Every year, students preparing for college get inundated with marketing swag from all over the country. Beautifully designed brochures stuff up mailboxes, “personally addressed” emails flood inboxes, and targeted advertisements take over social media pages.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by the glitz and glam of these glossy marketing materials; after all, they have been professionally designed to grab your attention. However, when looking for the right college, it is important to focus on the things that really matter to you and your college experience, specifically as an institution of learning. It is important to consider your learning preferences and how you will fit academically at your prospective colleges.
Here is a list of five things you must consider before applying to college:
1. What kind of curriculum are you looking for?
Curricula vary greatly from school to school—sometimes even within the same institution—so it’s a good idea to think about your learning preferences in order to choose the curriculum that best suits you.
One thing to consider is the shape of the school’s calendar year. Do you prefer quarters, trimesters, or semesters? This might seem arbitrary at first, but the shape of the calendar year has a lot of interesting consequences. For example, the shape of the calendar year may determine how many classes you are taking at any given time. At schools on the semester schedule like the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, you would likely take usually 4-6 classes at a time. At quarter system schools, like Northwestern University, students typically take 3-4 classes at a time. At Cornell College in Iowa you take just one course at a time in their block scheduling.
It is also important to consider the flexibility of the curriculum. Some students may prefer rigid curriculums, which provide students a lot more structure and support through their classes. It can also take the stress out of finding which classes to take each semester (and getting them all done by graduation date). However, in rigid curriculums, it can be more difficult to transfer to a different college or even major. On the other hand, there are other schools that have extremely flexible curriculums. Brown University famously touts their Open Curriculum which has no distribution requirements and encourages students to build class schedules of their own design. Other schools, like Indiana University, allow students to build-their-own major.
2. How do you compare to other students academically in your school and major courses?
Though standardized tests and high school grades do not reliably determine college success, they can provide a decent benchmark for understanding where you may fit in with your peers at college. If your numbers are on the low end, you can probably count on classes being much more competitive and time intensive for you. You may have to work harder than your friends to keep up. On the other hand, if your numbers are better, it may mean you are not as stimulated by peers in your classroom. The curriculum might not move at the pace you’re ready for in the fields you care most about.
This is a particularly important question to ponder if you’re a pre-med or pre-law student, or if you are looking into other competitive graduate programs. A strong GPA will be important admission into that next level.
3. How important is professor accessibility to you?
Some schools really care about building strong relationships between professors and students. Small liberal arts schools often stress fostering intimate classroom environments that will allow you to get to know your professor and fellow classmates well. Though these types of classes can be found in larger institutions, you will have to seek them out. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a well-established program called First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) that allows you to take a cluster of classes with the same group of people in smaller classroom settings. Another common way to get a smaller classroom setting at a large institution is to gain admittance to an honors program, where class sizes are typically smaller and more rigorous.
But for some students, getting to know professors and classrooms might not hold as much weight. Perhaps you are an independent learner who is more interested in learning content than building relationships in the classroom. Maybe you’re even attracted to online classrooms where you will only have to interact with a professor digitally. You will have to do your research to find out what kind of schools will provide you with the classroom experience you want.
4. How does the campus extend and supplement the classroom?
College isn’t just a place you go to school for four years; it’s also where you live for four years. And class is only in session for part of the day. So how does your school help you to follow your passions and dreams outside of the classroom?
Building communities with like-minded students is a great way to extend the classroom. Many institutions have created learning communities and residence halls designed for specific interests, such as housing for students seeking a Spanish language immersion experience or a dorm wing reserved for women in STEM fields. And, of course, each school has a list a mile long of extracurricular options available to incoming students. What kind of extracurricular activities are important to you? What might you want to explore?
You also may want to see what kind of experiences are available off campus, such as internships, community partnerships, or even job opportunities.
5. Why are you going to school? What’s your endgame?
This is perhaps the most important question of all. What is college for anyway? What do you want from your experience? What does a “successful” college experience look like to you?
The answer to that question is simply up to you.
Depending on your goals, you may choose different types of schooling. Are you in college to prepare for a specific career field? If so, you are probably going to be most concerned with finding colleges that have a good track record when it comes to finding employment in your chosen field. Don’t have a career in mind but just love learning? Perhaps you are going to school to follow an intellectual passion, regardless of job opportunities. Perhaps graduate school is in your future. In that case, you’d be wise to find programs that will challenge you intellectually in the ways you crave. Or maybe you’re not sure exactly what you want to do next; instead, you are just looking for a breadth of experience and opportunity. If that’s the case, your goals might lead you to look at schools that encourage and facilitate exploration.
Or perhaps, your goals are a mix of all of this and more.
You will have to define what a successful college experience means to you. Only then should you start the search to find the college that helps you have that type of experience.
Need help with college application process? Come to one of our upcoming Galin Chats about college admissions!