college short list

Five Ways to Shorten the College Search List

With nearly 4,000 colleges and universities to consider, the task of shortening that list can be daunting.

“What’s a good college I can go to?” That question starts a journey – the road to college. With nearly 4,000 colleges and universities to consider, the task of shortening that list through the college search can be daunting. The secret to managing a successful college search is realizing that it’s all about finding the right fit.

If we go to a shoe store to shop for shoes, we expect to consider several factors before we make a purchase. Purpose, style, color, size, the price – some of those factors may be more important than others. For some people, color or price may be what seals the deal. Others may be all about style.

Choosing a college is much the same. Location, size, cost, campus culture, academic programs offered – these are just a few of the dozens of factors that can vary in importance to any “college shopper.” It all depends on what the student (and their family) are looking for… and in turn that all depends on what “fits” the student. We’ll be talking a lot on this blog about finding this fit, but here are a few of the biggest factors for many students.

1. Location & the College Search

“Going away to school” can sound exciting. A new town, new climate, new culture, or just a change of scenery may appeal to some students. Others make a priority of staying close to family, or a job, or their dog.

Location is one factor that takes a little research on the part of the college shopper. Talk to current or former students on a potential campus. The school may be near a beach… but do they have time to enjoy the beach? How many days did they actually wind up skiing? Was the urban environment all that they had hoped? Did they ever get tired of the snow/rain/heat/dust/traffic/cows?

In the same way, you can ask, “What are the pros and cons of staying in your hometown?”

When choosing a college, it’s not a bad idea for a student to make a list of things that they consider must-haves, and the things they don’t need/don’t want in a location.

2. Size & the College Search

No big school advertises that they have “thousands of students vying for parking spaces, limited dorm rooms, and feverish competition for preferable class schedules” as a selling point. But they might note “expansive facilities, huge alumni network, and storied college traditions” to attract students.

Smaller colleges may not brag about “fewer nationally televised games, a smaller alumni network, and a choice of only two professors for chemistry,” but they may encourage prospective students with “caring teachers who strive to be mentors, small classes with maximized interaction, and seasonal celebrations for the whole campus.”

With any choice, there is usually a trade-off. When it comes to campus size, no college can claim to be “one size fits all.”

3. Cost & the College Search

In choosing a college, the cost of attendance is certainly a factor – with a bunch of variables that make up total college cost. Just like the “sticker price” of a car may not reflect what a person has to pay for the car, the final cost of attending a college can be influenced by many factors – both positively and negatively.

Housing options, meal plans, tuition, fees, and books become matters of great importance. So does the qualification for “in-state” or “out-of-state” tuition (which doesn’t always correspond to someone’s actual residency!). Meanwhile, the overall cost may be addressed by scholarships, grants, work/study programs, loans, parent or student savings, etc. These options present opportunities for a student and their family to work together to pursue higher education. And for those students who think that they may have found the right fit, the financial aid office at the college exists to assist that student and their family in making it happen.

In the college search, it helps to remember that in life we expect to have to pay for things that are of value. Each college shopper decides the value in attending a certain college.

4. Campus Culture & the College Search

Regardless of the size of the campus, there is usually a “feel” to a school. Maybe that atmosphere comes from a philosophical stance: a Christian world view, an intense concern for the environment, a strong connection with the international community. Perhaps the school is influenced by the history of the surrounding region, the availability of specific recreational opportunities, or a unique variety of cultural experiences on or near campus. Is there a strong volunteer culture at the school, or chances to study abroad? Is the academic rigor in line with the student’s academic ability?

Can the culture be discerned before choosing a college? Hanging out a little in the student center, the coffee shop, the bookstore – any place where you can see and listen to students – offers a chance to pick up on the culture of a campus.

A former student of mine had an interesting method she used to measure a factor of campus culture that was important to her. She had five Christian schools that she was considering, and all five had weekly chapel services with no assigned or reserved seats. My student observed that on all but one of the campuses the students would come in, sit in the back of the auditorium, and seemed ready to leave as soon as they got there. On the one campus, the students filled in all the front seats first and were actively engaged with the entire program. She took that to indicate a sincere spiritual enthusiasm, and over the next four years she experienced that personally.

5. Academic Programs & the College Search

Some students go to college focused on a specific major, in a specific area of study, with a specific career in mind. Other students have a more general sense of a field of interest and expect to explore a variety of paths which should, over time, result in a career.

While some students do their best when they narrow their focus and concentrate their effort, other students thrive in an environment of exploration, keeping their options open in a variety of disciplines.  Students need to consider which of the two approaches describes their own preference and then determine which colleges and programs lend themselves to which approach.

(Read more about finding an Academic Fit.)

Starting the Journey to the College Shortlist

When a student understands that there are schools that will fit them better than others, the task of conducting an honest self-assessment becomes very important – especially if they’re just starting to realize those factors. What kind of environment do I need to thrive as a person? What influences do I expect to have a positive effect on me? Are they available? What situations have I found “bring out my best”?

The answers to these questions can be an important guide as a student begins to narrow their college search. With an honest self-assessment, the list of 4,000 schools will soon shrink down to a much more manageable size.

Remember: the destination of the journey – just like a visit to the shoe store – is not to worry about the size of the selection. The goal is to find the right fit.

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