First, congratulations! You’re in an amazing position to have options in your collegiate prospects (see what we did there?), and everything you’re headed to do in your post-high school plans is something you should have huge pride in. With that, we know making your college decision can quickly get overwhelming.
Steven and I (Jo) tackled this topic to the best of our abilities, applying the peer-approach to college admissions that we emphasize here at The Prospect. We presented a live, public webinar on April 6th going in-depth with this topic, held a Q&A, and felt it needed to be shared to our readers who weren’t able to attend. Check out our insight here!
Estimated Cost of Attendance: The estimated cost of attendance is neither the sticker price nor the huge guesstimate on most pamphlets and college rankings. It consists of any direct charges: tuition, and (if on-campus) room and board. Around a quarter or a third of the estimate is usually indirect fees, such as travel fees, parking, transportation, etc. These will highly vary on your personal budgeting and circumstances – for example, transportation will be a higher cost for an out-of-state student than someone a train ride away.
The Financial Aid Package: Look at your package carefully, and don’t forget to formally accept any “awards” (grants, loans, scholarships). Note which ones are family income/Federal Aid based, and merit and/or GPA based (if you’ll have to maintain these over four years, or if it’s a one-time grant).
Jo’s Cross-Country Adventure: Being one of the extremes of going “away” to college, I am a solid 2,895 miles away from home–not that I’m counting. This time last year, I was choosing between two opposite locations: a beachfront, Southern California school, or a private university in New York City. The advice I got from people followed a common theme: go where you’ll be happy. Part of that, I realize now, is how it would affect my personal life. I spend short breaks on campus–the first time I went home was over Christmas, missing birthdays and huge family events all of first semester; on the other hand, I spent Thanksgiving with a floormate, which was a lovely experience. Family circumstances are especially important; will it be helpful for you, your loved ones, and/or less stressful for you to be closer to home? Distance will also attribute to those “indirect estimates” discussed earlier. Someone who lives a train ride away from campus can expect to spend far less on travel than someone who spends at least $500 each break for a plane ticket.
Steven’s Close-College Experience: While being close to home might give off the connotation that you will be “less independent” from your family, it could not be further from the case. Being close to home provides many advantages as far as saving on travel fees and being able to go back home for family dinners and events. Much depends on the way your family dynamic works. If you had “helicopter parents” in high school, that will stay relatively consistent in college, regardless if you’re 30 minutes or 30 hours away.
Weather: While it may seem trivial, weather may be an important factor about your college’s environment. Do you find your moods and motivation heavily affected by the weather? Changing from California’s year-round season to the distinct seasons of New York ended up taking a lot of adjustment for myself and other Californians. It can be hard to focus if it’s California’s winter weather in October, and you’re not layered up! Let alone the physiological factors–wardrobe costs can be significant. If you’re moving to a college with more varied seasons, prepare to count in a lot of time and money shopping for season gear and storing that gear when needed. While local students can more easily switch out seasonal wardrobes, my closet has remained packed with everything, all year.
Internships and Off-Campus Opportunities: Is your campus is located relatively close to a city or other colleges for internship and research opportunities? Especially for smaller universities, being in a larger area that is “college oriented” or has a lot of connections around the area, this could mean increasing internship or research opportunities, and even might provide the option for internships during the school year. On the other side, in schools that are more enclosed, look for the opportunities the university itself offers, and see if it matches your professional and academic goals.
Admitted Students Days: We hugely recommend visiting your college options if possible! Many colleges offer visit and revisit weekends, so take advantage of that. It’s the most authentic way to get that special feel of a college that everyone talks about. If you are financially unable to make the trip, contact your college admissions office to see if they provide travel stipends. These colleges already want you, so they’ll more than likely do their best to get you to come. Also, whether or not they can (or do) make these efforts will tell you a lot about the university in itself.
Receptions: If you absolutely cannot make it out to the university, go to any–and all–of the receptions held in your region. Not only do you get to hear from admissions officers, but you’ll also get to ask questions and meet the other students most likely to make up your future college group.
Community: How is the feel? Is it tight-knit, where people seem to be saying a hello every few minutes on a walk around? Or is it a strong “lone wolf” mentality? Neither is ultimately better; what matters is which one is more comfortable for you. Are there communities (religious, ethnic, interest groups), available and active, that you want to be involved with? Also, check out what the campus is like: something with a few buildings spread out around a few city blocks, or a large sprawling campus, where most students spend all their time?
Especially if you can’t make it to campus, stalk social media and publications to feel out the community. Things like campus newspapers, blogs, Facebook pages (like “[Your University] Compliments/Problems/Memes”), where students directly feed into, are usually going to be far more insightful than a scripted tour guide. Ask questions! Post to social media, tag your university, and say you have a question. You’ll have eager current students ready to answer anything you’re wondering about.
Where & How Students Spend Free Time: Because college is a new stage in your life, it isn’t just the class time that changes. Socialization affects how you spend your time, and money. Is it a college town, that is student (and student-budget) friendly? Or do kids go into “the city”? Or are clubs and on campus activities the norm and popular, with lot of free or cheap things to during the week and weekends? Ask students, especially upperclassmen, who would have had a broad experience in the social life at this time.
As a disclaimer, we want to remind you that this is a very tricky area to approach. It isn’t all just rankings, prestige, or the “endgame” of your college prospects. We approached this by applying our own experiences as a third-year student planning to attend graduate school (Steven) and first-year student in a pre-professional program (J0).
