Which college is right for me?
If you're a high school senior, or you're about to become one, you may be trying to answer that question. You and everybody else.
Good thing you're reading this post, because I'm about to let you in on a little-known method for answering that question....and answering it in a way that helps you get into the college that's just right for you.
By researching college rankings? Nope.
By asking your guidance counselor? Think again.
I'm going to show you how to streamline your college search by going straight to the expert. The one person who knows you best. You.
Step One: Which College is Right for Me?
That's right. For this first step, you’re the only expert you need. That’s because the answer to a question like, "Which college is right for me?" begins with an understanding of who you really are. It means knowing yourself, so that you can figure out what you want to give to—and what you need to get from—a college.
You’re perfect for the college that’s perfect for you.
If that sounds too good to be true, let’s break that statement down.
Does that mean you’re perfect for the Ivy League? Well, maybe. But does that mean the Ivy League is perfect for you? Well, maybe…or maybe not.
Take the case of one student I worked with. Initially, she and her parents had their sights set on some pretty competitive institutions—colleges with acceptance rates below the 15% mark. They had a whole list of these places—a spreadsheet, actually—complete with statistics and college rankings. It was a college search by the numbers.
But very quickly, my student stalled out. She found she wasn’t genuinely excited about a lot of places on the spreadsheet. Worse, she wasn’t even sure what she was looking for in a school outside the superficial trappings like rankings and name recognition. That’s when she and her parents came to me. And that’s when I turned her over to the expert: herself.
By asking this student a series of questions about her high school life, her interests, and her likes and dislikes, a clearer picture of the ideal college began to emerge. Rather than focus on rankings, we started looking into the academic departments that interested her. We tossed out schools that were too big, too remote, or had too robust a Greek life. We also kept the focus off scores, grades, and other data that so often set the limited parameters of a student’s college search. We went big picture—concentrating on the overall “feel” of who this student was and where she might best fit in.
Why? Not because conventional wisdom told us to, but because I knew that she was perfect for the place that was perfect for her. And by getting to know this student holistically, I was quickly discovering exactly what kinds of schools would be in the running to be a match.
Now, just to be clear, getting to know my student wasn’t the only aspect of my work with her. Like I said: Asking "Which college is right for me?" is Step One in a multi-step process. But in the same way that this critical first step paved the way for a successful college admissions journey for my student, it can do the same for you. Get to know yourself and the rest will follow—including acceptance at a school where you can grow and thrive.
So which college is right for you, anyway?
So how do you define yourself in a way that will get you to the college that’s right for you? Begin with your high school career: Your interests, the things that make you tick, environments and situations where you’re able to do your best.
The sample questions below aren’t exhaustive, but they’re a good place to start as you delve into the characteristics that make you just perfect for some yet-to-be-determined school. Once you’ve answered these—and any others that seem relevant to you—you’ll be ready to move on to Step Two: Finding your college “match.”
1. Have you sought out smaller communities within your high school, or do you thrive in a big and diverse environment?
“Big university, or small college” is one of the first things I like to get a sense of with the students I coach. And it’s the simple question above that often gets to the heart of that choice. Many of the students I’ve worked with have known right away whether they’re more of an intimate setting kind of student, or one who craves the benefits of a big institution (or something in between). But for those who aren’t sure, reflecting on their high school experience can quickly settle this dilemma.
So take a look at your choices over the last four years. Do you seek out mentorships with teachers? Then a smaller college setting, where you can attend classes with under 20 students and forge close relationships with your professors, may be a good choice.
Are you a student who’s always at sports games, planning all-school activities, or at the center of multiple groups of friends? That may mean you’ll gravitate toward a larger college or a big university.
Do you like a setting where you know—or at least recognize—almost everyone by the end of a couple years together? Think smaller. Or do you prefer getting lost in the crowd? Think bigger.
One other thing to consider in the big/small dilemma is your use of your high school’s resources. If you found yourself looking outside your school’s resources for more options (especially research-related options) you might gravitate toward someplace larger—for the breadth of resources and opportunities.
Or maybe you’re a student who loves the traditions that come with attending a small high school and want the same in a college.
Whatever your preferences, remember that there are no right answers here. Just be sure to evaluate the big/small question on the basis of your actual experience—not what you think you should like or dislike.
2. Does tough competition help you do your best, or does it drag you down?
Before you ask "which college is right for me?" ask whether you're looking for a school where the pressure’s intense and the competition cutthroat, or whether you'll be happier in an environment where you can be challenged on your own terms?
