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How to Select a College or University

It's easy to get caught up in the school hunt. It's exciting to be planning your future this way! But before you open your first university calendar or visit a college website, consider a couple points.

First, there is no such thing as the "perfect" school for everybody. Every school has advantages and disadvantages. Each offers a unique experience.

Second, don't let anyone tell you where you "should" go. You're the one who'll have to live with the choice of campus, not your counselor, your parents or your best friend.

In the process of selecting a college or university, the first step is self-evaluation. This little talk with yourself will help you consider your dreams and limitations (academic and financial).

The second step is figuring out what kinds of schools meet your needs. This helps you narrow down your search. The third step is putting your list of schools under the proverbial microscope.

At the end of this process, you should be ready to apply for admission to your chosen schools. Good luck!

An Examination of Yourself: Needs, Wants and Limitations

What's in your heart?

Your needs. Your dreams. Your future. Your school. Your choice. Noticing a trend?

The most important part of the college search equation is the "you" factor. To make any kind of thoughtful decision, you first have to understand yourself.

So what's in your heart? Why is post-secondary education important to you? Is it just something that's expected and that's why you're going, or do you have some goals you want to fulfill? Goal-setting is incredibly important, because if you can't pinpoint what you want to get out of your college or university experience, then you might as well not go.

It doesn't have to be as specific a goal as "I want to major in English with a specialization in the Romantic poet Keats and minor in Latin American studies." Something like "I want to spend the next four years learning how to think critically and figure out my career options" is just fine. Really thinking about what you want to accomplish will be invaluable in guiding you towards the right school.

But we suspect that there are other things in your heart too.

Has going to school in Boston or New York always been your dream? Maybe even continuing your studies in Canada, Europe or Asia? Do you want to taste the sweetness of independence, or do you prefer the warmth and support of being surrounded by people and places that are familiar?

Does it matter whether a school has a large population? Do you like getting lost in the crowd of big lecture halls or do you prefer the intimacy of smaller institutions?

These are just a few examples, but you get the idea. You need to figure out your preferences when it comes to things like learning environments, campus culture, location, the kinds of people around you.

What's on the career horizon?

You don't have to know exactly what you want to be "when you grow up" to enter university. In a lot of cases, it's probably better that you don't.

Look for a subject focus if you can, but always keep an open mind. If the only thing great about XYZ University is its chemistry department and you decide in your second year that you like geology better, you could be stuck.

Never put all your eggs in one basket. Your college hopes might just get scrambled.

At the same time though, if you've already assessed your skills and interests and know which type of occupation will match your abilities, use that information to your advantage. Find out what courses, programs or special training will help you with your goal. Which schools offer them?

What's on paper (your academic record)?

Ah, now on to your boundaries.

What does your grade point average look like? Are you prepared for the SAT? What kind of courses have you taken?

A grade point average (or GPA) does two things. It gives you -- as well as counselors, parents and university admissions personnel -- some idea of your overall academic performance. Plus, since every student has a GPA, comparisons can be made among students. Grades are now relative to what your peers have achieved, and many colleges will only accept a certain number of the top-ranked students.

The PSAT, SAT and ACT are are basic aptitude tests that measure levels in mathematics and English-related skills. Find out which tests you need to take and read manuals on how to best maximize your scores and thus your college options.

Besides tests, you will have to demonstrate that you have studied certain subjects. Most North American post-secondary schools require proficiency in the following core subjects: English, math, science, social studies, and usually a foreign language. Check your schedule and see that you have a firm educational foundation on which to build your college dreams.

What's in your bank account?

Having dreams and goals is fantastic, but somewhere along the way you're going to have to deal with reality too.

Are you in a position to consider schools far away from home or not? Is going to a private school (with a higher tuition) important to you? Sit down, perhaps with your parents or counselor and try to determine what you can really afford to spend.

Having said that, don't discount scholarships or financial aid packages. Many schools have excellent plans for students who want to go to a certain campus but need a little help with finances to get there.

Tips and advice from the experts

Take some time to really decide whether now is the best time for you to be going to college or whether you're just following the crowd by going right after high school. You may decide you want to take a year off before starting college. In that case, be sure to have a long-term plan.

Barb Pytel, owner of College Guidance Services, gives some great advice about personality analyses and maximizing your academic portfolio:

  • If you're having trouble figuring out what your strengths are, look at your standardized tests (or your best courses, for that matter). Pick out the strong areas.
  • Build your vocabulary before the big exams. A lot of students understand the information but they can't understand certain words or articulate their responses.
  • Don't take high school lightly, especially the early years. You could wind up scrambling to strengthen your academic portrait when it's too late.
  • Don't opt for the "easy As." Take the most difficult classes you can in high school, especially those emphasizing writing, research and analytical skills. This will help you later on.

An Examination of Schools: Figuring Out Your Type

What kinds of post-secondary schools are there?

Colleges and universities are as varied as the students who attend them. They come in different shapes and sizes, and most importantly, types. Each will offer you something different.

Vocational Training Schools

These privately owned schools focus on specific professions and so don't have a great diversity of courses. If you know what you want to do for a living, within a few short years, these schools will provide you with practical knowledge that you can apply in the workplace. For example, they'll train you to become a mechanic, a beautician or a dental assistant.

Colleges and Universities (if studying in the U.S.)

