by Marcia Kramer, M.A.
Now that it’s April and their decisions have been made, college admissions counselors are getting a good night’s sleep for the first time in months. But for the many high school seniors who’ve received more than one acceptance, making that final choice can be a nerve-wracking decision. One school may offer a great location, but the average class size may be overwhelming; another may have those coveted small classes, but the location is less than ideal.
Choosing the right college is no different than making any big decision: you have to weigh the pros and cons, and then cross your fingers and hope you made the right choice. One great thing about college is that you can change your mind and transfer elsewhere if you feel the school you had chosen is not for you. But if you follow the tips below, you stand a good chance of getting it right the first time.
While the location may not be the most important consideration in choosing a school, it is worth keeping in mind as you write your pros and cons list. Do you like the setting of the school, whether it’s rural, suburban or urban? Will you be able to get home easily, if that is an important factor to you? And here’s a tip: sometimes those out-of-the-way-schools have many campus activities, as it’s not easy for students to get to a nearby city. So if you are looking at a school in a town with a population of 500, don’t despair; students at small, rural schools know how to have fun.
Size is one of the major factors to consider when choosing a school. Obviously, larger schools have more activities on campus and a greater selection of courses than smaller ones, simply because of the number of students the school enrolls. But larger schools mean larger classes, particularly for first-year students. If you are thinking of attending a large school, be prepared to sit in lecture classes with tens, even hundreds of students. Make sure your time management skills are in shape and that you know how to advocate for yourself when you need help because a greater student-teacher ratio means less individual attention. On the other hand, a small school may lack some of the pizzazz of a larger school; there may not be someone in a mascot costume that walks around campus as students fill the giant stadium for a fall football game, for instance. But, you can bet that your classes will be small and should you want or need one-on-one help, it will most likely be yours for the asking.
Amount of Structure
Often students forget to think about how much structure a school has. Most schools have general education requirements, but as a general rule, smaller schools are able to be more flexible when it comes to these. If the idea of having to take another math or science class is causing you undue anxiety, make sure you check a school’s core academic program.
No one wants to talk about it and it’s no different when it comes to the cost of higher education. Unfortunately, choosing a college can be mostly about affordability. In fact, if you are like most Americans, sometimes cost is THE most important factor. No one wants to graduate college with a pile of debt, looking ahead to endless loan repayments. Fortunately it’s not necessary. If accruing a responsible amount of debt means choosing a state school, then do so. If you are fortunate enough to have a financial aid package (be it merit aid and/or need-based aid) to one of the colleges of your choice that allows for a reasonable amount of debt, then that’s also an important item on the pro-side of the ledger.
All of the previous factors are rational, but the student culture, or the way you feel about a school is a feeling. Do you feel like you would fit in? Do you see kids you’d like to be friends with? Are there clubs and activities on the campus that interest you? The best way to determine this “fit factor” is to simply spend a few hours walking around the campus. And don’t be shy -- approach students with questions. How they answer may be just as important as the answer itself.
After all, this is Hillel’s Web site so let’s talk about Jewish culture on campus and how to know if the school of your choice will be responsive to your needs as a Jewish student. The most invaluable tool for finding out about Jewish life on campus is the Hillel Web site (www.hillel.org). There you can find out if there is a Hillel group on campus, if the campus offers kosher dining and even the number and percentage of Jewish students. Another telling sign of a vibrant Jewish life at a college is a Hillel affiliate on campus. This doesn’t mean though that one should discount schools with different religious affiliations. Many times, schools that are religiously affiliated are sensitive to other religions. For example, many Jesuit schools do a wonderful job of reaching out to Jewish students and some Lutheran-affiliated schools have Jewish populations above 30 percent. So you need to do your homework.
Colleges have hundreds of characteristics. Above are some of the more important ones in making a decision. However, these factors aren’t the only ones; for instance, some other things that may be important to you are male/female ratio, opportunities for undergraduate research, study abroad programs, Greek life, level of competitiveness among students, how much partying goes on, and campus facilities. Don’t let other people influence your choices with stories about a friend who hated the school you are considering or rumors about the quality of the cafeteria’s food. You know yourself best, so trust yourself to make a good decision.
Marcia Kramer is a college counselor in private practice in Montclair, New Jersey.