I remember the summer before my senior year, sitting in front of my computer, aimlessly looking up colleges that I might want to apply to. I really had no clue what I wanted, and was basing most of my decision off of how pretty the campus was and whether or not I liked the school colors. Not the greatest approach, I will admit.
As my senior year progressed, with the help of my parents, I started to narrow down my choices. I applied to five schools- 1 safety, 2 that I was pretty sure I’d get enough scholarship money to, and 2 that were reach schools. The happiest day of my high school career was finding out that I had gotten into all of them. Throw out the safety school, and one of the comfortable choices. I was left with three, and chose the school with the best reputation/sounded the fanciest/had the best program and facilities for what I wanted to major in.
But there were a ton of factors that I hadn’t considered when I made my pick. I was a little blinded by the prestige of the college I chose, and forgot to think about how I would fit in there socially, which led to a lot of confusion and loneliness for me once I got there. So to help other avoid that experience, I made a list of questions that I had wished I asked myself before I picked a college. Full disclosure though, I’m really really happy there now and have adjusted just fine after a year or so.
If you’re a college student now having a hard time adjusting to a new school, read my post A Letter to the College Student Thinking About Transferring.
What do you want to do?
Ok, so ask yourself, but not overly-specifically. The chance of you changing majors is statistically, pretty high. So if you think you want to study Biology, for example, pick a school with a great science program, not necessarily a great Bio program. If you love science, chances are good that even if you change majors you’ll stick to that broad major-group.
I went into school positive that I was going to major in English and get my PhD. Now I’m an English and Poli Sci double major, and I’m looking at jobs in Politics to work at for a few years before I go to Law School. Very different paths, and I was so sure of myself! You’ll take classes that will uncover passions you never even knew you had, so give yourself some wiggle room and don’t pick a school just because it has a great Molecular Biology program- or some other super specific major like that.
Is it near home? Is it OK if it’s not?
I had no concept of this when I applied, and thank God my parents took the reins and didn’t let me apply some of the places I wanted to. The school I go to is about an 8 hour drive from my hometown, and I got super homesick. I also don’t live near an airport, so when I didn’t have a car Freshman year, I was kind of out of luck when I wanted to visit home. Going home for the weekend can also be really expensive if you live far away. Now that I’m in DC, getting home is a full day excursion and very pricey.
However, if you can avoid it (and a lot of people can’t, because schools near home are typically cheaper) go to school away from home. Being in a different state for college has stretched me as a person more than I could have expected, and my friends who stayed in state for school haven’t had that experience. College is a great time to expose yourself to new places, so if you can, leave home. I also went to a school where I knew exactly 0 people going in, and I survived. You will too!
Can you afford it? If not, can you get scholarships?
This is an obvious and self-explanatory one. Don’t go somewhere you can’t afford. I went to an expensive school, but I was also extremely lucky to not have to pay my way entirely. Racking up student debt is no fun, so pick somewhere that’s financially realistic. There are a ton of public schools that are extremely impressive and will look amazing on resumes, and if they have good out-of-state programs, they won’t destroy your credit either.
How Big is it?
Small schools (less than 5,000 students) have entirely different dynamics than big schools (more than 15,000 students). If you want small class sizes and a very intimate social atmosphere, go somewhere small. If you want to be at a school that’s got a diverse social atmosphere, you’re probably a big-school person.
Both have pro’s and con’s. You might make friends faster at a small school, but it can be more high-school-ey, in that drama spreads fast and everybody knows everybody. Big schools are easy to feel lost in if you don’t find a clique or an organization to be a part of, but if something doesn’t work out with a friend group or an extracurricular, you’ll have far more options to try afterwards than a small school would give you.
My school is considered to be large, but honestly it still feels super small. Maybe it’s that I’m in Greek life, and that social circle can feel very narrow, but I don’t think I would’ve liked a school that was any smaller than the one I’m at now. Totally personal preference, though.
What do people typically wear to class?
An extension of the last question- sort of. So, yes, I go to a very wealthy school and people are a little stuck up about it. But they also dress like they’re homeless every day. That’s more of a southern college thing I think, because it is really not like that at all in DC, butyou just have to look closely.
In the south, girls dress like slobs everyday (it’s comfy as hell though, not really complaining.) It’s the [oversized sorority t-shirt + lululemon track shorts/leggings + kendra scott necklace + Nike, Birks, or Adidas sneakers] look. And if that’s your deal,great! I loved visiting campus and seeing that look, because it’s how I literally always dress, but I hadn’t realized how expensive it was to achieve. And like, people notice if you go the cheap route. It’s bizarre.
Back East, girls wear heeled booties, skirts, stockings or tights, and blouses to class. They look really cute, but good Lord I could never do that for an entire college career. Four years of getting ready everyday sounds like hell. A hell that I’ll have to get used to once I start working at a real job, but count on me putting that off for as long as I can.
What’s the sports/campus activity culture?
This one is probably not that huge, because if you don’t like sports, just don’t go to the games. Easy. Some people, myself included, get genuinely annoyed at how athletes are treated on campus (usually like Gods) and how big of a deal football can be, so if that’s you, take that into consideration and don’t go to a big football school. Liberal Arts colleges back east are probably more your scene.
If you do like sports, make this a part of your decision for sure! Seems dumb, but if you dream about tailgating on a Saturday afternoon before a huge game that the entire school goes to, then go somewhere where you can have that experience. It’s not lame to base you school choice partly (not entirely though, please) on sports, because in some colleges it’s just a huge part of the social experience.
How big is Greek Life?
I’m by no means your typical sorority girl, but I am in a sorority. At first I hated it, but then I met my best friend through it and now I’m super happy I rushed! Why on earth did you do it at first though if you expected to hate it? You ask. Well, my friend, I go to school in the south, and greek life is HUGE. Had I gone to school at my other choices (in Colorado, Oregon, …) I probably would not have rushed because it wouldn’t have been such a big part of the campus culture. But where I go to school, I didn’t really feel like I had a choice.
So, if you want to be in a sorority, and you want your days and life to be consumed by what house you’re in, date events, formals, mixers, and philanthropy events (and you’re ok with those events never really being about your philanthropy [except in mine- we luv ours and are really into it, so it varies]) then you really should go to school in the deep south, where Greek life is everything.
If you maybe do maybe don’t want to rush, and you are ok with it being a more minor part of the campus atmosphere, than outside of the south is probably more your speed. You can still be in one, and honestly it will probably still be fun and great, but your whole life won’t have to revolve around it, which could be nice.
What’s the political culture on campus?
I go to school in the south, and despite the common stereotype that colleges are breeding grounds for think-piece-writing liberals, my campus is extremely conservative. Makes sense because the south is pretty republican. Being there during the 2016 election cycle was hard for me, but a huge growing experience. I got a lot better at having political conversations with people who had extremely different views than I did, but I was also really frustrated with the lack of willingness to communicate by the majority of the student body.
Politics might end up influencing your life more than you think in college (especially if you end up picking up a Poli Sci major), so think about that when you make a pick. However, try not to just stick yourself in an echo chamber- college is an awesome time to meet and discuss issues with people who come from different backgrounds and lifestyles than you do.
Even if you think long and hard about all of these questions, and 1000 others, before making a pick, college is still going to be hard. Adjusting to a new environment like that, and being relatively independent for the first time, is a huge hurdle the first year. And the second year. And maybe even the third and last years too. But remember that each semester is different from the one before and the one after. College is a roller coaster in the best and most overwhelming way, and I guarantee you’re going to love wherever you end up. If not, you can always transfer.