In some ways, selecting a college can be as difficult as selecting a mate. The decision, like in marriage, needs to come from the heart.
“Every college has its own personality,” explained Anita Garland, dean of admissions for Hampden-Sydney College outside Farmville. “It’s not which school is rated by someone else [as the best school]. It’s how you feel about that school. That’s the magic that no one in admissions can tell a student about. It has to come from within.”
According to Garland, the majority of students choose a school that is the right fit for them. But how do you go about making that choice? The process can begin in the sophomore year of high school.
“Take strong college preparatory classes that are available to you,” suggested Angela Boyd, director of admissions for Hampton University in Hampton. “Colleges like to see good grades, but they want to see those grades in honors classes.”
Chris Domes, vice president for enrollment and student services at Marymount University in Arlington, encourages students to begin thinking about the college selection process as early as their sophomore or junior year.
“We want them to think about what subjects interest them and what locations interest them,” he explained.
Taking the first step
The first step in the college selection process involves soul searching, knowing what you like and don’t like. Do you want to go to a school in an urban setting or a suburban setting? Do you want to attend a large school or a small school? What do you want to specialize in? Do you want to be close to home or far away?
“Come up with a list of criteria that you want in a college with everything from size to environment,” said Domes. “Decide what kind of general environment you are looking for in an institution. You want a school that best fits you, not somebody else.”
Tom McFadden, director of admissions for Christendom College in Front Royal, warns students not to choose a school solely because their friends attend that college.
“That’s not what you want to do,” he said. “You want to pick a college based on what you want to get out of that college.”
Guides offer information
College guides such as the “College Board College Handbook” and “The Undergraduate Guide” by Peterson’s Guides and their respective Web sites can provide valuable information. Online sites from www.collegeboard.com, www.princetonreview.com, www.petersons.com and www.thesalliemaefund.org have tools that will help with the college selection process. Also check out each school’s Web site and request an initial packet of information. The research will pay off and help you narrow your choices.
Financial aid and the cost of education are important considerations during this preliminary phase of the process.
“You have to be realistic, especially from a financial standpoint,” Hampton University’s Boyd explained. “You need to have a discussion with your parents about what you can afford”
Tour each college
The next step is to visit the colleges that have been targeted as matches.
“Visiting these sites is a wonderful exercise to pursue,” said Bill Hartog, dean of admissions and financial aid for Washington and Lee University in Lexington. “It will help you understand more about yourself and match your interests with colleges that have the same characteristics.”
Online virtual tours may be available, but Boyd stresses the importance of physically visiting the school. “Schedule your visit,” she advised. “Sometimes people make plans around their schedule and not the school’s schedule. Then they get frustrated when they visit.”
Choose date wisely
From a college’s viewpoint, the least desirable times for a visit include exams and spring break. “You need to take that into consideration,” Boyd said. “Days that are small holidays such as Columbus Day or parent/teacher work days are good times to visit.”
When you are on campus, try to talk to students as well as professors.
“Participate in the interview [with the admissions director],” Domes said. “Stay on campus, if you can. Visit a class. Visit the cafeteria. Eat the food. This isn’t just about the university choosing you; it’s about you choosing the university.”
Garland of Hampden-Sydney suggests that students check out the bulletin boards for activities and student gatherings.
“See if there are things on there that interest you,” she said. “Read the college newspaper. College isn’t just about the four years that you attend. You will be an alumnus for the rest of your life.”
It’s in the mail
Once the campus visits are completed, pare down your list of colleges to about six or seven and start submitting applications. Regular admission deadlines are usually in early January.
“Don’t wait until the deadline to apply,” Boyd urged. “Students feel pressured when they wait and that’s unnecessary.”
Some schools have a rolling application process. Some have either an early action or early decision program.
“Many schools have early decision programs,” Hartog explained. “The binding program allows students to apply for early decision. If they are offered admission, they are obliged to enroll.”
If a student has any hesitations about the school, the early decision program may not be the right program to choose.
“Students should not feel as though they have to apply for early decision,” Hartog said. “There’s a fear out there that there aren’t [spaces] left after early decisions are filled, but there still are plenty left.”
The number of applications filed varies from student to student.
“At Washington and Lee, the average number of applications filed by students was eight,” Hartog said. “The trend in America for filing applications is going up. Ten years ago, the average was six, but colleges are making it easier to apply online and students are taking advantage of that.”
Most colleges today allow prospective students to apply online.
Domes said, “It expedites the application process. Be sure you inform your guidance counselor that you have done this. The guidance staff needs to send your transcript and recommendations to the colleges.”
Even though some colleges use common applications, all colleges have their own specific requirements for the essay.
“You want to make sure you are sending the right essay to the right institution,” Domes said.
Use a checklist
Create a checklist to make sure that everything required is completed.
“There’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be done and you don’t want to become overwhelmed. If you file online, you can go online and see if you’ve forgotten something,” said Kathryn Napper, director of admissions for George Washington University in Washington. “After you make a checklist, keep a record of when you should hear back from the colleges. You could get an electronic message saying the school received the information or you may hear through the mail.”
Most students hear back from colleges by early April.
“Each institution is different when it comes to the review process,” Domes said.
Financial aid concerns
The financial aid process parallels the application process. You should complete your federal aid form and documents in the spring of your senior year.
“When the financial aid packet is sent to you, be sure you understand the grants, loans and work-study programs,” said Garland. “Decide what is feasible for you and your family.”
Don’t shy away from a college until you have checked on financial aid.
“In the private sector, we always tell students not to let the cost of college discourage them before we have a chance to work on need-based aid as well as academic-based aid,” Garland said. “There are grants that are based on academic performance and there are grants based on family need.”
Go for where you fit
Garland also suggests that families refrain from bargaining.
“You want to choose a college where you fit in, not which college gives you the best deal,” she said.
Students have more power than they might think when it comes to deciding which college to attend.
“I tell students there are three decisions in the process and you have two of them,” Hartog said. “You decide where to apply and where to enroll. That’s a strong position to be in.”