When coming up with a college list, pretty much everyone uses the same criteria: size, location, academic standing. Big or small? City or rural? Is it top of the list in U.S. News & World Report?
Those three questions are great for starting, but there is so much more to college life. While a school may be small, prestigious and near a beach, the Greek life may be way too much for you. And while you might want to be in the city, you may be upset when you see how little interaction students actually have with professors. Check out our list of criteria to see the best questions you can ask when narrowing down your college list.
1. Will the basic amenities meet your needs?
While some people may get excited about the idea of living in a classic dorm setting (and sharing a bathroom with more people than you ever thought possible), you may be horrified at the prospect. Make sure that the school you’re considering will meet your most basic criteria. If you can’t stand the thought of eating the same soggy pizza every day for dinner, look for a school that is known for offering lots of variety or that gives you plenty of dining dollars along with your meal plan to visit local restaurants. Or if it’s housing that gives you the jitters, check out this HC list of unique dorms to find a living situation that’s more beautiful, spacious or private than at other schools.
These needs may seem unimportant compared to a school’s academics or cool programs, but remember that you’ll be living here for four years—the basics will really affect you! Talk to current students at the school and do some online research (schools will often have virtual tours or photos on their websites) to determine if you’ll be able to stand living and eating at the school as well as learning.
Michelle Podbelsek of College Counseling Associates, however, warns against crossing a college off your list just because you don’t like the dorm room you saw. “I hope that a student doesn’t pick a college for a dorm,” she says. “If you narrow it down to one little thing like that, you’re missing out on the really big picture.” It’s just one other thing to consider.
2. Do you like the extracurricular activities that are offered?
Yes, you go to college to get an education. But you’re not going to be spending all (or even most) or your time in the classroom, and you want to attend a school with plenty of activities that will interest you and keep you busy and happy during your four years. If you’re a dancer, see how many dance troupes are at your school, and if there is one performing the style that you like. Maybe you want to play sports to stay fit, but you’re not interested in crazy Division 1 athletics. Does your school offer plenty of intramurals and recreational teams? Will you be able to do serious art without declaring an art major? Look under the “Student Life” section of the school’s website to find a list of clubs and extracurricular activities.
HC Campus Correspondent Bianca Ortega, who attends Belmont University, also suggests looking into how easy it will be to make your own extracurricular activity. “My school has a very specific policy and method of creating campus organizations that I would've never thought of inquiring about when touring and applying,” she says.
Certified Educational Planner Judi Robinovitz stresses the importance of checking into extracurricular activities. “If I’m a young woman who really enjoys giving something back to my community, I need to be sure of the support of this campus culture,” she says. “I need to find out what service opportunities there are, and if there are certain things that I enjoy doing, if I like to volunteer at a nursery school, I want to know that there’s something nearby where I can do the same thing. If I’m very into my religion, I need to know that there’s an outlet for me on campus, even if the school isn’t religiously affiliated.”
3. Will you get what you need academically?
Make sure you will be able to take classes that will interest you in college. If you want to take anything and everything, a school with liberal arts and a strong core curriculum would best fit your needs. If you never, ever want to take math again, then find a school with an open curriculum.
Also check to see if the school offers classes and majors in the subjects you love. Going to a high-ranked school will be pointless if you can’t follow your dreams of engineering the perfect iced tea bottle.
Podbelsek suggests looking into a college’s course offerings online to see if they have what you want. “Get on the website of the college and click under academics, start by looking at the whole list of majors, and if they have any special programs,” she says. “Go more in depth for the ones you might like. Get on that department website, look at the classes that are available. If you’re a Spanish major, do they have more Literature of Latin America or Literature of Spain?”
And don’t forget about class size and professors—will you be able to handle a year of lecture classes with 300+ students? Are the professors approachable, and do they hold office hours? How much time will you be spending with TAs? You can check out basic statistics on your school’s website to see the average class size, but talk to current students to get the real information on what it’s like to go to class at the school.