Let’s take another look at your high school career. Are you the kind of student who sought out AP/IB/honors classes? Do you enjoy being in environments where you’re one of the smartest students in the room, and/or in which others’ intelligence inspires you to push harder? If yes, then you’ll want to consider a college with a rigorous academic environment.
Are you the kind of student who likes to be challenged…but not so much that classes and homework are all you can think about? Consider a school where you’ll learn a lot, but in an environment that’s not quite so academically intense.
Do you prefer balance over pulling all-nighters? Look for schools that tout “supportive” academic environments. Or do you get an adrenaline rush from having three papers due the same week—and executing them all flawlessly? Then look for a college that takes its academics really seriously.
Of course, there’s a wide spectrum of academic intensity, and you may be even further to one side than we’ve discussed. Perhaps you’re an average student who wants an average academic environment. As long as you use your high school experience to help you know what you’re looking for, you’ll definitely be able to uncover some good options.
3. Which high school classes have been your favorites? Why?
To be clear: Just because you loved chemistry—and your super-quirky chem teacher—doesn’t mean you’re going to go on to be a chemistry major in college. But if your favorite classes tended toward the sciences—maybe you were meh about physics but you loved bio and chemistry—you may want to look for a college with a strong science program.
If you’re passionate about writing, you might want to investigate schools with good creative writing, English, or publishing programs.
Or perhaps your interests are more eclectic. That’s OK, too. Many students get to college without any idea of their future major. And some that come in with one idea end up going in a completely different direction.
The point of this question is to determine if you have a strong inclination in one academic direction or another. If you do, that will be a key factor as you start considering college options. If not, you’ll want to look for schools with all-around good liberal arts programs that can prepare you for a variety of careers.
4. Do you thrive in classes that are highly structured, or classes that allow for more individual leeway?
“I would sink,” one of my students told me, when I presented her with a college that offers no pre-fab majors; every major is student-designed, and the students determine their entire academic trajectory. I’d been pretty certain about her response, but since this particular school met some of her other criteria, I felt it was worth talking about. But my student knew herself: She needs structure to succeed. We quickly eliminated that choice and moved on.
Evaluating your high school career to determine whether you’re structure- or freedom-oriented is another key piece of getting to know yourself. Perhaps you’re a creative type who bridles at the thought of mandatory classes, and college majors with strict requirements. Then you’ll want to look for a school that gives you the liberty to forge your own path, or even design your own major.
Perhaps structure soothes you. (Or maybe you just don’t mind it.) Then you’ll be fine at a school where you’re required to take certain classes to get your degree.
Many colleges today are somewhere in the middle—requiring students to take a freshman writing course, and to fulfill a couple requirements (like science and math, or a foreign language). Yet these same schools still offer the option of student-designed programs.
Remember: The last thing you want, if you’re a student who needs structure to succeed, is to end up at a place where you’re left to your own devices. So know yourself—and you’ll be prepared to choose wisely.
5. Which high school extracurriculars have mattered most to you?
OK, so extracurriculars aren’t the most important factor in school choice, but they’re a big part of who you are. If you’re a hard core athlete, you’re not going to be happy at a school that caters to sports-hating academic types. If you’re an avid musician, you’ll probably want the option of being able to participate in an orchestra, or in an a capella group, or in chamber music.
So get to know you. Which of your extracurriculars matter? Which are enjoyable enough, but nothing you’re really interested in pursuing after high school? Which do you feel incomplete without? Where do your passions lie? What makes you feel the most like you?
Make your list—and be thorough about it. You’re going to want to know the whole of what makes you you when you start looking for a college match.
Are you getting a sense of how to create a profile of yourself to guide you as you start looking at colleges? There are more questions you can ask, of course—questions about:
• Summer jobs (which may tell you what kind of career path you’d like your college to prepare you for)
• Location (Are you just dying to get out of your town/state/region? If so, why? Do you gravitate toward urban, suburban, or rural environments?)
• Finances (Have you had to work a job during school? Are you or your family concerned about finances? Will you need a school that offers good scholarship/loan options?)
The point is to create a three-dimensional portrait of yourself, answering whatever questions you deem relevant.
Now you're now ready to ask, "Which college is right for me?" The answer will probably be the right one. But it all starts with you. Whatever it takes to get to know you: Do it.