pragmatically about costs, we hope you'll feel more comfortable choosing one school over the others. After that, you get to enjoy the end of senior year and a relaxing, SAT-free summer. You did it!