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Creating the Perfect College List [Part Two]: Important Factors in Forming College Lists

For many parents and students, the names of prestigious colleges are like bright, shiny objects dangling in the night sky. Each one evokes a unique though similar reaction ranging from longing to lust. Similarly, for many parents and students, college names play a disproportionately important role in the creation of a college list, despite the fact that names have little to do with the nature or quality of experiences students will encounter over the next four years.

Additionally, a focus on college names to the exclusion of academic and experiential factors is not the only mistake that many parents and students make in developing the college list. Some parents and students discount entirely the possibility of attending a public college simply because it is not a private school, as if the mere fact of being publicly funded and administered somehow diminishes a college’s prestige or quality. Of course, this is nonsense. Furthermore, many students place a value on attending college near a big city, or other factors such as diversity, number of clubs and organizations, or even climate. I am not saying that these factors should not be considered. However, more than anything else, college is a place to learn, to grow, to experience, and to explore a pathway that may lead to a lifelong passion and rewarding career.

I understand that these statements may be somewhat controversial, so let me explain my point so as not to be misunderstood. College is not a doorway. College is what is behind the doorway. What a shame it would be if you did not open a door that led to a remarkable college experience simply because you did not like the color, or shape, or texture of the door. In order to make an appropriate decision about where to apply to college, you must know something about the landscape that you will encounter once you open that door. At least 75% of the college experience is about classes, assignments, and studying. Perhaps another 15% is about the campus experience and the remaining 10% is about everything else including location, climate, and diversity. I do not discount that these things are factors to consider if they are important to you. But the vast majority of your time is going to be spent in class, writing papers, conducting research, and studying for tests. So, more than anything, you should develop your college list based on what you expect (or hope) to study or learn at college.

The fact is that many public colleges are among the best institutions of higher learning in the entire world. Some of the more well-known examples include UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia (UVA), Georgia Tech, University of North Carolina (UNC), Virginia Tech, and William and Mary. The level of education, opportunities, and resources provided by these institutions is every bit as valuable as that provided by most private institutions.

As for location, even if you attend a college located near a big city, for example, you will hardly ever get off campus. You will likely be too busy studying! Whether you attend a rural campus college such as Bates, Cornell, Dartmouth, UVA, or Williams, or a city college such as BU, Barnard, Columbia, UPenn, Rice, or U Chicago, the vast majority of time will be spent in the classroom, in your dorm, or elsewhere on campus.

Many students list diversity as a primary factor in their choice of colleges. I agree that attending a college with a diverse student body is preferable, but I do not believe it should be a primary factor in choosing colleges. Almost every college has diversity, and factoring out colleges that are, by their very nature, not intended to be diverse (such as religion- or color-based institutions), the difference between a highly diverse college and a slightly diverse college would render the college experiences to be quite similar.

To me, there are two factors that should rise above all others when forming your college list. The first one is size. Large universities tend to have more lectures and fewer small classes than small- or medium-sized universities or Liberal Arts colleges. Also, attending a large university has a very different feel than attending a smaller college. Know your preferences and decide based on which environment makes you most comfortable.

The second factor is academics. Your college list should be made up of schools that have strong departments in the areas that you intend to study. Furthermore, many students have a secondary interest that they would like to continue to pursue in college. For example, if you have been playing an instrument for many years and would like to consider a minor or concentration in music, you might want to choose colleges that would offer you that opportunity. Perhaps you want to major in economics but have a minor in mathematics. Find a school that will allow you to do this. If you want to program computers, you should not necessarily apply to a school that specializes in computer engineering because they focus much more on hardware, interfaces, and systems. If you love to write, look for colleges that have strong writing departments.

Some of these statements are common sense and others may be less obvious or intuitive. My objective as a college consultant is to help students see and understand what is behind the door so that they can make a more informed decision about where they will spend the most important four years of their lives. With so much misinformation out there, this is sometimes a difficult task. I absolutely understand the temptation of applying to a brand-name college. There is no doubt that these prestigious colleges provide excellent education. I just want to make sure that relatively superficial factors such as name and location do not get in the way of making correct decisions for a lifetime of benefits and opportunities. Choose your list wisely based on the factors that matter most.

Next Week’s Article👉 – A Deep Dive into the Ivy League Colleges

Part One: Reaches, Targets, and Safeties