"The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases." – Carl Gustav Jung
With the number of colleges available in the United States, the potential options can be overwhelming. When sorting through all the different colleges, there are various factors, related to your needs, to consider before deciding which colleges you want to apply to.
Field of Study
First, you can think about the major you would like to get a degree in. If you know what you want to study, this can be one of the most critical factors in deciding which college is right for you. For example, if you would like to pursue dramatic arts, your selection of a college will be different from someone who would like to major in veterinary sciences.
A college major is a subject you enjoy and would like to study in college. A career is what you have chosen as a lifelong field of work. Sometimes your college major ties in with your career; other times it may not (people change careers now 4-6 times over their lifetime). For those who know what they want to pursue in life, career-oriented schools have classes that prepare you to enter fields such as engineering, business, physical therapy, or architecture when you finish your undergraduate degree. For those who may not know what your ultimate career may be, it’s okay not to know. Most high school students have not been exposed to many career alternatives, which makes a final career decision premature. The undergraduate years can be a time of discovery about yourself and your career goals.
If you are uncertain as to a career or major, a four-year, small liberal arts program or a large, research university might be best. In many schools, students are discouraged from declaring a major until their third year of college–only after they have taken a range of humanities (English, languages, art, music, etc.), "hard" science (biology, mathematics, geology, etc.), and social science (psychology, history, political science, etc.) courses. If you are undecided or have many interests, you might consider schools with strong interdisciplinary programs (e.g., American Studies, Ethnic Studies).
For help in determining your academic and career goals, you can refer to your individual planning portfolio, which you have been filling out with your guidance counselor since freshman year. You can also use your PLAN results and the Counseling Center’s Career Exploration handout to further investigate careers and interests.
Do any of the following major fields of study seem compatible with your interests? There are many branches within each general field of study and those listed below are just a few examples. There are also interdisciplinary programs at some colleges, where you can combine courses in political science and English, for example. You can also decide to double major once you’re in college (focus on two branches within a field of study) or double degree (focus on two fields of study). In any case, you don’t have to stick by your first choice. During this initial process, keep your mind open and think about some general fields of study that might be of interest to you in college.
- Agriculture: Farm management; fish, game and wildlife management; forestry; agricultural business
- Architecture: Building design, landscape design, city and community planning
- Biological Sciences: Anatomy, biology, botany, environmental science, zoology
- Business and Management: Accounting, marketing, insurance, real estate, international business, hotel and restaurant management
- Communications: Advertising, journalism, public relations, radio and television
- Computer Science: Computer programming, data processing, systems analysis
- Education: Physical education, early childhood education, secondary education, special education
- Engineering: Chemical, mechanical, electrical, nuclear, computer engineering
- Fine Arts: Dance, art history, cinematography, music theory, sculpture, painting
- Foreign Languages: Arabic, Latin, German, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Urdu
- Health Professions: Medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, optometry, speech pathology, nursing, physical therapy
- Law: General law, criminal justice, pre-law
- Letters: English literature, philosophy, creative writing
- Physical Science: Astronomy, geology, oceanography, physics, chemistry, zoology, botany
- Psychology: Clinical psychology, social psychology, psychological counseling
- Social Sciences: Anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, sociology
- Social Welfare: Social work, vocational counseling
- Theology: Religious education, religious music, theological professional
(Source: College Board Publications, Index of Majors)
Types of Institutions
Along with fields of study, you should consider several other factors in selecting colleges: type and size of institution, geographic location, environment, and cost. The following are general profiles of different types of schools. When looking at these different descriptions, it should be clear that no one college is appropriate for all students.
Large Colleges: Large schools typically enroll more than 10,000 students. They tend to offer a great variety of fields of study, classes, instructors, and activities from which to choose. While large universities have the reputation of being more impersonal, you might prefer the greater anonymity they offer, as well as the chance to "start over" in a diverse group of people.
Small Colleges: A small college enrolls fewer than 5,000 students. They tend to offer a more tight-knit learning community and easy access to support services. There are fewer class choices, fewer students, and fewer instructors. Yet students get more attention from faculty and administration.
Note: Not all large colleges are impersonal and not all small colleges are limited. Before ruling out a school because of it size, do some research to see if it fits the prototype. Talk to Ms. Alamilla, read the catalogues, and consider talking with current students.
Colleges vs. Universities: "College" is a generic term for any post-high-school institution for advanced learning. The reason that some schools are called "colleges" and others are called "universities" is that universities have extensive research facilities, teach both undergraduates and graduates, and provide a range of majors, often in pre-professional fields. Universities will have Schools of Engineering, Nursing, and Business in addition to a College of Arts and Letters. Colleges are usually, but not always, less expansive and offer a more narrow selection of majors. However, some institutions that operate as "universities" retain the name of "college" because of tradition (e.g., College of William and Mary, Dartmouth College, etc.).
Private vs. Public Schools: Many people believe that all private colleges are more expensive than public ones, but it’s not necessarily true. Most elite private universities may charge more than $30,000 a year, but many of the top public universities charge $20,000 or more, especially for out-of-state residents. In addition, many private schools offer some good financial aid packages to attract students from all sorts of financial backgrounds.
The main difference between private and public institutions is their monetary base. Private schools are supported by non-government interest and the public schools are supported by state taxes. So private schools can be more selective while public schools are required to accept a percentage of students from their own state. The number of in-state students accepted by public schools varies. For example, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has more out-of-state students than in-state, yet the University of California at Berkeley raises its grade point average minimum for out-of-state students. The main lesson is not to eliminate a college from consideration just because of its monetary base.
Liberal Arts Colleges: The goal of these schools is to provide students with a well-rounded, "cultural" education. Liberal arts schools stress learning how to think critically from a variety of academic perspectives rather than encouraging a student to adopt just one discipline’s analytical method. The first two years of coursework usually include general studies in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. You usually don’t have to declare a major until your third year; the emphasis is less on career and more on education.