Marcy Williams, CEO of Commonwealth Management and Consulting, says you should consider your learning style when choosing a college. “Will you need more hands-on attention with your professor or maybe you enjoy blending into the crowd? If you currently go to a smaller high school, then maybe a large university is not the right atmosphere for you at this time.”
4. Will your AP credits transfer?
AP does mean more than just a few points on your resume. If you do well on Advanced Placement tests, they can get you out of boring distribution requirements and even allow you to enter college as a sophomore if you’ve taken enough. If it matters to you, make sure that those credits will transfer—if you absolutely hated AP Chemistry but got a 5 on the test, you’ll want to ensure you never have to take it again. Also, don’t forget about cost. You spent $80 or more on your AP tests, so you want to make sure they pay off. And placing out of classes means spending less for classes, textbooks and materials, or even in an extreme case graduating early and skipping a year of tuition.
5. What study abroad opportunities will you have?
If you’re interested in study abroad, make sure your school will be flexible with credits earned abroad. Many students find themselves in a bind when they go abroad, only to realize when they get back that the credits didn’t transfer and they’re a semester behind for graduation! You may be able to go abroad with another school’s program, so make sure you will be able to use those credits.
“With the economy and the pressure to get a job after college, is there a better time to travel?” asks HC Contributing Writer and BU student Kelsey Mulvey. “Usually studying abroad isn’t more expensive than a semester at school. Even if you don’t think you’d want to study abroad, it’s definitely worth looking into.”
For a lot of girls, study abroad is a crucial part of the college experience, so be certain you’ll have the ability to do so.
6. How much flexibility do you have?
You may think that you’re destined to be a doctor—but as any seasoned collegiette™ will tell you, once you enter college your future changes by the day. A school may have an amazing program that you’re interested in, but make sure to check how easy it will be to transfer in or out or to take other classes outside the program. You don’t want to end up stuck doing something you don’t like, nor do you want to cut yourself off from new experiences and ideas in general. College is all about figuring out who you are and what you like, so give yourself the flexibility to explore!
7. What kind of weather are you looking for?
Yes, this is important! Weather affects everything from how comfortable you’ll be walking to class every day to how easy it will be to get out of bed in the morning. If a school seems perfect but has terrible winters, reconsider if you know you’re a mess without sunshine. And if you can’t get enough of snowball fights and puffy coats, don’t pour all your energy into a school in Florida.
“It makes a huge difference,” says Laura Maddox, an HC Campus Correspondent from Appalachian State University. “If you don't like the cold, don't go where it snows just because it's cheaper of closer. It affects your mood about everything and whether you want to deal with going out in it to go to class!”
8. What career opportunities will you be able to get at the school, and are they of the type you are looking for?
If you’re interested in journalism, are there publications on or near the campus that you could work for? Will you be able to get credit for a semester internship, or would the school pay you to do an unpaid internship over the summer? Does the school have an amazing career services department to help you get a job, even though the school’s located in the middle of nowhere?
“Some of my friends who went to rural schools are just now realizing that internships and jobs are pretty hard to find in the middle of nowhere, and commuting to a big city like New York or Philly or Boston is expensive and time-consuming,” says HC Campus Correspondent Madi Tsuji, of Occidental College.
With internships becoming ever more important to finding jobs in certain fields, you’ll want to make sure you will have the resources to get the experience you need. Robinovitz says that having internships in college are your most likely routes to a job post-grad.
“It’s incredibly important that girls take advantage of internship opportunities, because not only is that going to help them determine a direction for a future career, and perhaps shape their undergraduate studies, it’s highly likely to lead to their first job after getting the degree,” she says.
9. Is the social scene what you want?
Do you want to follow your family tradition of being in the Chi Omega sorority? Then you’ll want to make sure all of your potential colleges have chapters. Are you allergic to partying? Then you might want to think twice about a school featured prominently on the Princeton Review’s Top 10 Party Schools list.
