How To Guide: Narrowing Your College Search Part 1

Use this handy reference to help you find the best fit for your personality, grades, lifestyle and major.


This article is written by Ed LaFreniere:

This is part one of four parts. 

You’ve read the Fiske Guides and The Yale Daily News’ Insider's Guide to the Colleges; you’ve perused Rugg’s Recommendations for appropriate majors; you’ve memorized a gazillion facts from books full of statistics, such as Barron’s. You’ve clicked through endless pages at collegeboard.com and princetonreview.com. And you’ve started to compile a list of 1,001 Ways To Tell Your Parents To Take a Good Long Hike in the College Admissions Process.

You’ve narrowed your original list of 20 colleges down to, say, nine – three dream schools, three good matches and three fallbacks.


Take a deep breath.

What things should you consider for each?

Academics and Faculty

– Examine each school's profile. Are the typical GPAs, SATs, ACTs and other statistics or scores similar to yours? Yes, try a few reaches. But if the numbers are in the stratosphere, and yours are down to earth along with those of other mere mortals, will you have a shot? And will you really WANT one? Say that everyone in your freshman Advanced Calculus XVII class turns out to have scored 800 on the SAT math, and you, the village idiot, ended up with a pathetic 790. Will you develop an inferiority complex? Will you tiptoe into class each day, and slink to the back, out of sight, behind the girl with the huge hair, which has been estimated to be about  28.27 square feet if you rough out a circle from one side of her curls to the other? Quick – think!!! Did you figure out that the diameter is 6 feet based on a radius of 3? If you couldn't do this without a calculator, you might want to rethink MIT, where they can get it in a nanosecond without a billionth of a bead of sweat.

– How does your high school course load compare with those of admitted students? 'Rigor of course load' is as important a factor in the admissions process as there is these days, even more important than the number of holes in your jeans. If you have aced half a dozen AP courses, you may well be in the running just about everywhere. If you've never even heard of an AP course, well, join the hundreds of thousands of others. Where will you fit? Scour individual web sites for admissions requirements – the minimum number of high school credits you must suffer through in English, history, math, foreign language, science, art and electives, along with the recommended number, which is often higher. If you're in the ballpark, you may want to step up to the plate. But if everyone else has ninety-four years of Spanish, and you have six and a half days, you're probably close to 'adios.'

– Consider your personality in terms of the level of competitiveness. You may be the hardest worker in the Western Hemisphere, willing to spend 40 hours preparing for each chem quiz. But how will you feel if the rest of your classmates are out partying all night, and the next morning they simply glance at their textbooks for 30 seconds in the hallway outside class, stagger in, pass out, start snoring, and still do better than you? Some students rise and fall with the competition. If you're one of them, think it through; this may affect your ego and your level of confidence. Perhaps you'll reach higher levels if you have to work harder. If that's the case, try two or three reaches (in addition to good-match and safety schools) where the numbers are higher, on average, than yours. If you are at the upper end of the statistics, will you slack off for four years? What will bring out the best in YOU, other than, of course, your laundry service?

– Thoroughly research class sizes. If you're at a large university, you can end up with as many as 1,000 classmates in an introductory lecture. At a small liberal arts college, you may rarely have more than 20 students in any class. Often the choice boils down to personal comfort levels. At a huge school, you may confront a daunting bureaucracy. You must be aggressive to get the required, or desired, courses. If you sit through an hour-long Physics 101 lecture, and can't figure out what language the lecturer was speaking, will you spend time tracking down a teaching assistant, or a professor, for extra help? If the thought of that level of aggressiveness is extremely frightening, you have a couple of choices: Sign up for a correspondence course on light-bulb design, or consider smaller colleges, where you can talk to the professor right after class. There, you will be more likely to get away with explaining that you were simply too exhausted to be able to pay full attention. You might tell him or her  that the frat party – no, no, make that the 24 hours you just spent preparing for this wonderful class! – rendered your brain inoperable. Warning: This tactic is not likely to work if you reek of, uh, certain liquid substances often served at parties.

– Who teaches the classes? At liberal arts colleges, professors typically do. At big universities, teaching assistants may do some of the classroom work while professors spend time researching, writing, speaking, or, in some cases, relieving the heart-pounding pressures of academia by taking fourteen-year sabbaticals. How good are the people at the front of the classroom? Are they articulate, understandable, approachable and EVER available? Do they appear energetic, inspiring and animated? If they don't move or communicate well, and you start to suspect that a hearse is about to pull up to the building – and this is your ADVISER, in your MAJOR – reconsider. Rarely will you find an institution that has uniformly excellent teachers who receive a standing ovation every day, or uniformly bad teachers who get booed. But the trend ought to favor the former.

– How wide an array of majors is there? Variety can be important. Some places offer a couple of hundred majors, some small ones a couple of dozen. Shoot for those that have a number of disciplines that interest you. If the list has nothing that will keep you awake, you may be headed for a 'major' disaster. What are your interests now? They are more than likely to change over four years, so be careful about choosing a place that has just one subject that fascinates you. Are there a number of cool ones? If you decide to switch from nuclear physics to something else after the first day, will there BE something else? Aim for breadth – even pre-meds can fall in love with such oddities as anthropology or English before they ever see a drop of blood. But if you're all but certain that you won't change your mind, research schools that have a very strong program in that field. Just because a college has a good reputation doesn't mean it's good at everything. If you go to Cal Tech for engineering, that's one thing; if you want to study home economics, perhaps you'd do well to set your sights elsewhere.

– Know the academic requirements. A few institutions allow you to choose all your courses. The vast, vast majority, however, make you take a year or two of required courses, often in math, writing, foreign language, science – you know, the same stuff that's driving you bonkers now. And the requirements are different everywhere. If you don't want to endure four more years of Latin, be certain that you won't be forced to.

Look for part two next Sunday, May 27.


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