Yeah, yeah, I know: you guys are sick of a bunch of rowdy college kids telling you about college admissions. I get it. But do not fear, we’re giving you a small break from us cool cats and moving on to actual college advisors (aka people who work in the college admissions sector for a living)!

So, what do college admissions officers, advisors, and experts have to say about what you should look at when choosing a college? What are some other aspects of college life that students don’t normally think about but should?

When in Doubt, Fit It Out

No doubt, the most common answer I heard from college advisors was the importance of fit. Sarah Reese, a college advisor with Informed Educational Solutions, advises students to really look at a campus themselves so they can reflect honestly about how they feel. “Take the tour, do the group meeting, and make sure the admissions office knows you were there,” she advises for students visiting a college.


Our very own Trisha Arora (on the far right) enjoying a warm day on Foss Hill with friends. Image from the Wesleyan Community Blog.

“But after you are done with the planned phase of your visit,” she explains, “leave your parents at the campus coffee shop and walk around alone. How do you feel? Do the buildings and students look like places and people you would like to be part of? Are people smiling at you as you go by? Do the students look happy? How do you feel? Can you imagine a fun rainy day here?”

Reese also explains the importance of physical surroundings on a college campus. “If the going gets tough, were you to attend this school, would the physical surroundings–the trees, the sidewalks, the view, the architecture–would they provide perspective and solace? Would they remind you, on a hypothetical future dark day, ‘You belong here. This is your place.’?”

Christine Mendonça, the Director of Operations for Latinos in College, echoes Reese’s sentiments about fit. “In my opinion, the most important thing a student should look for in a prospective college is whether it is place where they can see themselves spending four maybe five years. Are there clubs and organizations that sound immediately interesting? Are there activities on campus or in town that are engaging? Is it a college where students go home on the weekends or one where most students stick around?”

Mendonça pulls from her own experiences when she talks about fit. “When I was looking at colleges, I visited almost every school Florida and some in the Northeast, but none really spoke to me. When I visited Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina over Christmas break, it was freezing and empty, but I just knew I would love it there. Between skiing and snowboarding in the winter, hiking, biking, and rock climbing in the summer, I knew I would be enriched both inside and outside the classroom.”

Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, founder of adMission Possible, has the same feelings about fit. “If I were to choose just one factor, it would be a sense from a student that a college will really be a home…students can ask themselves, ‘What does my heart tell me? On which campus do I feel at home? Which college conjures up positive thoughts and feelings? Am I excited to be on the campus? Do the students seem like my kind of people?'” Want more information on Shaevitz’s own “college checklist” for senior looking to get into school? Check out her article on Huffington Post.

Research, Research, Research, and Oh Yeah, More Research 

Hugo Rodriguez, assistant editor of the College Guidance program at Cram Crew, has some really important advice for students: DO YOUR RESEARCH, especially to avoid choosing the “brand name” school over the school that’s perfect for YOU. “My advice is to break from that mold and do research on everything from the big (Where is the school?) to the small (What kind of food do they have on campus? What are the real student-to-faculty ratios?) before making the decision.”

No matter what your situation, Rodriguez says it’s up to the students to put in the time to really figure out what a prospective college is all about. “Students should also do the legwork and reach out to current students and to alumni, even professors! With [the Internet] the way it is now, it’s very easy to just find someone, and send a message. ‘Hey, I’m a high schooler at such and such [school] and I’m curious about the University of X. I see you are a current student/alumni there. What are your thoughts on the university?’ What’s the worst that can happen? They ignore you? A gold mine of information is at your fingertips.”

Overall, Rodriguez cautions (just like we do) that the perfect school for you won’t always have the big name, but “…once you’re done with the research, you’ll find that there is such a thing as a perfect school. It may not be playing football in primetime television, but it just may be the place you will really feel at home.”

Location: You Know We Love It

We mentioned location in one of our earlier posts, and college admissions advisors agree that it is extremely important to like the area where your school is located. Brittney Coulter, a College Guidance Program Coordinator at Cram Crew, suggests looking at a location with a three-dimensional lens. “I feel like too often the focus is placed entirely on the school itself, such that the area it’s located in becomes kind of an afterthought. [Students] should determine what kind of environment they are looking for not only within a college campus, but within a surrounding community as well.”

Coulter gives specific examples of where the location of a school can play a big role in a student’s life. “If a student is big on culture and entertainment, they might not want to attend a university in a small town,” she says. “Likewise, if they are used to a small-town feel where everyone knows everyone, they should consider whether or not they would enjoy attending a college or university in a big city.”

What should you look at to get a more complete picture of the school’s surroundings, other than just visiting a local coffee shop or restaurant? “Stats like crime rates, demographics, public transportation options, and cost of living are also helpful to consider. [Students] will be spending four years of their lives wherever they choose to go, so they need to be absolutely sure they’re willing to embrace every aspect about the school, including the surrounding community.”

Personal Fulfillment: It’s Important

Hayden Lee, a Certified Academic Life Coach for teenagers, also asks students to look at what they hope to gain from college. “In addition to test scores, GPA, and college rankings, I think teens–and parents–often overlook the importance of passion and having a sense of life purpose when looking at colleges.”

You’re not just going to school to study; you’re attending a place of learning, self-discovery, and passion. When choosing a college, you should look for a university that leaves you feeling fulfilled. Have you expanded your own self-knowledge and your cultural and social capital? Do you thinking a particular university can aid you in that quest for self-creation? These are concepts to explore.

