What to Do When It’s Time to Apply to Colleges

So, it’s that time. You’ve taken tests. Joined clubs, played sports, sung in a choir, learned an instrument, whatever.

Now you’ve got to apply to colleges.

Choosing the right college is scary. After all, you’re going to be spending the next four years of your life there. And where you go is going to determine a lot of your future. But if you consider the tips we discuss today, you’ll realize it doesn’t have to be such a terrible process. Break the decision-making down into separate steps, and it will be a lot easier to figure out.

Do you know what you want to major in? If you don’t, that’s ok – seriously. It just means you probably shouldn’t consider a school that specializes in a certain area. You don’t want to go to a school that is really well known for its sciences if there’s a chance you might want to do something in languages, and an arts school isn’t a good idea if you’re still considering engineering. Instead, select a school that offers a well-rounded base of disciplines, so that you can try out a lot of different subjects before you settle on something.

On the other hand, if you have wanted to be a doctor since second grade, there’s nothing wrong with looking at some of the best science-based schools that you think you can get into. They’ll probably have a lighter liberal arts load, and offer some specialty science classes that you wouldn’t usually get an opportunity to take. Plus, you’re likely to meet more like-minded students. Keep in mind, though, that can be a double-edged sword – some students suffer burnout from the intensity of that many students with the same interests. And it’s not just science – dancers and artists, any group with the same passion — risk the same overload.

When in doubt, choose a solid liberal arts college.And one with a reputable faculty. What does that mean? Well the first part means they offer a wide variety of classes in all the major disciplines: the arts, philosophy, mathematics, sciences, languages, political science, sociology, etc. The second part means that the faculty graduated from schools that you’ve heard of, have been published regularly, and actually teach the undergraduates (you don’t want all the professors to teach the graduate students and the graduate students to teach the undergraduates). This will ensure that you get a well-rounded, well-taught education in every subject you choose, even if it takes you a year or two to settle on that major. Other things to consider, a low student to professor ratio (the lower the better so that you actually are getting a chance to ask questions and the professor gets to know who you are), the graduation rate (you do want to actually make it through all four years), and things like how many students get internships in the summer, how robust their career services center is, anything about their academic and job-search related support.

Next, be realistic.This isn’t as simple as go to the best school you can get into (more on that in a minute). Whatever the school’s ranking, first think about whether or not it’s a realistic match for you. Think about your grades, your class rank, and your test scores (if you’ve taken them). Find out what the school’s admission percentage is. Don’t get your heart set on a school that accepts 10% of its applicants if you’re in the bottom half of your class. You’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. A good rule of thumb is to apply to at least two safeties (two schools that you’re very confident will accept you), two probable yeses and two stretches (two schools that you might get into but are kind of a long shot). You need to have this blend of schools because it’s ok – good, actually – to dream, but it’s also important to have something in your back pocket that you can rely on. But your safety schools should be schools that you have a genuine interest in attending. They may not be as exciting as your stretch schools, but they should be schools at whichyou can truly envision spending the next four years.

School ranking matters . . . to a point. Here’s the thing. School ranking isn’t everything. Yep. We’ll say it again. School ranking isn’t everything. People do turn down top schools. They turn it down for financial reasons for one thing. But they also turn it down because they don’t like the environment. Or they don’t want to live in Boston. Or their whole family has always gone to some other school and they want to be part of that tradition. You don’t have to go to the very best school you can get into, just because it’s the very best school you can get into. You should go to a school that is very good and will get you onto a career path that affords you the lifestyle that is important to you. In other words, if you want to go on to graduate school, remember that graduate schools do weigh into the equation the ranking of your undergraduate school, so you’re impacting another, later process. But it isn’t the only thing they consider, by far. There are clearly schools that are not generally as well respected and if you choose to go there, you just have to know that’s a choice you’re making that will live on your resume forever, and if you actively decide to do it, well, realize it’s a lifelong decision. But getting great grades and making other smart decisions at a very good school and having a fantastic experience could very well be the right decision for you versus having a mediocre time at what is considered a top tier school. Only you can make that decision, but for the record, it’s not necessarily the wrong decision.

Consider the finances. This is always a difficult consideration for students and their families. Parents wish they could send their student to any school in the country, but that just isn’t always possible. The cost of higher education these days is very high, especially at private schools. Fortunately, there are a lot of government programs to apply for. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one way to see if you can get some financial assistance. There are also a lot of private scholarships that students can compete for. However, you need to have a candid conversation with your parents about how much they can contribute to your education. You should also be sure to fill out all of the financial aid forms that accompany each college’s application forms and see what assistance comes back from the school. You don’t have to make a decision until you get results from the schools, but you might want research what percentage of students receive aid from the school when you make decisions about where to apply. This information is usually readily available from the school’s financial aid office.

School setting. Think about the kind of environment you would like. Do you like the idea of big open green spaces, or being in an urban environment? This might not seem like a big deal at first, but remember, this is going to be your home, day in and day out for four years. If you’ve grown up in the city, are you going to miss the hustle and bustle if you’re out in a quiet pastoral environment? Or will you love finally having the peace and quiet of being away from the sirens and chatter? If you grew up in the suburbs, are you longing for the intensity of a school set in the city? Or will the frenetic pace and anonymity leave you frazzled? You need to separate the dream from the reality. Be honest about what seems cool, with whom you really are. This shouldn’t be the driving force in your decision-making, but if a school meets other, more important criteria, it’s definitely something to consider. The weather and the environment take a real toll on people. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – where people are significantly impacted by lack of sunlight through the winter months – is a very real, very debilitating condition. If you’ve lived somewhere that’s interminably sunny, you may suddenly find that a place with real winters where the sun is down by 5 pm and not up until almost 7 am for months has an impact on your mood. And all of this while you’re adjusting to being away from home and trying to study. None of this is meant to scare you or discourage you from applying to a school you love – just to make you pause and consider that you’ll be at college in the fall, winter and spring, not the summer, when weather is sometimes at its best, especially in the Northeast.

