College application season. A source of excitement, anxiety, and uncertainty for high school seniors, this four-month stretch incites mixed emotions from students every fall. Questions of “What schools should I apply to?, ”What programs are good for me?” and “What do I even major in?” begin swirling before students even open their common application.
What’s less talked about is the after-application anxiety. What happens after you’re accepted to a variety of schools? How do you take a pile of college acceptance letters and commit to the best school? And most of all, how do you avoid spiraling during this overwhelming process?
It’s useful to have a clear set of criteria to narrow down your options and eventually decide on your perfect fit. So, this is ConnectPrep’s guide to choosing a college that’s right for you.
First: Academics. And no, I don’t mean whether it’s a Top 20 school or an Ivy League. In challenging the dominant narrative about what a “good” school or education is, I’d argue that the so-called “best” schools should be considered under the same criteria as every other institution, you’re deciding between. Practically speaking, name recognition holds far less weight than individual programs. For instance, the University of Washington – a public state school – has been home to the world’s best nursing program for seventeen years. Florida State University – also a public state institution – is considered to have the best criminal justice program of any university in the U.S. Northeastern University offers combined majors that allow students to explore 75% of the courses within two different majors. UMass Amherst offers a variety of small, interdisciplinary courses for first-year honors students that facilitate one-on-one connections with professors, allowing students to cultivate strong faculty relationships and a professional network early on.
So, when looking at academics, it is important to research the program or major you applied to. More often than not, the schools you may not have even considered skyrocket to the top of your list.
While doing your internet dive or talking with current students, ponder about class sizes, program-specific internship opportunities, study abroad opportunities, and even specific professors you find interesting. This is the time to be your advocate; going the extra mile, connecting with current students on LinkedIn, and browsing the program’s website will help you find the best school.
In addition to differences in programs themselves, academic tracks vary from school to school. Some universities offer a core curriculum that all undergraduates are required to take to satisfy their credit requirements. Conventional core curriculums require students to take ‘base’ level courses in all academic areas – math, science, and English, for example – in addition to a student’s major requirements. Newer core curriculums are placing less of an emphasis on traditional subject matters. They are instead designed so that students enroll in various interdisciplinary courses that build various holistic and critical thinking skills. Northeastern’s NUPath curriculum, for instance, has students fulfill courses focused on the natural and designed world, interpreting culture, and creative expression, as opposed to conventional intro to math, science, and English courses.
Conversely, some liberal arts schools – around 30 in the U.S. – offer open curriculums with no required courses; instead, academic advisors work alongside their students to create customized schedules that help them reach academic goals. Open curriculum schools may be a great fit for self-starter students hoping for more ‘play room’ with their credits. So, when deciding on a school, do some digging into the curriculum itself. Would you prefer a more set structure of coursework? Or would you enjoy paving a custom path to graduation?
In addition to the curriculum, it’s important to consider variations in academic calendars between schools. Would you prefer a quarterly schedule? Trimesters? Semesters? This consideration is often overlooked, yet in practice can make a major difference in your academic experience. Schools that operate on a trimester basis have, on average 2-3 more weeks of class time compared with quarterly schools, giving students some extra wiggle room to prepare for big exams or complete long-term assignments. Yet, quarterly academic calendars offer students more opportunities to explore different topics since students enroll in more courses with less time per course. Additionally, as opposed to students having two longer breaks within a semesterly system, quarter-based schools offer four shorter breaks in between classes, which is ideal for students who want to recharge during the academic year frequently. Variations in the academic calendar also impact students’ ability to recover from GPA setbacks, their wiggle room for switching majors, how thorough each course can be, and more. Think critically about your priorities; do you prefer taking fewer courses that go more in-depth on a subject matter? Or are you eager to explore as many academic areas as possible? Do you want a longer or shorter turnover time between courses? Do you find a rigorous, fast-paced course design exciting? Intimidating?
Second, location. Geographic location matters far more than some may think. City schools and “college town” schools have completely different housing costs, student organizations, commute times, school traditions, and even safety considerations simply because of their location. For instance, the Outing club at Williams College is the largest student organization on campus, with over 750 members, because of Williams’ proximity to hiking trails, bike paths, and campsites. By contrast, Northeastern University has various student groups that organize outings to Boston concert venues and other areas in the city. Consider your personality; practically speaking, where will you be the happiest? Are you looking for a complete change of pace from where you grew up? Is a college’s distance from home/family an important consideration for either financial or emotional reasons?
Third, culture and environment. Depending on your personality, the ‘perfect’ school atmosphere could mean various things. Maybe you’re interested in a politically active campus or a large Greek Life presence. Considering the campus environment is important not only in terms of what you want to experience but also what you do not want to experience. While it’s always good to challenge yourself in new environments, there are some cases where students have hard dealbreakers, and it’s important to identify these within yourself and choose a school that you feel comfortable with. More than anything, you should feel secure in being yourself and achieving your full potential on campus. On your campus tour, ask yourself: could I see myself fitting into this environment? Would I be able to reach my fullest possible potential here? Ask trusted friends, family members, and mentors about what characteristics they strongly see in you. Assess whether the campus environment/culture will play to these strengths and help you blossom.
Fourth, career support services and alumni network. College is all about preparing you for the next stages of your life. Regardless of your post-graduation plans, it would be best if you chose a school that can support you in your next endeavor – which is when the strength of the alumni network becomes a massive consideration.
Lastly, take a breather. From start to finish, college application season truly takes its toll, and it’s important to take care of yourself throughout the process. Remember that regardless of the university you choose, everything will work out how it’s meant to. Safeguarding your mental and emotional well-being through active acts of self-care should always be priority #1.