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5 things to consider when choosing a college

By Carolyn Pippen, Admissions Counselor at Vanderbilt UniversityVanderbilt University You’ve heard it before: your four years in college will be the best four years of your life. You are going to meet new and interesting people, see new places, develop your own identity, and stretch the limits of your knowledge in ways you can only imagine. Where you choose to have these life-changing experiences may well be the most important decision you will have made thus far in your life.

Sound overwhelming? You bet. There are millions of factors that come into play when deciding which schools to apply to, and at times the task can seem nearly insurmountable. My first piece of advice, however, is to have fun with it! As I tell prospective students who visit our campus every day, picking a college is stressful – as it should be – but it’s an exciting kind of stress that you should find a way to enjoy as you go.

That being said, here I have listed five of the most important factors you should consider when narrowing down the over 4,000 colleges and universities across the United States to the 5 or 10 to which you are going to apply:

  1. Location, location, location.

    Do you want to live in a big city, a quiet suburb, or a small rural town? Do you enjoy the brisk autumns of New York, the snow-capped mountains of Colorado, or the sunny summer days of California? Do you want to be close to home, or would you rather explore an entirely new region of the country? Choosing a geographic location is a great way to quickly and dramatically narrow down your school choices, and is a crucial aspect of your final college pick. You will be living, eating, studying, playing, and walking around in this place for the next four years of your life, so it’s important that you can see yourself enjoying it.

  2. Size.

    Colleges and universities at all levels of selectivity vary greatly in terms of the number of students enrolled. Large universities can mean a wider variety of majors and courses offered, myriad resources and research opportunities, and the chance to meet and interact with a large and diverse student body. Smaller schools often mean smaller classes, more individual interaction with faculty members, and ease of access to the academic and extracurricular resources available. Medium-sized schools often incorporate each of many elements in their own unique way.

  3. Academic offerings.

    If you are hoping to obtain a broad academic foundation in college, you may want to focus on liberal arts institutions or schools that offer a wide variety of majors. If you want to focus on one primary field of study, you can search for schools that offer strong programs in that particular area. You can also draw distinctions between schools that focus on research versus those that focus on teaching, or look at schools that employ a combination of the two.

  4. Extracurricular offerings.

    Think about the things you are involved in at your current high school – athletics, community service, academic competitions, part-time jobs – do you want to continue these activities in college? Exploring a university’s website or talking to a current student will give you a good idea of what kind of activities are available on campus or in the surrounding area, as well as how easy it would be to start a club or organization that does not already exist. College is also a great time to jump into that one service activity that has always intrigued you but wasn’t available in your hometown, or sign up for some sport you’ve never even heard of! If you want your college experience to extend beyond the classroom, it is important to focus on schools that allow for this type of involvement.

  5. Selectivity of admissions.

    Your parents are telling you to dream big, but you don’t want to end up without any options. You know your ideal school is slightly outside your family’s budget, but the less expensive schools don’t offer the courses you want. It is critically important when choosing which applications to submit that you take a few risks without putting yourself in danger of having no options come May 1. I always encourage students to apply to at least one “reach” school, one “fit” school, and one “safety” school – and ideally 2 or 3 of each. The university’s website, its admissions staff, and your high school guidance counselor are all great resources in determining which category each school falls into based on your academic performance in high school.

Of course there are many other important factors that must be taken into consideration when making this decision, and some of them you may not have even thought of yet. The best way to find out whether or not a school is a good fit for you is to hear it from the horse’s mouth – visit the campus, take a tour with a current student, walk through one of the dorms, eat in the dining hall, and ask questions of the admissions staff (that’s what we’re here for!). Most of all, take a deep breath, and enjoy the experience.