If you're starting to feel the pressure of the college selection process, you're hardly alone. For students everywhere, the choice can feel overwhelming. There's no easy way to say it - this is one of the most important decisions you've ever had to make, and your selection will in part determine the course of your future.
We know, that probably doesn't make you feel much better.
But this might: there are ways - lots of ways - to ensure that you ultimately make the best decision. If you're careful and methodical about your search, you'll give yourself the best possible chance of hitting the nail squarely on the head.
Broaden, then narrow
The smartest approach to the college search is to open up your search as broadly as possible during the initial stages. Consider schools across lots of parameters - geography, net price, and academic rigor - and then chip away at those schools until you've settled on a few top choices that excite you. Hit up college admissions fairs, meet with your school's guidance department, and peruse the materials that come in the mail. When you can, make campus visits (even overnight visits where possible) and try to get a real feel for the campus and the students.
There are hundreds of tiny variables that make up each school's "personality," but here are some of the most important as you're building up, and then tearing down, your list.
Tuition and Financial Aid: The right school needs to strike a careful balance between your needs/wants and affordability. Use a school's Net Price Calculator to get an estimate of the type of financial aid award you could receive. Remember that you can still apply even if you aren't sure, so don't strike a school from your list on the basis of tuition costs alone. Admission is just step one - you don't have to accept!
Geography: Where do you want to live? What distance from home makes both you and your family comfortable? Is it affordable for you to go to school far from home? Do you need to be able to head home for occasional weekends without incurring significant travel expenses? Do you want a rural or urban setting? What are your weather preferences? Do you want a busy community with lots of weekend goings-on, or would you prefer to hang out with your friends or spend time outside? Ask yourself all of these questions honestly. If one environment just feels wrong, go with that gut instinct.
School demographics: Do you want to be a part of a large, busy student body, or are you more comfortable with smaller groups of people? There are some schools that boast very small instructor/student ratios despite large overall populations, but at most large Universities you'll spend time in big lecture halls and dorms and common areas will be crowded and noisy. On the other side of the spectrum, smaller schools will usually offer more peace and quiet and more interaction with professors. But you'll sacrifice big sporting events and some other school-sponsored functions that rely on the support of a huge student body.
- Academics: Let's not forget about the school part of choosing a school! This will largely depend on whether you've settled on a course of study. If you know, for example, that you want to study engineering, you'll limit your search to schools with engineering departments and then narrow based on your grades/test scores to help find a good fit. If you just aren't sure, make sure you pick a school that has lots of options, so that you aren't limited later when it's time to decide on a major.
The College Planning Center of Rhode Island can assist with both your overall search and with helping to chart a successful financial aid course as you plan ahead for funding. Book an appointment to go over your options with a pro.
It's a big, important choice, and it deserves your time and attention. Be methodical and open-minded and you'll land somewhere that makes you happy and ultimately sets you up for a fantastic future.