I serve as an ambassador in the Villanova Office of Admissions, and particularly around this time of year, prospective families love asking me – what is the most important thing we should be thinking about while deciding where to attend.

While location, financials, major programs, and the culture of the school are incredibly crucial things to consider, I often tell them something that goes vastly overlooked when prospective students sit down to make their decision – a focus on undergraduate education.
Some of the nation’s most elite schools – many of the Ivies as well as big name public institutions – while being a great match for some students, tend to allocate most research opportunities and special funding to their grad programs.

Villanova just transitioned to a doctoral institution, but at this point we have very few PhD programs. That doesn’t stop professors from doing research and publishing, however, which means if you, as an undergraduate student, are interesting in working in a Biology lab, or embarking on a tutorial independent study, you almost always can make it work.

I did a fully funded (with stipend) summer research project on Type Ia Supernovae the summer going into my sophomore year. At a larger institution, the chances of that happening are empirically smaller. On the flip side, at a smaller one that does not have the same resources and funding, the opportunities may not even be there. Finding this balance for your undergraduate decision – especially if you’re interested in going into research-related professions like lab work or professorships – is a crucial step in the right direction.

Undergraduate conference allow one to present their research or papers at a young age, and undergraduate-friendly journals, such as the Philosophy journal based out of Vassar College, allow students to get published early on. Publications and presentations are, in addition to research, huge components that go into a successful graduate application and get students noticed by grad schools or employers down the line. While outside fellowships and opportunities exist for these things, having them readily available at your home institution is absolutely invaluable.
Other than first hand student and faculty testament – which are without a doubt the best ways to truly get to know a college or university – specific things to take not of and inquiry into regarding these things include:

  1. Student to faculty ratio – you want this as low as possible.
  2. Average class size – again, the more intimate the better.
  3. A Center for Undergraduate Research or similarly oriented campus center – the CURF (Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships) at Villanova specifically offers freshmen and undergraduate research opportunities, and can help you find external fellowships and research programs as well.
  4. Number/type of graduate programs – some universities overextend themselves. A large number of graduate programs is not in itself a bad thing, but you’ll want to take note of how these programs interact with the school as a whole, and particularly how they interact with their undergraduate counterparts.

As a junior, I have not sat in a class with more than thirty students to date – and am currently in a History seminar with a grand total of three other students. These close interactions with professors are hugely beneficial to my academic flourishing, and are simply healthier and more human than giant lecture halls at institutions where faculty are more focused on other things. Once again, it’s a balance between teaching and research that allows these professors to best serve their students. Finding a university that can offer you these relationships and opportunities might mean sacrificing the elite name on your diploma for a sometimes lesser known, but nonetheless impassioned and centered undergraduate college – and that’s okay.

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