The application process is daunting, to say the least, regardless of whether you are still in high school or it’s been years since you stepped foot into a classroom.
I applied when I was a junior in high school and I can remember how tough it was to try to fit in applying to colleges while trying to balance school, working part-time, and soccer.
To help some other people who may also feel lost, I developed a list of 10 questions that may help you navigate the process when selecting which schools to apply to (or not apply to)! As a note, the questions below are derived from my experience with schools in the United States.
1. Is the school accredited?
You may have issues finding jobs and getting into to graduate school if your undergraduate degree isn’t from an accredited university. If you want to learn about the accreditation process in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Education provides a great overview.
2. Can you afford to apply?
On average, I would estimate that the application fees of the colleges I applied to was around $60 and I applied to 7 colleges. There are fee waivers that schools or other organizations give out, but if you meet pretty specific criteria, usually demonstrating a serious financial need. Before you create a laundry list of potential schools, be sure you can afford to just apply! For example, if you want to cast a wide net and apply to 7 schools, 7 * $60 = $420 to just submit your application.
3. Can you afford to go there if you got in?
Another money question. How will you be paying for your education? Your parents? All by yourself? Loans? A mix of working and loans? Some schools might be out of reach for you depending on the cost of tuition, room and board, mandatory fees, transportation, and the list goes on. Discussing finances with your co-financiers (most likely parents!) can be awkward if you’ve never discussed finances in the past, but be sure you are on the same page about if they’ll be providing any financial assistance. It is not uncommon for students and parents to take out loans to finance a college education. However, to complicate things more, don’t let the sticker price of a school shock you. Many schools I applied for had outrageous price tags, but they were very generous with financial aid when I received my acceptance letters. Your best bet is to look on the college’s website about the types of financial aid they offer and call their financial aid office should you have any questions. If you do anticipate needing financial aid, be sure to follow any application instructions to a T; this likely involves completing the Federal Application for Student Financial Aid (FASFA), College Scholarship Service (CSS), and/or other documents so the school can assess your level of financial need in addition to awarding merit scholarships. Finances are an unsexy part of your education, but the earlier you start, the more you can plan whether you’ll need to apply for a job and/or complete necessary financial aid forms. Don’t miss any deadlines!
4. What do you want to major in?
It’s okay to not know the answer to this question when you apply or even when you start college (usually you’re called “undeclared” if you haven’t officially declared a major). In fact, about 30% change their first declared major in the first three years of study. I stuck with the major I came in with the whole way through, but I did contemplate changing it a few times. If you know that you want to major in something specific, or at least a general field, you can let that help you find a school with a good reputation in that field or major. There is a slew of ranking websites out there for overall academics and specific programs, like U.S. News and Report and The Princeton Review. If you think that you’ll be undeclared and need some guidance declaring a major, check out the level of support and resources the school gives to undeclared majors.
5. What size school are you looking for?
You’ve probably heard “you are a person at a smaller school, but a number at a larger school.” I was afraid of being just a “number” so I followed this advice and applied to a host of small liberal arts schools. However, I did end up going to a large state school, with #9 (below) being the main deciding factor for me. I would have to say in my experience at a large state school with 30,000+ students, I did feel like a person. I was fortunate to be part of a living and learning program for my first two years where I lived in a specific dorm with students in my same program. I was able to create meaningful relationships with my professors and had a close friend group where it didn’t feel like high school all over again, even with many of my high school classmates attending the same school. Larger schools also likely have more clubs and extracurriculars than smaller schools that you can join and find a great network of friends and peers.
6. Can you visit the schools you are applying to?
This is one of the most critical pieces of advice I can give. I applied to 7 schools, but only visited 4 of them. Guess which school I ended up attending? You probably guessed it – I attended one of the schools I visited. Many of the schools I applied to looked great on paper and on their websites, but once I stepped on the campus and toured around, many just didn’t “feel” right. Remember, schools advertise their best versions of themselves online. If you can’t get to visit the campus in-person, try to scour forums and websites that rank schools on a bunch of different criteria ranging from academics to social life (U.S. News and Report and The Princeton Review are great places to start). If the school has a newspaper, most articles and opinion pieces should be written by current students, which can be valuable to get a buzz on issues at the school and climate. You can even go as far as reaching out to current students on social media like LinkedIn to see what their experience is like so you get a more realistic picture from a students’ point of view.
7. Are sports important to you?
Now, I recommend that this shouldn’t be your only guiding question, but it is something to think about. This question is more about the social aspect. To me, the football and basketball games were a bonus. Luckily, many colleges with excellent academics are also NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division 1 schools!
8. Is it important for you to visit home often?
If you go across the country, or to another country, think about how often you would like to go home and how often you can afford to go home. I lived about 1.5 hours away from home by car, but I had many friends who were on the other side of the country. Many of my friends didn’t go home for Thanksgiving, or even winter break, because the airfare was too expensive.
9. What are the available academic and social opportunities?
Some schools may feel like they’re “in the middle of nowhere” and some may feel like they’re “in the middle of everything.” Location can be important for not only your academic career but also your social life. I was between two schools and chose my alma mater because of its location in a large metropolitan area. Are there opportunities to do a co-op or internship during the semester when competition may be lower than the summer months? Are there restaurants nearby you want to try out on the weekends?
10. Can you see yourself spending the next 2-6 years there?
Two years if you’re transferring from community college or have a lot of credits towards your degree, six if you’re like many students. This is the big picture; you’re going to be spending approximately 30+ weeks out of the year there. Is it a place you could see yourself making lifelong friends and memories? If so, consider applying!
Hopefully, these questions help you think about which schools to which you should apply. Should I do a post about how to choose a college? Let me know in the comments.