How To Research The Best College For You

Researching colleges can be a long and complex process. There’s a pressure to make decisions about where to live for the next four years and what major to study, all while avoiding college debt. Finding the right college for a student depends on much more than what the student wants to study. There are many questions each student must answer involving their studies and general life.

To make this process simpler, a student can assess their current environment and mode of living and decide what changes they wish to make, if at all. This is all about deciding what a student will value in their college experience. The difficulty in this is predicting all aspects of what a particular student will need to make their transition to college successful and then finding a place that will provide it all.

The following are some important factors to consider when researching colleges. All these factors combined can determine whether a college is a good fit for a student.

Finding Opportunities

Students often feverishly focus on taking the steps necessary to be accepted into college and rarely take time to what think about obstacles might be awaiting them once they arrive and what that college will provide to make these obstacles easier.

It’s important to consider how that institution will support its students and what aspects about it will make their students’ transition smooth. Students often struggle in transitioning academically, during college, because there is an entirely new set of ways in which they are expected to work and resources they can receive for help on academics and attaining outside opportunities.

This can be especially difficult for students who are generally unfamiliar with the American college system. This is why it’s important for students to advocate for themselves while on campus. This means speaking to advisors, older students, professors, and anyone else willing to help a student become oriented. Otherwise, it will be assumed that a student already knows how to navigate these resources.

Take advantage of writing centers and tutoring centers for help on assignments and problem sets. Speak to professors for guidance on using office hours, research and internship opportunities, or general questions. Speak with advisors for creating an effective class schedule and fulfilling any graduation, major, or pre-professional track requirements. Visit a career service center for practicing interviews, building an effective résumé, finding an internship, and networking with visitors or alumni.

Aside from these common resources, some colleges also provide centers and counseling for first-generation & low-income (FLI) students, mental health, women’s health, student time and stress management, and much more. It is up to the student to decide what aspect of their life they want support in and to find an institution that currently provides this.

The Curriculum

Not only is it important to have an idea of what a student wants to study, but also how they prefer to study this subject and what format will make the student more likely to succeed.

Colleges can either operate on the quarter system or the semester system, which can affect the duration of classes and the amount of classes taken during the quarter/semester for students. Colleges also vary in when they require students to declare their major, which can give or take away time from exploring other fields a student is considering. Students looking to explore many fields that interest them may want to look for a college that will allow their students time to declare and switch their major.

Depending on the college, different degree programs will be offered. Not every college will offer degrees in the same areas of study. Some colleges have programs to combine a bachelor’s degree with a master’s degree in engineering, public health, etc. Some colleges do not offer minor degrees and offer certificate programs instead. Some colleges even allow students to create their own major and curriculum under the guidance of several advisors and professors. Some colleges have large communities of students in the pre-med or pre-law track and thus provide support and advisors specifically for these tracks. Students who have a particular career in mind should look for a college that provides the degree program and community that best suits them.

The systems in place for choosing classes can also widely vary. Some colleges offer a “shopping period” at the beginning of each semester where a student may attend several classes to decide which ones they prefer to take. Colleges can use a core curriculum, distribution requirements, or an open curriculum. These formats for a student’s curriculum give varying amounts of freedom in choosing classes. A core curriculum has the entire track of courses planned for their students based on their degree path. Distribution requirements provide students some structure while still allowing students open spots to pick certain classes. An open curriculum gives students virtually total freedom to decide what classes they will take.

Students should also consider looking into specific classes and professors involving specific topics that interest the student. This can give great insight as to whether a college will have the curriculum that a student is looking for.

For more information on the meaning of terms like Bachelor’s Degree or Master’s Degree, visit our post “Words That Will never Confuse You Again”.

Quality Of Instruction

Colleges can vary on their philosophy and values. They can offer a liberal arts education, function as a research institution, or do both. A liberal arts education aims to give students foundational knowledge in both sciences and humanities to “teach children how to think” rather than “what to think”. Research institutions are focused on producing research and students to attend will be highly encouraged to contribute research.

