Congrats on getting into college! Woooooo! The ridiculously early soccer practices, the hundreds of hours you put in babysitting, the twenty-seven club meetings you juggled each day, the large amount of English papers you procrastinated (and then finished at the last possible second), all of it was worth it. Now you just have pick your school.
For some of you, the choice is simple.
For others, the choice is hard.
And I’m sure there are more than a couple of you who are stuck between two types of colleges: the “brand name” school and the one that is not as well known but perfect for you.
What’s a Brand Name School? It’s a college that every person in your town, state, or country knows. The Ivies apply to this category, as do a lot of larger universities with active athletic programs and private universities with a particularly outstanding academic department. It’s a university that people generally say, “Wow!” to when you tell them you go there. However, Ivies, athletic schools, and specialized program schools aren’t the only types of schools; these are just examples.
And what’s the perfect school? Well, it’s a school where you think you’ll be a great fit. It’s a college where you love everything–the academics, the facilities, the people, the faculty, even the trash cans.
And thus you are faced with a decision: which school do you choose? The school with the name, or the school that you think was pretty much meant for you?
Though every person’s journey is different (and everyone’s reasons for attending a particular college vary greatly), here’s a couple of different points to think about when it comes to choosing between the “perfect” school and the perfect school for you.
A Bit about Fit
Emily Keator, a freshman at Davidson College, actually turned down the famous Harvard University to attend Davidson. People were shocked–how could someone decline an acceptance to THE Harvard University for a small liberal arts college?!
However, Emily had her reasons, some good ones at that. “I chose Davidson because, quite simply, it fit me better. Harvard is a fantastic school and I would have been honored to be a student, but I don’t think I would have been happy there as an undergraduate.”
Emily knew what she was looking for in a college, and Davidson seemed to be a more natural fit. “Small classes and therefore close relationships with professors really matter to me at this stage of my education, and I don’t think I would have found that at Harvard as an undergrad.”
The Little Things
For Emily, the “little things” came in the form of the comfort and security at Davidson and in the surrounding area. “I was also incredibly comfortable on the campus, [especially] with its Honor Code–once I saw some cash pinned to board in the student union with a note saying where it was found. That comfortable feeling extends pretty much to the whole town.”
Though Emily thinks that, “…Cambridge [where Harvard is located] is beautiful and near Boston and I felt incredibly sophisticated sitting in one of the cafes near the bookstore, I didn’t get that same comfortable, small town feeling [that I loved at Davidson].” As we talked about earlier in our Real College Checklist series, the location of a college does make a difference! These small aspects add up to create your entire experience. So if you’re just not getting that WOW feeling from a school, you don’t have to settle!
Oh Yeah, Happiness Is a Thing
Honestly, you might not be as happy at the Brand Name School as you would be at a different school. Yeah, it’s so tempting, especially once you’re accepted, to take the offer and run. But think about it: do you really love the school? Do you even kind of like it? If someone asks you where you would be the most happy, is this the school that first pops into your head?
Remember: four years is a long time. You see the people on your college campus EVERY DAY. You will use the campus facilities 24/7. You will be furthering your education through this university. You spend over 35,000 hours as a college student. Shouldn’t you be loving it instead of just going “eh”?
People: They’re Also a Thing
Long story short: Emily loves the people at Davidson, and they’re her number one reason for attending the school. “The number of people [at Davidson] who understand my nerdy Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings references is astounding, and I just get such a sense of community from the the people.”
Remember: students make the campus. And sometimes the types of people at a school are just not your cup of tea. I’m not saying they’re bad people; I’m just saying they’re not completely compatible with you. For example, a liberal Wesleyan hipster would probably not enjoy the conservative Southern pride at Washington & Lee. Both Wesleyan and W&L are fabulous schools with absolutely incredible, smart people; they just attract different types of students.
Think about your Brand Name School. Visit if you’re able to. Do you really like the student body? Are they too awkward, pretentious, academics-obsessed, jock, uncoordinated, or hipster? Be honest with yourself.
And don’t pull the whole “I’ll learn to love the people!” thing. That doesn’t work. Ever. You might learn to tolerate the people, but you’ll never truly love them. Consider the difference. Do you want to spend your four years of college gritting your teeth and rolling your eyes, or do you want to be like, “HECK YEAH I AM PART OF THIS COMMUNITY!”?
Your Perfect School: People might not know it.
Yeah, some people may have never heard of your school. That doesn’t make it a bad school; it just makes those people are ignorant about colleges. I can tell you from experience that it does suck when you see that blank look spread across someone’s face when you tell them where you go to school and they don’t recognize the name, but eventually you just don’t care; you’re too proud of your college.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how Brand Name schools are able to give you connections that other colleges and universities can’t. Sure, a Name Brand college might seem to have more “connections” than another school, or connections that are easier to find. However, I can tell you now with certainty: every school has alumni. Furthermore, every school has alumni who will help out current students.
On the topic of connections, it should also be mentioned that networking only works if you actively participate in it. You can’t just say, “Wonderful alumni people, come at me!” and expect them to. That doesn’t happen. There are students who go to Brand Name Schools who have never made a single alumni connection; in contrast, there are students at schools that aren’t typically thought of as “Brand Name” who have over 500+ connections on LinkedIn. Like everything else in college, whom you interact and network with comes down to your own initiative.
Bottom Line: Think about WHY you are choosing a school. The reasons matter.
Are you choosing it for the name or because you truly and honestly and whole-heartedly believe it’s the perfect place for you? If the school happens to have both name recognition you desire AND it’s perfect, then you have the best of both worlds! If not, as Desi Arnaz used to say, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do.”
Emily’s advice? Remember what the point of an undergraduate education is in the first place. “Lots of people get caught up in just looking at the academic or athletic prowess of a school, but college, especially undergrad, is as much about you and your personal growth into an adult as it is about education. People have accomplished great things in life and been ecstatically happy without a name-brand school.”
Emily also asks you to visualize that college diploma decades down the road. “…Think about this: at the very end, will that faded diploma from a name-brand school make you smile more than all those times you could have had somewhere you fit just right? While you’ll make friends wherever you go, just think about whether you’re willing to trade in an experience that’s practically tailor fit to you for one with a bigger name.”