How to choose a college

Erin Owen will graduate in May from the interior design program at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She plans to pursue a career in commercial design after working more than a decade as a copy editor at a newspaper. She also is a graduate of Eastern Illinois University who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism.

If someone told a teenage me that I’d be back in college in my 30s seeking an associate degree, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. That headstrong and self-assured teenager saw one path for herself and couldn’t imagine it would go differently. But it did, because sometimes we outgrow our paths or consider others that were previously in the shadows.
Growing up, I always saw myself becoming a writer. I wrote for school papers since I was in middle school, contributed to a local newspaper while in high school and later went on to get my first professional job as a copy editor for a newspaper in Iowa. My path had verged some – from writing to editing – but I thought I was where I should be.
I didn’t have any reason to doubt that, I thought. But I realize now I never seriously considered other career paths. I went to college set on journalism. If you take one thing away from this, let it be this: You are in control of your path, and you owe it to yourself to choose one you enjoy and revise your course if necessary.
The first step in controlling your path is choosing a college. It can be overwhelming with so many schools. I can’t tell you which one is best for you, but I have found some things to be true. The name on your diploma matters less than the quality of the work you do while there. Students may seek the prestige names such as Harvard, Stanford and Columbia carry, but what is more valuable are the skills and experience students take with them upon graduation. A highly ranked school won’t answer questions in an interview for you.
Just as rankings and prestige can be hard to ignore, I would caution you not to be swayed by an attractive campus. I went to two colleges for my undergraduate degree. The first was a picturesque, sprawling campus with all the amenities, and the second’s claim to fame … well, it could later promote Tony Romo as an alumnus. Initially, the headstrong 18-year-old never considered the second college as a possibility. That was a mistake.
You know you’ve found a good fit not when the town has trendy shops but when you feel valued, like you’re more than a number. When you have access to professors, small class sizes and quality resources at your disposal and, more importantly, when you feel at home, you know you’ve found a good college.
Do yourself a favor: Enter college with no preconceived ideas about what you’ll do later in life. Be open to learning and exploring subjects you hadn’t considered or challenge who you think you are. Say, for example, art was never your favorite subject in school. While you once may have found drawing challenging, computer programs that allow you to draw in 3D could remove a hurdle from the process and make drawing exciting for you.
Even if you’re successful at choosing the right college and bringing an open mind to your education, don’t be surprised if you find yourself back in school later in life. Change is a constant in all areas of life. Interests will change, job markets will shift and personal lives will play a big part in work choices. All of which could find you sitting in a classroom again.
But wherever you are on your path, it’s all about perspective. Rather than let papers, deadlines or tests become stressful, think of them instead as mile markers on your path. They’re signs of progress that you’re advancing toward your goal. That’s a path with which all can find agreement.

How to choose a college 

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