Depending on the college’s focus, it may prioritize graduate students, PhD students, research done by their professors, or their undergraduate students. Students should decide what kind of institution they are looking for regarding the amount of attention and resources they wish to receive for a quality education and, philosophically, how they wish to learn.

It is worth researching the most common majors picked at a college as it can give an indication of the programs that a college is known for and what majors the majority of students will be studying. Students should also research colleges based on the general majors that interest them. Some students might prefer to pick the most common major at a college because it provides a large community, while others might prefer to pick a smaller major where they will receive more individualized attention.

Duration of Degree

It is important that students have an idea about how much time they want to spend in school before acquiring their degree or diploma. There are many options both for students who wish to acquire a degree quickly to enter the workforce and students wanting to spend as much time in college as possible.

Students looking to save time and start their career as soon as possible may want to consider researching colleges that accept their credits from college-level courses completed in high school. However, how these credits are accepted credits varies by school. Some colleges will accept only a certain score or higher from the final exam of these classes, if any. Some colleges will accept the credit yet not remove the requirement, which means the student still must complete the requirement in college, just at a higher level course.

There are also programs that allow a student to enroll into a college during their last two years of high school. Students who are in dual enrollment are able to finish their high school diploma and acquire an Associate’s Degree in just two years. This would allow a student to then finish their Bachelor’s Degree in the following two years.

Some colleges allow students to stay on campus over the summer semester to continue taking courses and some even allow students to continue their summer studies in a different college to receive the credit.

All of these opportunities may help students speed up their track to an undergraduate degree. On the other hand, some students might want to spend four years at a college institution because they want to fully enjoy the experience. For more information on the topic of the duration of a degree, visit our post “Choosing High School Courses: What You Really Need To Think About”.

Financial Support

While it is obvious that students should consider the amount of financial aid they will be receiving to attend a college, it is less obvious that students should consider expenses that come along with attending college and possibly changing the location where a student lives.

It’s important to consider if room and board (housing and meal plans) will be covered or if the student is responsible for these expenses. Depending on the college and its location, a meal plan may or may not be the most effective and least expensive option. Although, some colleges will obligate their students to purchase a meal plan. It is also important to know whether the college a student is attending guarantees housing for the duration of their time at college. This housing may also be at a more or less expensive price than renting an apartment nearby. Although, some colleges obligate their students to live on campus.

Depending on the availability of public transportation in the location of the college, a student may have to spend a considerate amount on transportation around the region. Some colleges will also provide discounts for public transportation. Some colleges even have shuttles within their grounds to transport students across campus, included in students’ tuition.

For students who will be going to college in a different climate than where they previously lived, some colleges offer stipends for buying winter gear and some even offer similar stipends to buy business attire for presentations and job interviews.

If a student is planning on studying abroad (outside of the country) at least once during their degree program, they should research whether their college increases their tuition because of this. Some colleges will fund study abroad and thus will not change the price of a student’s tuition if a student decides to study abroad for a semester or even a year.

Some colleges have emergency funds to grant stipends to students who have an unexpected expense. Many colleges are willing to fund their low-income students to the fullest extent so their education and college experience is the best possible.

However, it is also important for each student to consider their own financial situation and decide for themselves if any lack of financial aid will be compensated by networking opportunities offered by the colleges. It is up to each student to decide how much, if any, they are willing to pay for their college education and experiences if it means being exposed to a strong alumni network that will help position them early-on in their career.

Student Body

Depending on where a student lives, there can be a variety of distributions of the student and faculty population. Students should be intentional about the environment they wish to place themselves in. There are several colleges with racial, cultural, socioeconomic, religious, and gender diversity. Not only should students consider the population distribution of the general college, but also any individual programs the student plans on joining.

Most colleges have statistics on their website regarding their distribution of race/ethnicity and gender. There are several colleges that can cater to students who wish to intentionally place themselves in an environment that is predominantly of a specific race/ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, or gender. There are several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and several Native American Colleges and Universities throughout the country. There are also several women’s colleges including the Seven Sister Colleges and also four remaining Men’s Colleges.