When looking at a school’s social scene, take all the aspects into account. Greek life, school spirit, and distance from a major urban center all matter. If you’re not into partying, you may want to be close to the city so you and your friends can catch a play or eat in a cool restaurant instead of hitting up the frats. And if you’ve had your heart set on cheering in your college football stands since you were five, a school notorious for its lack of spirit wouldn’t float your boat.
“What is your personality?” is the question Williams suggests asking. “You may be shy and yearning to break out a little – well, a partying college may not be best for you, but you should consider a college that has a diverse population – sometimes being in the ‘mix’ will help a person to break out of that shell.”
10. Does the school have the type of campus you want?
Rolling green hills, gorgeous waterscapes, or the blinking city skyline… there are college campuses with all of these. It’s up to you to decide what you want your new home to look like. If the beauty of the campus matters to you, don’t disregard it! Ending up on an ugly campus made mostly of concrete will affect you when you live there for four years, even if it seems superficial.
11. Will they be able to meet your special needs & interests, such as religion, diet, etc.?
This is probably one of the most important questions you can ask. If you follow a religion in which you are not allowed to live with men, make sure there is an all-girls dorm on campus. If you’re a vegan, make sure you’ll have lots of options and variety in the school cafeteria. And if you find out that a school won’t be able to accommodate your special needs, don’t even consider it. If you keep looking and fall in love with it for other reasons, it will hurt even more when you have to take it off your list.
12. What overall vibe do you get?
It’s unscientific, yes, but probably the most crucial step to deciding whether a college should be on your list is visiting campus and making sure you feel right at the school. Can you see yourself among the students walking around the quad? Do you feel at home in the dining hall or the library? Robinovitz even suggested checking how cute the boys are. Sometimes, no matter how great a school looks on paper, an actual visit will leave you with an undeniable “ick” feeling. Trust your instincts—if you choose this school, you will be living there for the next four years! You need to like it, and that goes deeper than just transferring AP credits or having a nice dorm room.
However, don’t forget to take the day you visit into account. Was it raining? Then you’re not seeing the school in its best light. Was the student giving your tour irritated or snappy? Remember that she was only one student—and that she might have been having a bad day. When visiting, if possible, try to talk to lots of current students and observe the whole school without focusing on one bad thing like the weather.
Collegiette™ and HC Contributing Writer Erica Avesian knew she had her perfect college as soon as she visited. “I got a great vibe from the University of Michigan the first time I went there and knew that is the school I belonged at,” she said. “You should walk on campus and feel at home--not just about the location, but about the people, the classes, the experiences--everything!”
Robinovitz also suggests using internet resources to get a feel for the school’s vibe. “I think it’s much harder to determine campus culture, and in order to do that, not only do I need to visit the campus if I can afford to do that, but I need to follow the blogs of several of the colleges I’m interested in, I need to become their fan on Facebook, I need to perhaps ask questions on College Confidential,” she says. “I need to start learning as much as I can about the campus culture to determine if I’m going to be a good cultural or social match for that college in addition to the academic match.”
13. Why are you really considering this school?
You should be choosing a school because it’s the right one for YOU—and nobody else. If the primary reason a school is on your list is that your boyfriend is going there, or it’s the college that three generations of your family attended, then maybe you need to reconsider.
“Are you going to add on a school just because your best friend/friends/boyfriend are applying there?” asks Podbelsek. “That may be ok, if the college really fits you too. But you have to research each college thoroughly and make sure it fits your own personal criteria.”
Also make sure you’re not just looking at a school because it’s extremely prestigious or because you want to impress people by getting in. Though it may not feel like it, the only person that needs to be happy with your college decision is you.
Judi Robinovitz, Certified Educational Planner
Michelle Podbelsek, College Counseling Associates
Marcy Williams, CEO of Commonwealth Management and Consulting
The HC Team