Did you know that one in three college students transfer schools at least once? The best way to avoid a big transition like this is by doing your research ahead of time to make sure you choose the best college match for you the first time around. It’s tempting to pick a school because your best friend is going there or because it’s in the Ivy League, but it’s best to pick a school that’s right for you personally. There are many factors, including costs, culture, and your academic and career aspirations, to think about before applying to a college or university.
Factors to Think About Before Applying to College
Think about your long-term goals. What are you looking to achieve once you earn your degree? Do you have a particular career in mind? When comparing schools, think about the various roles you could be qualified for in your field of study, ask about the percentage of students who are gainfully employed in that field after graduation, and research the average salaries for the positions you’re likely to pursue. You’ll also want to know what the university does to help prepare you for your future career. For example, are there internships or research opportunities open to you? Are there businesses that recruit from campus?
Evaluate tuition costs. Add up the annual tuition costs, plus room and board, books and other supplies, and extraneous costs like application fees or lab fees. Ask how much tuition costs have increased in recent years. It’s also helpful to know what percentage of students graduate in four years, since the longer it takes to earn your degree, the more it will cost you. (Note: Your tuition costs could vary depending on whether you’re attending a college in-state, out-of-state, or outside your home country).
Tip: Check out this tool from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that allows you to compare college costs and financial aid.
Explore financial aid options. Although you won’t know exactly how much financial aid you’ll receive before you apply, you can get a good sense of this by asking a few questions. For example, what percentage of students receive financial aid? Does the school offer needs-based, merit-based, or other scholarships, and if so, what are the requirements? Do they offer work-study programs?
Shop for student loans. Once you have a sense of how much money you’ll receive in scholarships and grants (i.e., money you don’t need to pay back), you can estimate how much you’ll need to borrow to cover the rest. Do your research ahead of time so you’re aware of what loan options are available for you. Use a student loan calculator to help you understand what the costs of borrowing are, and then factor this information into your decision when considering schools
Consider the learning environment. Don’t just choose a school because it’s high ranking or because your best friend is going there. Find out as much as you can about the classes and professors. For example, how much personal support will you receive from professors? Is there a great deal of academic pressure? What’s the average class size in the program you’re interested in? Do they have a learning community or other programs for incoming freshman? Are classes taught by tenured professors or teaching assistants? Then, think long and hard about the type of environment where you feel you’ll do best. For example, if you’re relatively independent and don’t feel like you need one-on-one attention, perhaps class size is less important to you.
Explore the culture. Visiting campus is a great way to start learning about each university, but don’t just take the guided tour. Arrange to sit in on a class, visit a campus club of interest to you, or catch the Friday basketball game while you’re there! You might even be able to sleep overnight in the dorms. Talk with current or former students to see what they liked best and what they found most challenging about the culture. Ask for an interview with an admissions counselor, and find out from them the types of students who tend to thrive there. Also, look beyond campus. Take some time to walk or drive around the surrounding area to see what fun things there are to do nearby.
Envision your living situation. There’s a lot to consider, such as will you be ok with having a roommate? Do you prefer an apartment or dorm? Ask the school what percentage of students live on campus and if there are any rules for doing so. For example, some universities require first year students to live on campus. Also, find out if Greek life is a big part of campus, and think about whether living in a fraternity or sorority might be right for you. Each fraternity or sorority typically has its own personality and gives you an opportunity to live with others who share your interests.
Check into support services. This is likely the first time you’ll be living on your own, so you might not know exactly what support you’ll need. However, it’s a good idea to get a sense of what’s available to you. For example, many schools offer health and counseling services, tutoring, career counseling, and more. Some also offer wonderful resources such as pre-orientation events the summer before freshman year to help incoming students acclimate to campus life. Many schools also offer support services to students who are the first in their family to attend college, so if you fit into that category, be sure to ask whether they have additional programs to help you succeed in college.
Think about safety. One area that students commonly overlook when researching colleges is safety, yet it’s an important factor. Schools are required to keep records about crime on campus, so that information should be readily available. Also, find out who provides campus security, what security is offered for dorms (such as security officers and/or secure key cards), and if the school offers things like shuttle buses or security to escort students home at night.
Gauge your chances of admittance. Find out the school’s criteria for admission and how competitive the school is. For example, what percentage of students were admitted last year, and how many were wait-listed?