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  • Bentham Team

The College Search: How To Choose a College

When I went on a college tour with my parents, we tried to see eight colleges in seven states in six days. We were from California, and we were driving in heavy snow most of the time. By the time we got to the school I was most interested in, my father decided (after a long lunch) that we didn’t have time because he was anxious to make it to Yale (a school he was excited about) for a late afternoon interview. He dropped me off at one end of the main quad and said he’d pick me up at the other end after I’d walked across. I had ten minutes. As I said, at the other colleges it had always been snowing, but that day Spring had suddenly sprung. As I walked briskly across the quad, everyone was out– throwing frisbees, skateboarding, and flirting under the budding trees.

So I went there.

Most students choose a college in a way that’s not much more random. Because of the prestigious name, the basketball team, the legendary party scene, the recommendation of an older sibling, the pressure of a parent, a faulty assumption about what you can afford, a social media post, or a charming tour guide.

So how should you find the right school?

Step One: Reflection

The applicant needs to take some time to consider who they are and who they want to be. Think about these criteria:


What are your goals for your college experience? Write them down and place them in order from highest to lowest priority. How might your goals conflict? If you want to graduate with high grades, do you really want to go to the legendary party school? You might want to write down questions under each priority to ask students and representatives of the school when you visit or communicate with people associated with the school.


Are you happier in a city or in a quiet rural area? In a particular region of the country? Many students automatically assume they will prefer an urban environment because they are languishing in the suburbs, but they should consider that they may not have a lot of time to explore the city, and what they can do socially in the city will be limited by their being minors for most of their college experience. Living in the city will be more expensive and distracting. On the other hand, some students really need to be in the city to live and breathe. Think carefully about which place will be best for you. Ultimately, the social and cultural opportunities on campus may be more relevant than whether the city or country lies beyond the campus borders, so research campus life at the schools you’re considering carefully.

Other Considerations

You should also reflect on how far away you want to be from home, the facilities you want your college to offer, the access to counseling and the health services that might be offered (or forbidden to women in certain states), diversity, the opportunities for internships, research, and studying abroad, and the distinctive characteristics you want in an academic institution. I chose my school not only because it happened to be a spring day when I visited, but also because the school did not require me to take any courses outside of my major - I wanted to only study what interested me.

Step Two: Your College Search

You’re going to need to start early if you’re really going to learn about a variety of schools and home in on options you’re excited about for the right reasons (not just a fantasy of prestige or having fun all the time). What are the right reasons? How well the school satisfies your goals? In order to explore schools, you should ask adults around you about their own college experiences and knowledge of schools, but your exploration should go much farther - and it should be directed by you. Take charge of your college experience. You can do this by

  • Talking to your school counselor or teachers.

  • Registering on the Common Application website and exploring school profiles. If the school looks interesting, find out about professors and programs (this will be handy when you have to write your “Why this college?” supplements).

  • Checking out colleges’ student blogs, if available.

  • Contacting college admissions officials.

  • Asking admissions officials to recommend current students or recent graduates to talk to.

  • Visit colleges in person. If you are able to visit a college, make sure you talk to students. If you know someone there and can stay overnight, that would be ideal. Attend a class, and if you see that any sort of lecture, discussion, or performance is happening, consider attending. Contact the admissions office in advance to make sure you get everything they offer - an interview, a group information session, and a tour. Also, be on the lookout for any campus publications you might pick up.

  • Googling around - not just the school’s website, but social media sites where students talk about the school and what they’ve done there.

  • Broadening your horizons - the good news is there are so many good colleges out there that aren’t inundated with applications. Ever heard of Kenyon college? Eckerd college? William Hobart Smith? All are excellent schools. If you think you have to go to a well-known and highly prestigious university, ask adults you admire where they went to school. Look up famous people you admire and see where they went to school. You will find that where they went to college had little to do with their future success.

Step Three: Make a tentative college list

After you’ve done some research, make a list of schools where you think you’ll want to apply.

Organize the list so you have at least three reach, target, and safety schools. Restrict your list - no more than 12 schools, no less than six. If your standardized test scores are higher than the average for that school, that’s a safety. If they are the same as the average for a school, that’s a target. If they are lower than average, that’s a reach. Your reach schools should still be realistic: your grades and scores should fall in the bottom 25 percent for that school, but not in the bottom tenth or below.

From here, you are ready to start applying, but keep exploring! The college search isn’t over until it's over.

A final note: Your relationship with a college is like any relationship - you can’t wait for someone to come along who gives you everything you want. You have to work together to build something. The quality of your college experience depends a lot on you. If you’re willing to be open-minded and look for the best in others, you’ll have a good college experience. If you’re willing to work hard, go to visiting hours, and make relationships with teachers and TAs, you’ll have a good experience. If you take care of your physical and mental well-being, you’ll have a good experience. There is not one and only one college where you can have a rich experience, so don’t stress too much about making the perfect decision when you choose a college.


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