I'm a high school sophomore that currently lives in Nashville. I've been asking around lately about how to choose my colleges for the future and it seems like I'm not getting a very clear answer from all these older college friends around me. I heard College Confidential is a great place to ask for advice and to get in touch with true experts regarding college and future education. I am mainly sending you this email to ask an important question about choosing colleges. How should I pick my safety schools, match schools and reach schools?
Should I pick a major that I'm interested in and then search (e.g., "Best engineering colleges in the US"?) or should I look at other factors? And if it's the latter, which factors are the most important?
Choosing a college is a lot like choosing a mate ... the options are head-spinning, and the older you get, the easier it should be to figure out what you want. As a rising high school sophomore, you’ve still got plenty of time to hone in on target colleges. Even so, you’re smart to at least start thinking about the choices — and the potentially daunting process — down the road.
When it comes to making a college list that includes a wise balance of “reach,” “realistic” and “safe” colleges, your “numbers” (GPA and SAT or ACT scores) will play a starring role. Although college admission officials will see all of your high school grades and your cumulative GPA, the grades you earn as a junior and as a first-semester senior will be weighed most heavily. And, despite a growing number of “test-optional” colleges, it’s likely that your SAT or ACT scores will also carry significant weight as you assess your admission chances. So it’s obviously too early now for you to create a reasonable college list without this critical information, although it’s certainly not too early to start discovering your preferences.
Some students your age have already chosen a college major, some have at least a rough idea and some are totally clueless. And all of this is fine. Such a high percentage of college students change their major at least once, that — unless you’re dead certain of your goals by the time you’re 17 — it’s prudent to pick a college where there’s wiggle room to choose a new path partway through (and this means most colleges). So, sure, if you think engineering is a likely major for you, then your search should include colleges that offer engineering programs. But focusing on “best engineering colleges” can be a red herring. “Best” is too often determined by the GPAs and test scores of the entering freshmen. Some teenagers, however, prefer to be at a college where they can be the star, not at a place where they’re constantly struggling to keep up and get noticed. And some engineering students would be happy to take as many engineering-related classes as possible, while others would love to have the opportunity to pursue varied academic interests. So as you get closer to twelfth grade, if engineering remains a priority, you should ask yourself what sort of other priorities you have and then focus on those as much as — or more than — you focus on the “best” rosters.
You asked which of several college-search factors is the most “important.” Yet there’s really no one key area that flies to the top of the list. What you really need to consider is the “fit.” That includes a range of factors that you can’t view in isolation: Location, size, academic offerings, possibly the cost (you don’t want to be pressured for four years about paying bills) and campus climate (not the weather — that would fall under the “location” heading -- but if it’s a conservative school, a liberal one, a place where most folks are at a football game on Saturday afternoon or at the dance recital, etc.)
There are a number of ways to begin to figure out your good-fit schools, even as a sophomore. Here are some steps you can take right away or in the year to come:
- Visit campuses: You don’t need to make “formal” visits right now that include information sessions and organized tours (and very few colleges offer interviews to sophomores). But whenever you’re traveling with your family and end up near a college campus with a little time to spare, take a look around. And don’t visit only places where you’re likely to apply. You’re only at the outer edge of the admissions maze so it’s important to experience different types of schools ... large, small, urban, rural, etc. Attend a sporting event or a concert if you can; grab a snack in the student center. After several college visits, are any patterns emerging? Do you love a place like Boston University where the “campus” is mostly the sidewalks surrounding tall buildings, or does more suburban Boston College, with its trees and grassy lawns, feel like home to you? Check out your local colleges too. Even if you’re convinced that you’ll never land at Lipscomb or Middle Tennessee State, you can still figure out what you like about each place that you’ll want to seek in your “real” school later on.
- Play the “Mystery College” game: You’ll need a friend or family member to help and also a copy of an “anecdotal guide book” such as The Princeton Review’s The Best 382 Colleges. (By “anecdotal, I mean that the descriptions include subjective information about the school, such as student opinions and stereotypes, and not just dry facts.) Ask your accomplice to flip through the book and select a page at random but without telling you where you’ve landed. Then he or she should read excerpts from the descriptions, bleeping out identifying details such as the school name (duh!) and specific location (it’s fine for your friend to sub in “major Eastern city” or “rural college town” each time the actual location is mentioned.) Then you can decide whether the school sounds intriguing to you or not so much, while keeping track of the places you like. This is a fun way to jump-start the college process with an open mind, trying to avoid preconceived ideas about a student body or reputation.
- Talk to strangers: With a little common sense, you can forego the “stranger danger” lectures you heard in pre-school, and instead, start up a conversation with folks you spot sporting Swarthmore shorts, Clemson caps or Tulane tees. Ask them about their connection to the college (student? former student? parent? grandparent? friend?), and if they do have a connection indeed (and didn’t simply steal the swag from a Salvation Army bin ;-) ) then you might have a great opportunity to chat about the college they’re promoting. So, if you’re not pathologically shy, you could end up adding a new target college to your list after a five-minute wait in a check-out line. (And how fitting to find a target college at Target!)