Look at Your Field: What’s a field? It would be something like natural science, social science, engineering, or humanities. Usually, your field will be the same as the college your major is in, like the [Your University] College of Engineering.
Virtually every college student (especially liberal arts students!) will change their major (an average of four times over their college years). However, a majority of these switches will remain within your field. This field is the environment you’ll be encompassed in closely for 4 years–running around the biology department between classes and labs, getting to know your economics professors, spending late evenings working in art rooms or woodshops. Again, talk to students, but especially upperclassmen who have already declared their major. Ask if they’ve changed their major (and how easily), if they changed between colleges/fields, and what the atmosphere is like in their field.
If You Dig into Majors: What’s a major? i.e. Biology, European History, Chemical Engineering, Psychology. (Pre-professional programs–I’m looking at you, pre-med/pre-law–are not majors. They’re tracks and programs, usually with specialized advising and communities.) Contact/meet people within these fields. Ask them if housing is majors/field based, and even “what it’s like to be…” in that field.
Graduation Rate: What’s the average graduation rate? What does that mean for you financially, and in future career prospects? When I was looking between colleges, I was looking at a public, in-state university where around 80% of students “graduated in 5-6 years”, and a (very expensive) private university where over 90% of students graduated in 4 years, and a high number of students would graduate in 3 to 3.5 years. While in the public, in-state university looked like it would cost far less (because it was lower tuition per year), the two actually had about a $5,000 difference in costs, if I calculated tuition to the average and expected graduation rates!
General Ed: Too many students overlook what their school’s general education or “core curriculum” is, so they go in hating these classes–the classes they’re required to take. While things like your major (and therefore, major classes) will likely change, those general education classes won’t. See what those classes are, and even check out if you’re getting AP/IB credit for any. Going to a Jesuit university with an extremely strong Jesuit core, so many people were shocked (and upset) about having required theology classes (mind you, it’s theology applying critical reason, not religion classes), while I had looked at the core as a science major and loved that we had so many humanities classes as requirements.
Advising: Is there advising down your throat, or no advisors until you declare? If you’re in a requirements/future applications-heavy field, advising will be crucial, as well as if you’re unsure about what to major in.
Opportunities After Undergraduate
Graduate School Acceptance Rate: What do a majority of students do after they graduate from undergrad? Do they go to grad school, and if they do, do they get into their first choice, second choice, etc.? These are all important factors you need to consider if you are thinking of continued education after undergrad. The strength of the acceptance rate into graduate, law, or medical programs after undergrad demonstrates the amount of support the institution gives to the student since this has a powerful sway in most post-undergrad institutions.
Fellowships and Scholarships: How recognized is the college or university when it comes to awards such as Fulbrights, Rhodes, Gates, and other prestigious scholarships? Universities with a good track record of these scholarships usually provide more support for students when applying to these competitive fellowships and have a greater chance of getting these opportunities. Check our these fellowships and see whether or not you would be interesting in doing any of them after college.
Strength of Alumni Network: Just because a college might have an extensive alumni network, it does not mean it is efficiently used. A useful alumni network is one where alumni are drawn to help current students on campus get more experience and exposure to professions, fields, and opportunities. Not only will they help with internships and networking, but effective alumni networks also provide great mentors in your particular field. To get more information, try to contact current students or the alumni/career services office to get more information on how the alumni network works.
Deposit: Remember to double check when your deposit is due for the school! Most colleges have their deadline on the first of May, in conjunction with your Statement of Intent to Register (SIR). The SIR is a binding contract, and means literally what it says: you are stating that you intend to register at this specific college for your first semester after high school. However, it is not a guarantee, in the sense that it can can be rescinded (revoked and made void) if grades drop past your college’s threshold (varies by college) or disciplinary action is taken against you between submitting your SIR and starting college.
Whatever you do, do not send in more than one SIR. If you’re thinking one college might “not work out” due to any reasons, don’t SIR to another college as a back-up. Colleges do talk to one another and cross-check their student lists, and having more than one SIR can mean being rescinded from all of your acceptances. If you’re concerned about a school (or two), for example, grades, or waiting for one school’s financial aid package, contact admissions at both, and clearly explain your circumstances!
Figuring out all the financial jargon and your options for paying? Check out The Last Post You Will Ever Need on How to Pay for College.
A Final Note
Above all, we want you to remember that college in itself is an amazing experience, emphasize that what you make of your experience will matter the most! Every acceptance is an accomplishment.
From Steven, Jo, the TP Webinar Team, and all of us at The Prospect, congratulations! You’re about to get done with one of the biggest journeys of your life (and begin a new one!), and we hope this feature helped out.
About TP Webinars
Webinars are up and coming in the professional world, allowing masses of people to join in on a live presentation or meeting from anywhere in the world–like in the comfort of our Snuggies. TP webinars are presented by two live speakers, who voiceover a slideshow presentation that is seen by all attendees. Attendees remain off-mic, and all participants are off-camera for security. Each webinar is followed by a live Q&A session, where attendees can message questions to the presenters, who’ll answer to the best of their knowledge!
For our rising senior readers, join Kaitlyn Kelly and Ameera Khan on April 27th, 2014, when they present our next webinar on how to tackle the college search. Stay tuned on the TP Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Getting TP’d Newsletter for the presentation time and registration link, coming soon. We hope you’ll join us!