Two-Year Colleges: Two-year colleges are also known as junior or community colleges. Public junior colleges are state-supported and usually accept high school graduates regardless of grades or test scores (open admissions). Private junior colleges are usually administered by religious or other independent groups. Two-year colleges are becoming a more and more popular choice. Some students do not have the money for college, or some may have family commitments that prevent them from leaving home for a four-year college. Some may need more time to transition from high school to college, or may not be sure their grades are good enough for a four-year college.
Two-year colleges have many different kinds of programs. Some only require two years of school to receive an "associate’s degree" or "certificate" in a particular vocational training program. After two years of junior college where you can complete the general education requirements most colleges require, you can enter a four-year college as a junior. Check with the admissions office of the two-year school you are considering, and the four-year school you want to transfer to, to see what the requirements are.
Women's Colleges: Several studies have shown that students at women’s colleges become more academically involved in classes, are more likely to pursue advanced degrees, and show more intellectual self-esteem when compared with women in coeducational institutions. A women’s college also gives students more opportunities for academic success in an environment where they don’t need to compete with men for both classroom time and positions of campus leadership.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): There are about 100 predominantly African American colleges; most are small, private colleges, located in the South and Southeast. These colleges offer students the opportunity to interact with Black role models, to develop a network of contacts helpful in getting jobs, and to learn in an environment that is relatively free of racial discord. Black colleges may offer students more opportunities to learn about civil rights, African, and African American history and to avoid the Euro-centricism of many non-Black colleges.
Military Colleges/Service Academies: Military colleges and service academies are chosen by students interested in military science. Students must enjoy studying and living in an environment where discipline, order, and teamwork are stressed. They should enjoy physical activity and be able to handle stress well. The service academies (e.g., U.S. Air Force or Naval Academy) are among the most competitive of institutions and require letters of support from your U.S. representative. Once accepted, the government pays educational expenses and a stipend to students. Cadets are expected to serve the military for a number of years after graduating.
Specialized Colleges: These are ideal for people who are sure about what they want to study; more than half of the degrees earned from specialized colleges are in engineering, business, or the arts, in a setting where everyone has the same career interest.
Denominational Colleges: The majority of students at these colleges will be from a particular religious background, although the level of religious influence varies with each institution. Many students attend denominational colleges to show support for or practice their religion and to get the type of education their religious group supports.
Locations of Institutions
The location of a college is a huge factor in the college search. Some questions you may want to ask yourself include: Do you want to experience a different regional culture or climate? Do you want to attend school near relatives? Do you make new friends easily? Do you enjoy the excitement of the big city or the comforts and outdoor recreational opportunities of the country? While there are no set answers to these questions, they are important factors to consider.
Living at Home: One of the biggest benefits of living at home is that it’s cheaper. And you won’t miss family and friends. Some people study better at home because there are already established living arrangements and thus no need to find or worry about roommates. Living at home can also give you a better chance of finding a part-time job because you’re familiar with the opportunities in your community.
On the down side, you have to factor in commuting time to school, which may make it more difficult to get involved in campus activities. Also, it might be harder to schedule classes without having empty time during the day. And, for some students, it means fewer chances to be independent.
Living Away From Home: If you can afford it, one of the most popular reasons to move away from home is the chance to test a new environment and learn how to become more independent, which some students feel gives them a chance to learn more about themselves.
On the down side, it’s more expensive to move away (think about phone bills, out-of-state tuition, transportation costs). You must do virtually everything on your own–pay phone bills, wash and iron clothes, arrange doctors’ appointments, etc.–and you will rarely see your family.
City vs. Country: Colleges in Manhattan definitely have a different feel from colleges in upstate New York. If you enjoy public transportation, shopping, coffee shops and ethnic restaurants within five minutes, huge crowds, and lots of other distractions, then an urban college is more suitable for you. If you prefer lush hills and a clean environment in which you can pursue outdoor activities, then you may want to consider a college in a small town. However, "rural" in the northeast is very different from "rural" in Wyoming, Montana, or Utah. Many "rural" schools, such as Middlebury College in Vermont, are really only a couple hours away from cities.
Climate and Culture: If you decide to go away for college, you may want to consider the weather factor. If you’re tired of Utah snow, you might enjoy the deserts of the Southwest or the beaches of California or southern Florida.
If you thrive in class and cultural diversity, or feel most comfortable in colleges where there are significant numbers of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Pacific Americans, and Native Americans, you might want to research a college’s ethnic composition. Many narrative college guides provide good descriptions of campus environments.
Qualities Found In the Student Body: Think about the potentially important character traits of the students attending your "ideal" college. Are they adventurous? Aggressive? Ambitious? Down-to-earth and laid-back? Involved? Open-minded? Outdoorsy? Politically aware? Unconventional? Cosmopolitan? Conservative? Tolerant? Athletic? Scholarly? Tightly-knit? Career-oriented? Creative? Focused? Interested in cultural activities?
Cost/Availability of Financial Aid: Costs vary greatly from one college to another, and really can’t be assessed until comparing financial aid packages in March and April. But while most aid is given to those who can demonstrate need through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), money is also available at certain institutions for students who have achieved academic excellence or those with special abilities. Talk this factor over with your parents. It’s a good idea to include foundation, or "safety," schools that are financially feasible along with your academic safeties as you’re creating a range of schools on your list.
Admission Difficulty: Consider the level of difficulty of your courses, your curiosity, independence, and organization. Think about how you compare with others in your high school graduating class. What level of admission difficulty do you feel you fit into. Check out Family Connection scattergrams to see where your academic profile falls compared to other students applying to a specific college.