A community or junior college is a two-year program that is basically a transition between high school and university. Transfer of job-based courses is usually easy.Four-year colleges and universities are institutions which offer bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees. A wide range of courses is offered.

Four-year colleges can be further subdivided into public or private colleges. Public means state funded, so tuition is cheaper. Private schools are independently owned and thus more expensive.

What are some academic factors to consider?

Here's a list:

  • What types of academic programs or courses does the school offer?
  • Are there specialized studies in your field of interest?
  • Are they offered at different times to suit your schedule?
  • How long does it take to get a degree?
  • What are the school's attendance and grade requirements?
  • What's the school's academic reputation and how selective are they?
  • Is there a co-op program (which combines work with study)?
  • What do students do when they graduate? Do they get jobs? Get in to graduate school?
  • What's the dropout rate?
  • What about faculty quality -- do heads of departments teach first years or only do research?
  • How accessible is extra help?
  • What about class size and the student-to-faculty ratio?
  • Is special equipment up to date?
  • How extensive is the library and other academic facilities?
  • Is there a counseling center and financial aid office?
  • How are you recruited? Is there an orientation program?
  • And one of the most important considerations: how much is the tuition?

What are some non-academic factors to consider?

Here are a few:

  • Want to live at home and go to a nearby school or live some distance away?
  • Do you prefer a large school (lots of students) or a small school (fewer students)?
  • If living away from home, live in a small town or big city?
  • Non-denominational or religious (church) affiliation?
  • Co-ed (males and females) or single gender school?
  • Bimester system or trimester system?
  • Ethnic composition of student population important or not?
  • Variety of social activities and clubs?
  • Housing availability? Quality of dormitories and residences?
  • Transportation access to the campus?
  • Layout of campus?
  • What's campus life like? Are the other students friendly?

What should you consider first?

These lists are so long that you might be asking yourself which factors are most important. The answer is simple: whatever is most important to you is what you should look at first.

Remember that personality profile you sketched out way back in Step 1? Look at the results now and see what you felt was most important for you. The point is, if you just don't care about ethnic composition or campus layout, cross them out and forget about them!

Look at your unique criteria set and start narrowing down all your post-secondary options to a manageable list of a couple dozen.

Tips and advice from the experts

These are the factors you should not consider when selecting a school, say college professionals, including education author W. J. Reddin:

  • Just because your friend, significant other or a parent has attended the school doesn't mean you have to follow in their footsteps -- you have your own goals!
  • The newness or age of an institution usually indicates very little about its quality.
  • Knowing of a famous scholar at a school doesn't mean the rest of the school or faculty is any good.
  • Be careful of basing decisions on college brochures. They'll only show you what's attractive and what they you want you to see, not what's necessarily there. Recruitment campaigns. College reps visiting your school just means they're bent on recruiting students.
  • College statistics by themselves can be misleading.
  • The best way to get authentic answers to your questions is by talking to current students, rather than graduates. They'll give you a more current picture, and since they haven't spent years on campus yet, chances are you'll get a broader range of opinions.

Scrutiny of Schools: The Research Process

Now that you've got a list of schools that made first string, you need to pick out your top players. For that, take as much time as you can afford and use some of the resources outlined below to aid your research process.

  • College counselors: They're free and they're right there at your own school, so use them! Guidance counselors are trained in the collegiate choice process and often have calendars, application forms and additional information. If you're really keen, you can also spend some money and hire an independent college counselor. They'll often do a lot of research for you and will even help you write your application.
  • Internet: One of the best tools you can use to find specific information about individual schools. It will certainly be quicker to get your questions answered this way than to wait for pamphlets in the mail. Look out for contact names and e-mail addresses too; it never hurts to strike up a relationship early!
  • Guidebooks and software: If you've visited the education section of your bookstore or library lately, you probably found a stack of manuals and guidebooks that specialize in helping you track down the right school. All you have to do is enter in some key information about academics and preferences and you'll be presented with your best options. Some software can be downloaded free off the web or found in your counselor's office. Other programs will have to be purchased.
  • College fairs: These are gatherings of representatives from different campuses. They may be from around the state or even from all over the country. Sometimes college fairs take place as assemblies in your school's gym, so ask your counselor about any upcoming ones. Schools come to you instead of the other way around.
  • College materials: Feel free to contact admissions offices at schools that interest you. Ask for pamphlets, newsletters and other information pertinent to a new student. Or you can just ask about admission requirements in general.
  • Alumni and personal contacts: Talk to people who go (or went) to the school you're interested in. If you're not the shy type, this is a very valuable way to get the real picture of campus life.
  • Visiting the school: Unless it's absolutely impossible, you should definitely plan a visit to the school. Go on a tour with your parents to get a general feel for the place. Then, explore it more casually on your own and check out the things that are important to you. You can even sit in on a class!

Counselors, parents, alumni, current students, college materials and even most guidebooks aren't completely objective. They will necessarily take a certain slant toward the college in question. Just remember that these are opinions and that, in the end, only yours will count.

Also remember that personal preference enters into the research process as well. We all have different priorities.

The Final Cut: Ready for Application!

After you've done all the research you can, shave your list down to the top five or seven.

You'll want to include "reach" schools (these are your dream schools that you have a shot at getting into), "probables" (these are the realistic choices), and "safeties" (these are the sure deals).

You've finished the main parts of the selection process. Now you can ease into the steps involved in submitting your application.


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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.