School location.That said — we are not fans of going to school purely for location. If you’re choosing a school because it’s next to the beach, has great skiing, or is driving distance to the lakefront, we think you’ve made an awful mistake. Seriously. Totally. Really, really. When we say school location, we mean things like . . . you’re leaving home for the first time, unless you went to boarding school. So if you’re from California, are you sure you’re ok being a six-hour flight from your parents? If you grew up in Arizona, are you prepared for the almost constant drizzle of Seattle? Houston humidity is really, really rough. Chicago snow is no joke. So if you’re significantly changing climates, or moving more than a couple hours’ drive from home, stop and pause on what you’re doing. College is all about exciting change, and hopefully this is just part of a much bigger transition to adulthood that is scary but fun and exciting but nerve-wracking. That’s totally ok. What’s not ok is having a meltdown because you hate your suitemates and you failed your French midterm and you can’t figure out how to turn on the radiator and you want to come home for the weekend but a ticket is $700 and a flight is 11 hours round trip. And, you’re from Miami and there’s a blizzard outside. That’s not growing up; that’s falling apart. And that’s no fun. So don’t bite off more than you can chew. Be honest with how fast you want to, and how far you can, run just yet. There’s no shame in baby steps.

Visit. If at all possible, visit the universities that you wish to apply to. Most universities have daily tours that will take you around campus (and often they are led by undergraduate students, who are great sources of information); many schools will let you sit in on a class (don’t ask questions, just sit quietly and observe). If you call in advance you may be able to get appointments with a professor, a grad student, a financial aid officer, a diversity counselor, etc. Anyone you can speak to knows more than you, right? So reach out to anyone and everyone you can to find out . . .stuff. Like what? What do students find most difficult about settling in freshman year? What percentage of the freshman class doesn’t return? How long do I have to declare a major? What are the demographics of the school – male/female, percent minority, percent international, etc. What percentage of seniors have a job by graduation?Like, stuff like that, that’s what. And whatever else you think of. But think about it – this is your academic and social life – you need to ask questions relevant to both. So you do want to reassure yourself that there will be social activities that interest you. Ask if students regularly participate in clubs on campus. Which ones are most popular – student government, social issues, campus activities?If you were going to move in with somebody for four years, would you ask them questions? Guess what – you’re moving in with somebody.

Ask for help. Seriously. Ask people who know you well – and even those you don’t. If you can’t get to the campus to ask questions, call the school and see if you can arrange to speak to a student, a professor or a counselor. Talk to your parents, ask them what kind of school they can imagine you at. You don’t have to go with what they say, but at least get their opinion. Ask a teacher, counselor, coach or religious leader that you trust, and see if they have ideas. You can ask your friends, but don’t get pulled into the idea of all going away to school together – it sounds cool, but it’s really unlikely that the same school is right for all of you. Besides, this is about growing up, and having new experiences, and that means making new friends as well. Anyway, they’re probably in the middle of their own decision making and trying to figure out the exact same things for themselves.

Once you have a few opinions, see if any comments overlap, and if they do, that’s a pretty good indication that people see you the same way, in that regard. They could be wrong . . .but it might be worth considering if several people all tell you that they can’t see you in a city environment, for example. In any event, even if you decide to eventually override their opinion, it’s one more interesting data point to take into consideration when trying to decide. Speaking of data points, consider if you should . . .

Make a chart. Some people find it really helpful to track all this data in some sort of spreadsheet. We know, we know, it sounds intense. Along the top put all of the schools that you’re interested in. Along the left column list the things we’ve discussed: cost, location, visit score (1-5), school ranking (1-5), etc., and compare how the schools come out. Now we already said that somethings matter more than others, so it’s not a perfect system. But it will give you an “at-a-glance” view of how your schools rank up against each other. Use the chart to give you a general sense of how your criteria made the schools come out. Notice if you’re disappointed where a school came out in the rankings – it’s a great way to tease out how you feel about a school. If you’re relieved that a school came out lower on the list, then ask yourself – did you ever really want to go there? Was it just on the list because it’s a “great” school with a high ranking? Because all of your siblings went there? And what about the ones that you wish had come up higher? Maybe you realize that you just have a gut feeling that it’s the right school for you. Are you getting pressure from someone not to apply there because it’s farther away?

Pack your own bags.
No matter how well intentioned everyone in your life is (and if you’re lucky, you have a lot of loved ones who care very much and are being tremendously supportive during this super stressful time), at the end of the day, it’s your socks and your phone and your favorite book going into the bags. You’re the one who is sleeping in that dorm room and walking across that campus and eating in that dining hall. So you’d better be the one who is responsible for the decision. Go for long walks by yourself. Sit quietly with just one person at a time so you can listen carefully. Stop thinking about it all of the time. Think carefully about it. And then let go of it and make a decision. And realize that whatever you choose to do, you’ll make the best of the situation, you’ll bring a positive attitude and an engaging personality and you’ll remember that everyone else is doing the best they can too.