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A Student’s Guide to Choosing the Right College

by Story2 Guest Author, on Apr 1, 2015 8:01:00 AM

Since the founding my organization The Prospect over two years ago, I’ve heard all sorts of advice from college admissions officers, college consultants, and college counselors as to what students should look for when they’re trying to decide which college is right for them.

And while all of this sage wisdom from older people can be awesome, there’s one problem: many of these people haven’t been college students in years (even decades)!

So, from the perspective of a current college student (as well as someone who runs one of the largest college access organizations in the world), what should you really be thinking about when determining which college is right for you? Here are a few things other people might not tell you to look for.

1. Student Voice and Participation

A lot of admissions consultants will suggest something along the lines of, “Look at the student body when choosing a college,” but in my experience, that’s still incredibly broad. After all, should you be looking at particular types of students and what they do, or something else?

If you’re trying to glean anything from current students at a college to see if it’s a good fit, I think it’s great to not only see how active students are on campus (when it comes to extracurriculars, college affairs, and the administration) but also how much students participate in all of those activities.

If you’re wondering why this is important, think about it as seeing what your “quality of life” will look like at the college: From the perspective of a student, it’s incredibly frustrating if you feel like your college and your peers aren’t “on your side” when it comes to things that are important to you, whether that’s a particular extracurricular or a logistical issue.

2. Ease of Access to Resources

All colleges will boast all sorts of fancy schmancy resources (State-of-the-art career center! Free tutoring help! A special advisor for freshman year!), but when students arrive at a college, they’re often surprised to learn that those resources aren’t exactly available as advertised.

For example, I had a friend who chose a specific college partly because she has a severe learning disability and this school claimed to have tons of resources for students who needed extra support academically. When she got to that college as a freshman, she quickly realized that while these resources did exist, getting them was a whole different story: She had to fill out tons of paperwork, go through all sorts of bureaucracy to get what she needed, and felt like she spent more time trying to find help than actually receiving it.

Moral of the story? Understand that colleges are in full-on “sell” mode when you’re a high school student, so figure out how that would change when you actually arrive on campus.

3. The Feelings of Upperclassmen

One huge mistake I see about 80-85% of high school seniors make when choosing a college is putting way too much emphasis on what I call “the freshman experience” and what they’ll do during freshman year instead of also looking at the rest of college, too. College is a four-year journey, so you shouldn’t just be focusing on 25% of that time!

While it may be more difficult, if you’re visiting a campus, don’t just talk to current freshmen about how they like that college; what you’ll hear from juniors and seniors is far more telling. Older students are much more honest and knowledgeable, and since their priorities differ, they’ll be able to tell you about all sorts of things you probably haven’t considered when making your college decision.

For instance, many college freshmen are not all familiar with their school’s career center (since they have four years until the real world!). On the other hand, juniors and seniors are focusing on post-grad, and they’ll be able to give you more insight as to how helpful that college is with preparing students for grad school, internships, and jobs. Those are things I personally hadn’t even considered as a freshman and wish I had!

Overall, if I had to sum up my advice for choosing the right college, I’d say make sure you look at the whole experience. Don’t just focus on what you’ll be doing freshman year, and think about how you’ll interact with that college as a whole (like with administrators or professors). There’s a lot more that goes into college besides living in a dorm, eating at a dining hall, going to classes, and hitting up parties, so make sure you’re giving thought to everything! 

Still not sure how to choose a college? Here’s more advice on how to decide which college Is right for you.

Lily Herman is co-founder of The Prospect, the largest student-run college access organization in the world. In addition to her work on The Prospect, she also works with USA TODAY, The Muse, HelloFlo, and Her Campus. In recent months, her work has been featured on Newsweek, Mashable, Forbes, TIME, and Lifehacker.

Topics:college admission