- Sign up for a summer program on campus: Colleges commonly offer summer programs on campus for high school students. These can range from one week to eight or more, and some of them are very pricey, while a few are actually free. Most college summer programs are primarily academic and allow participants to try new fields of interest or delve deeper into familiar ones. While attending a summer program is not a fast-track to a highly-selective host university (as students and parents often mistakenly believe), it does provide the chance to sample college life and to get a sense of what sort of campus environment feels right. My own son, for instance, attended programs at Wellesley College in a quiet Boston suburb, at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., (a lively college town), at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., (a tinier college town), at UCLA and at Pace University in Manhattan. Although he never ultimately applied to any of these schools, he realized from the summer experiences that he wanted to be in a city but also on an actual campus and he didn’t want a place that felt small. UCLA was the only one of his summer stops that fit the bill, but he found this school to be too large. So, instead, he focused on somewhat smaller universities that offered the action of a city along with the containment of a campus. He found his summer stints extremely helpful when it came time to know what he was seeking in his college. You, too, may be able to help shape your college list by spending some summer weeks on a campus. Moreover, as a prospective engineering major, you could use a summer engineering program to help decide if you do want to pursue this career and perhaps even to help determine which type of engineering most intrigues you. “The Dean” hears from a lot of students who claim to be aspiring engineering majors. Most of them know that they are good in math and science and have been told that engineers get high-paying jobs after college, but many have not had much chance to understand what engineering truly entails.
- Read College Confidential: If you are interested in a particular academic area (e.g., engineering) or in specific colleges, or if you have questions about standardized testing, summer programs, financial aid, etc., you can benefit from the wisdom on CC. The information in the CC “articles” section always comes from experts. The info on the discussion forums often doesn’t, although it can still be very accurate. But don’t take the forum responses as gospel truth, and don’t elevate your college search to extracurricular-activity status. That is, if you become obsessed with CC (or with other admissions websites or books), you won’t have enough time in your day to pursue those endeavors that will actually get you into college!
- Meet with your college counselor: High school guidance counselors often don’t start talking about colleges with their advisees until junior year. But most are happy to get going sooner with eager sophomores. So when school opens again, make an appointment to meet with your counselor. For starters, this will help your counselor to get to know you better, which, in turn, could lead to more effective advising as well as to a stronger letter of recommendation when the time comes. And even though your counselor can’t assess admission chances for you without some junior grades and official SAT or ACT scores, it’s not too early to provide a few college suggestions based on your course selection and grades so far and on your academic and extracurricular interests. And this meeting may also allow you to evaluate your counselor as well. If he or she seems to be suggesting only colleges close to home, this should raise a warning flag ... unless you’ve insisted that you plan to commute to college. But, on the other hand, if your counselor says something like, “You’re a great student so you’ll get in everywhere you apply,” then your antennae should go up, too. A good counselor is familiar with (and will recommend) colleges beyond just the local ones. And a wise counselor knows that, at the most hyper-competitive places, no student is a sure thing ... not even a valedictorian with perfect test scores. Thus, you might be able to walk out of this meeting with a sense of how useful your counselor’s advice will be as you start to wade into the college quagmire in earnest.
If you take these steps now or during the school year to come, you will start to find answers to your questions about picking a college. And then, once you have at least one semester of junior grades under your belt plus a set of SAT or ACT scores, here’s what else you might do:
- Hire an independent college counselor: If you’re wary that your school counselor isn’t up to snuff and if you’re still confused by the college process and are struggling to create a balanced college list, you may find that a private counselor can get you on track. While full counseling packages (that include not only college suggestions but also resume and essay editing along with interview preparation and final application reviews) can cost thousands of dollars, many independent advisors will help you to compile your list for far less. If you’re looking for a private counselor, word of mouth is a smart place to start. Parents of older students who have already graduated from your high school may have suggestions for you. The Independent Educational Consultants Association is another good place to look.
- Invest in a College Karma Stats Evaluation: Once you have a semester of junior grades and official test scores, you can order a “Stats Eval” from College Karma for just $150. After you’ve completed and submitted a brief form, an admissions expert will assess your chances of acceptance at every college you’ve named on the form and offer tips on how to improve those chances, where possible. The Eval report will also include a list of other colleges to consider that best meet your profile and preferences. You can read about the Stats Evaluation here.
But begin with the first batch of steps, above. Try not to worry about what you think should be doing but aren’t. Instead, view the year ahead as an exploratory period, and have some fun fantasizing about what you want to do when you get to college and about the type of environment that feels most appealing. Once you have your junior grades and test scores, you’ll have to get more serious about making a college list that isn’t as long as your arm. But for now, be open to many possibilities and enjoy the adventure.
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