If you are a current high school student you have likely been subjected to the litany of college discussions and preparations that are so prevalent in our society. The constant barrage of information regarding PSAT, SAT, ACT, Subject tests, AP courses, college visits, FAFSA and the Common App Essay, while informative, can also create pressure that can easily cause unnecessary anxiety. If your family is anything like mine, since you were in diapers you may have been surrounded by parents who talked about their desire to see one of their children walk the hallowed halls of Harvard University or MIT. Or perhaps you have an older sibling who loves the college they chose, or a grandparent who would be so proud for you to attend their alma mater. These days it seems everyone from well-meaning coaches to parents to guidance counselors has an opinion as to what schools you should be applying. So how do you narrow down that extensive list? Read on to learn how to whittle your choices down to a manageable and practical list.
- Create a List: There are so many factors to consider when thinking about the perfect place to spend the next 4 years. Dreaming of a school on a sprawling city campus? You may be surprised to visit a school in a more rural setting and discover that you are more of a country girl who happened to be (tragically) raised in the city (like me). Maybe a school that will afford you the opportunity to play on one of its sports teams, or that has an active social scene is important to you. Perhaps you want to march in the band or major in something unique and hard to find. Do you want to stay close to home? Or are you eager to live in a city with different cultural, social, and weather patterns than where you grew up? Whatever it is that is vital to your college experience, you should begin making lists and prioritizing what is important to you ASAP.
- Do Your Research: If you already know what you would like to major in (don’t worry if you do not) then you should narrow down your list to schools that are known for having a great program of study for your intended major. Maybe your dream school only accepts 20% of students out-of-state.This does not mean that you should not apply, but rather it should inform how many and what type of other schools you apply to as well. Other things to consider will be what percent of students graduate with their degree? What might be the return on your investment? (i.e. What type of salary are recent graduates earning?) What type of financial aid packages are typically offered?
- Plan a Visit: Whether it is during one of the school vacation weeks, or summer vacation, or even a quick weekend day trip (for those schools within driving distance), you need to visit as many of the schools that you are considering applying to as possible. Often times you find that a school that looked good “on paper” does not seem like a good fit for you at all when you visit, as was the case for me the moment I set foot on the Boston University campus. A school that had previously been one of my first choices now seemed like a place where I was confident that I would never be happy.
- Check admissions requirements: Requirements for each school vary greatly and thus I strongly encourage making sure that you are aware of all the requirements for the schools to which you hope to apply. Factors such as GPA, SAT/ACT scores, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, sports, recommendation letters, residency, and your personal essay will all be considered by admissions officers. In order to ensure that you are accepted to a suitable school where you have a chance to be successful your final list should include schools with a range of acceptance rates. A general rule of thumb is that you should apply to AT LEAST: 2-3 “reach” schools, or schools unlikely to offer you admission (less than a 30% chance), 2-3 target colleges, or schools where you have a decent chance of gaining admission (30-80% chance), and 2 safety schools, or schools where you are almost guaranteed admissions (greater than 80% chance). Some students may feel more comfortable applying to several more schools, but I would NOT recommend fewer than this.
- Wait and Decide: This is easily the most difficult of the steps. Once you’ve taken all the tests, received all your recommendation letters, mailed your official transcripts, and polished your essay to perfection, you mail the applications off and you simply wait. Opening those letters can be exciting, disappointing, frustrating, or exhilarating. When it comes time to deciding which school to attend of those that accepted you, you should consider things like what type of financial aid package you may have received, whether or not you can play the sport you hope to, and what your future plans may be. Maybe you were accepted into your first choice school but received no financial aid package and perhaps a second choice school gave you a “free ride.” If you are considering graduate school or perhaps even plan to pursue a PhD, you may want to attend the school that gave you the best financial aid package so that you aren’t saddled with debt before you even begin your graduate degree. Didn’t get the thick envelope from your first choice school? All is NOT lost. Many students have had success with beginning in a different school and transferring into their first choice school later. Alternatively, you may find that you are thrilled where you end up and can’t imagine things turning out differently. Whatever the outcome, remember that college is just one step in the process of our lives, and what is really important is that we take the step that is right for us.