Some colleges officially adhere to a particular religion, may have a largely religious student body, or have several worship houses on campus to encourage their students to continue practicing their beliefs.

Please note that students do not need to strictly attend these institutions to be in an academic space with the population they are seeking. Many colleges offer or are willing to fund affinity housing, groups, and events for students to interact with subgroups within the campus.

Campus Culture

Students should consider the kind of campus culture they want to join as it will typically dictate the setting in which they socialize and take a break from their studies.

Some colleges take immense pride in their sports teams and thus the student body spends much time attending games and tailgate events. Some schools have a predominant study culture where students socialize in libraries and study groups. Most schools, however, will have some mix of both of these.

Colleges can have different well-known settings for socializing. Students on campus can socialize through affinity groups, greek life, eating clubs, or minority-based fraternities. Some colleges have famous small restaurants and tea houses that the student body frequently visits. Colleges can also have interesting traditions that go back decades or centuries and give the campus a community feel.

Health Resources

For many students, college will be the first time they are responsible for maintaining their own health. It’s important to have access to health care while at college.

Some colleges will have a mental health professional on campus who can offer counseling as part of a student’s tuition or at a discounted price. Some colleges have women’s health centers with free feminine hygiene products. Students should gage all the health resources provided by their college. Lastly, many colleges offer access to gym facilities as part of student tuition and have healthy meal options as part of their meal plan.

Most colleges will require full-time students to have medical insurance. Many colleges offer their own insurance and will offer it to students. It is up to each student to compare their current plan or other available options to the insurance offered by the college.

Quality Of Life

Undergraduate students will be spending most of their time at a college for at least two years and a student’s environment can be crucial to their success. It’s important for students to be aware of what elements of their daily living are crucial to their success and what college can continue providing these elements.

Consider whether the institution will accommodate to any dietary restrictions (vegan, kosher, or halal, etc) a student may have and whether they have access to fresh food or cultural foods.

The housing system is extremely important. A student should feel comfortable and safe wherever they live as this allows a student to concentrate on their studies. Colleges can house students in residential halls, residential houses, on-campus apartments, off-campus apartments, and more. Dorms in residential halls can be singles, doubles, triples, suites, etc. Depending on the college, some will be less spacious than others, especially if more students enroll into the college than expected. Some dorms are set up as individual rooms while others join several rooms by a small common area or living room. Housing can be newly renovated or on the older side.

Whether bathrooms are communal or personal, whether students have access to a kitchen where they can cook, and whether printing and laundry is free, can all seem trivial to one student and matter greatly to another.

Not all students will value the same elements of their daily living as essential. Each student should decide what are their nonnegotiable standards for living and what are they willing to compromise.

Location

The location of a college is extremely important to consider. This will dictate climate, proximity to the student’s home, access to opportunities, and the everyday views a student will enjoy.

College campuses can be located in a rural, suburban, or urban area. This can severely change the environment in which a student will live and other factors such as proximity to an airport, access to public transportation, access to stores, and access to outside jobs/internships.

Students should assess whether their current home is in a city, suburb, or rural area, and assess if it is best for their particular career and personal needs to continue in a similar environment. If not, then students should consider looking for a college located in the new ideal region.

Once College Is Over

Many students do not take into consideration how their college can help them once they graduate. Colleges with strong alumni networks and career service centers can help alumni get connected, find a new career path, or find job opportunities. Guidance and connections create a network that can direct people towards opportunities faster.

When researching a college, keep in mind the kind of professional a college tends to produce and how the college can continue helping their students one they graduate.

We wish you Good Luck!

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*The School Bell Blog is not associated with any of the programs mentioned. This blog serves as a resource of information that may or may not apply to the readers and it is up to each individual reader to verify the information on their own. For verification on what opportunities are available to you and for formal help, please see your school counselors. The School Bell Blog encourages everyone to do their own research before taking the information stated here as fact. Thank you.

Please email me with any questions or requests for posts: schoolbellblog@gmail.com

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