If you want to read more about the important of the “PPF (Purpose, Passion, Fulfillment) Degree” that can help you think more honestly and openly about your future, I definitely recommend checking out Lee’s article on the subject.

The Stuff You Don’t Think About

No doubt every kid looking at colleges has heard something about fit, research, or location. But what about the concepts placed in the “other stuff” category? For example, what are some of the smaller aspects of a school that prospective students don’t care about until they’re actually at school? Jennifer Klemanski, the Director of College Counseling at Campus Bound, has two crucial suggestions for students choosing between schools.

1. How does the college selects your freshman year roommate?

“Is there thought put into this decision on behalf of the Residence Life office? Do you want to be a student who is thoughtfully selected, or part of a massive pool of freshman randomly pieced together?” she asks. “Some students may be up for anything, while other students are creatures of habit.  If you are someone who wants lights out at 10am, isn’t a socialite, and doesn’t smoke, you just may want to be sure your being matched with someone who is like-minded to some extent.”

2. Are there new buildings/projects/initiatives in the works on campus?

Klemanski explains the importance of going to a college that is constantly self-improving. It’s about making sure the university is “funneling money right back to the students” instead of spending it on endeavors that classrooms and labs on campus never see.

New buildings and projects aren’t just for show; they’re also a huge part of that check you hand to the university every month. “We are all well-aware of the college costs these days. Do you want your/your parents’/your guardians’ tuition dollars going to investing in new classrooms, equipment, top notch professors, study abroad programs, clubs and so on? Or would you rather the money going to something that will never have a positive effect on you during your time on campus?” It’s a great question, one definitely worth exploring, especially for students who are going to school on a tight budget.

Klemanski’s last piece of advice? “Think carefully. It is a $60,000 per year question.”

How NOT to Choose a School Is Just as Important

So here you are, a student with even more college “things” to research, read, and learn about. But what are some WRONG ways to choose a college or go about the admissions process (as in, don’t pull a Suzy Lee Weiss)? Seth Bykofsky, a college advisor at College Connection, has several ideas for what NOT to look at. His first suggestion? “Rankings, for instance. Fun to look at and digest. Virtually meaningless in deciding which college will be a good fit for YOU.”

Bykofsky also mentions a topic that many students subconsciously think about but don’t often admit to themselves. “There’s the old popularity contest. The ‘I want to go where all my friends are going.’ Reminds me of a student I counseled several years back who only wanted to go to the University of Wisconsin. ‘Why?,’ I inquired. ‘Do you like cheese?’ ‘No,’ he responded, quizzically. ‘Do you like extremely cold winters?,’ I shot back. ‘No,’ he said, becoming impatient. ‘Do you like bad politics?,’ I asked, knowing this would go right over his head. He looked at me as if I had three eyes. ‘So why Wisconsin?,’ I asked with an inquisitive grin. To which my young charge replied, confidently, ‘Because all of my friends are applying there!'”

Bykofsky perfectly sums up my thoughts on this cautionary tale: “Great story. Terrible reason for applying to a particular school.”

It’s Never the End of the World

So, you’ve chosen your school, and you’ve been there for a semester or two, but you’re not really loving it. Is that it? Are you stuck somewhere you don’t LOVE?

Lisa Wartenberg, an advisor for the College Guidance and Development programs at Cram Crew, reminds students that even if they get to college and don’t like their school as much as their previously thought, it’s not a dead-end situation. “If you do find yourself come fall or spring of your freshman year at a school that no longer fits you, that [it] doesn’t quite live up to your expectations, if your priorities or dreams have changed, don’t be afraid to act on that and transfer to someplace more suitable.  It’s not the end of the world, it’s the beginning of another.”

The Bottom Line

Well, it looks like you’ve got some more research (and ‘splaining) to do. Go back over your colleges; make pros/cons list for each of them. Plan an impromptu college trip if you can. Stalk college websites like no other. Another big YESDOITOMG: call the admissions office! The staff is geared up for the admissions season, and they are always looking to take calls from students like you who might be gracing their campus next fall! Even better: a lot of colleges will direct you to a current student, which means you’ll actually get the rundown from someone who’s experiencing the school right now.

And lastly, I’m sure a couple of you might be wondering what happened to our dear Wisconsin friend, the kid who wanted to brave the freezing Midwestern winters for the sake of chilling with his bros. Did he actually end up there? Bykofsky gave me the lowdown at the end of his email. “That student who ‘only wanted to go to the University of Wisconsin,’ didn’t. He visited in the dead of winter (sans cheese), and never bothered to apply. He is currently a most contented Junior at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.” Huh, sounds like a little research and soul-searching did him some good.


I’d like to give a huge shout out and THANK YOU to the college advisors and experts who answered my emails about what students should look for in a college. All of their answers were spectacular and their advice invaluable, and I really appreciate their participation (I was expecting maybe two one-sentence answers; I got nine extremely fleshed out responses, and I’m extremely grateful!).

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the author

Lily Herman is a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Besides bopping around on The Prospect, Lily is a columnist for USA TODAY College (read the Quad Report, yo); an editorial intern for The Daily Muse; a contributing editor for the campus blog Wesleying; a national contributing editor for Her Campus; and an editorial/marketing intern at HelloFlo. When she is not studying or awkwardly waving at people around campus, Lily enjoys eating Sour Patch Kids and re-watching the Friday Night Lights series finale (she's Team Saracen, by the way). Also (shameless plug alert), feel free to follow her on Twitter, or email her at lherman(at)theprospect(dot)net.

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