Selecting a college is the first major decision most young people make in their lives. It’s a decision that parents have a role in, but above all it’s up to the student to decide where to spend the next four years of his or her life. (Here's how to financially prepare for college.)
Whether you’re a teen trying to decide where to apply or a concerned parent eager to help your child find both success and happiness at school, the most important thing to consider is fit. Students are happiest at schools they feel well-matched with, in both an academic sense as well as a social sense. It can be tempting, especially for parents, to discount the importance of non-academic factors in choosing a school, but a student that feels at home in the college’s overall environment is one who is more likely to succeed academically.
Choosing a college is an important part of building your future, but it’s not everything. I think I chose the wrong school, but that didn’t prevent me from becoming a successful professional. I had good reasons for choosing the school that I went to, but also some not-so-good reasons… and I didn’t seriously consider some options that I should have.
How to choose the right college:
Start with your own priorities and goals.
This seems obvious, but it’s easy to get seduced by the idea of going to a famous school or to be enticed by generous financial offers. There are lots of good schools out there, the challenge is to find one that is right for you. Of course you should consider academic programs, but don’t discount things like whether the school is in a large or small city, how close it is to home or what the weather is like. All of those things can make a big difference in your overall experience. If there are specific programs that you’re interested in, however, you’ll of course want to weed out any schools that don’t offer them.
Care about the vibe.
It’s important to visit the school and see how it feels. Visit classes and clubs you might be interested in, and see how easy it is to connect with the current students. Each college has a different feel, and it’s hard to judge how happy you’ll be based solely on the academic programs. You’re more likely to have a successful overall college experience, if you find the environment attractive and the student body fun to interact with.
Don’t stress about your major.
If you don’t already have a concrete idea about what you’d like to study, don’t worry too much. It’s common for students to change majors throughout their freshman year (or even later). Instead, focus on finding a school with programs that can satisfy your curiosity and allow you to experiment with different subjects before settling on a specific major or career path.
So why do I think I chose the wrong school? My alma mater recruited me from a list of people who had studied abroad in high school (which I had). It had an attractive international studies program (what I wanted to study), offered generous financial aid and encouraged study abroad (one of my priorities). But I never felt like I fit in socially, and I wasn’t as challenged academically as I wished. I graduated at the top of my class… and I wish I’d gone to a school where all of the students were as academically focused as I was. My mistake, I think, was in not considering a college in my hometown—I thought it was important to go out of town to college.
In spite of feeling like my college choice wasn’t the best, I’ve been perfectly successful since graduation, including getting two graduate degrees from prestigious universities. So take heart: Even if you make the wrong choice, it’s not the end of your future.