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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Indecisive Student's Guide to Picking a College

Picking a college is hard.

There it is.

In fact, it might well be the hardest thing you've ever done.  You're just a high school student--you can't even go to the bathroom without asking permission, so how do adults expect you to make a decision that will shape the rest of your life?

Storytime: The deadline for a final college decision in the United States is May 1st.  With less than a week remaining, I still had not made a final decision.  This was a terrifying situation.  I had two excellent schools that I liked equally.  Everything seemed so much the same--the financial situation, the classes, the job outlook, etc.  It was frustrating to not know what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to even make that kind of decision at all.

There is a lot of advice on the internet regarding this subject, but I find the majority of it to be either obvious, redundant, or just generally unhelpful.  People say things like, "When you step onto the right campus, you'll just know", which is completely false.  Okay, maybe you'll get really lucky and this will happen to you, but the rest of us need another solution.  For those people, I am digressing from my usual writerly posts to give you the following advice:

Ask a ridiculous amount of questions.  In the weeks leading up to my final college decision, I called the admissions offices weekly.  I kept coming up with questions, and sometimes I had to let them shuffle me around to various departments to find someone who could answer.  Still, this was my way of learning about the school.  If you feel a bit embarrassed to be annoying these people again with your ceaseless questions, you're doing it right.

Make a weighted list of pros and cons.  For those of you who like to make decisions based off facts and stats, not just pure intuition, here's a method for you.  First, make a list of all the aspects of a college that could possibly make a difference in your decision.  Some examples include closeness to home, the availability of study abroad options, the reputation of the school, the schedule flexibility allowed by the required core classes, a scientific term I like to call "dorm coziness", and so on.

Put these in one column in a spreadsheet.  Each of these aspects, then, is assigned a weight from 1 to 3, with 3 being the most important.  For example, if study abroad options were a top priority for me, I'd assign that a 3.  If "dorm coziness" was less important, I'd make it a 2 or a 1.

From there, add a new separate column for each college and rank them on each of your chosen aspects.  If I thought college A's study abroad options were better than college B's, I'd give college A a 3 and college B 1 or 2.

Add a "product" column next to each college column.  Once you've entered all your rankings, you'll need to do some multiplying.  (Yeah, I know, math on a writing blog?)  You can do this with Excel formulas, or by hand--it makes no difference.  Multiply study abroad's weight by the score in this category for college A, and enter this in the product column.  Repeat for all aspects of both colleges.  Now, add up the products.  Hopefully, the numbers will be different.  It should look something like this:

If you're a strictly by-the-numbers person, your decision has been made, at least theoretically.  Choose the school with the higher total.  I understand that it won't always work like this, but it'll at least give you something to think about.  Or, it'll allow you to cross any schools with unusually low numbers right off your list.

Figure out exactly what classes you'd take.  You can do this however you like, but the easiest way is probably to whip out another spreadsheet and get to work.  First, find the homepage for your intended major(s).  It should look something like this.  Figure out how many credits you need in order to graduate.  Core requirements, too.  Spend some time looking through the course catalog and lay out a hypothetical course plan.  Don't think about it too much, since you don't necessarily have to follow it.  The idea is just to list classes you might take, if you chose that school and that degree path.

When you do this, a few things become apparent.  It'll show exactly how many classes you need to take, which might be a dealbreaker.  For example, when I did this, I noticed that one college required considerably more core classes (outside my major) than another, which made it harder for me to double-major.  This, then, factored into my final decision.  (This can also go into your first spreadsheet.)

Track down some graduates.  If you know what job you'd like to eventually get after attending this school, find a graduate from your prospective school who is doing it.  I used LinkedIn to search for people, but you could probably use Facebook, Google, or something else with a search engine.  You could try asking the college itself for some names and contact information.  If you're able to speak with these people, ask them about their experience at the school.  Since they don't work in the admissions office, they'll have a much more unbiased opinion.  From these people, you can find out whether they felt the college was a good fit for their career.  Ideally, at least.

I can't tell you which college to pick, but hopefully I've given you a starting point.  Because you know that relatives will keep asking you, "So, where are you going next year?"  And it would be nice if you could actually give an answer.  

Also, let me tell you this: people expect you to pick a school.  You expect yourself to pick a school.  If you feel like nobody has ever told you how to do this, though, isn't just you.  It's completely true that nobody tells you how.  It's also completely true that the process is overwhelming and mind-boggling.  You're supposed to pick the school that's "right for you", but how do you even know what that means?  I managed to make a decision, and I still can't define that.  I can't even tell you to go with your gut instinct, because in those last few weeks, my gut instinct was "the right school for me is Hogwarts".  However, I can tell you that every other high school senior feels the same way.  That isn't encouraging, I understand, but at least you're not alone, floundering in the cosmic abyss of college brochures.

Actually, I'm still waiting for that Hogwarts letter.

It's worth noting that all the usual advice still applies--you definitely should visit the campus (more than once, if possible), do an overnight visit, sit in on a class, meet with some professors, etc.  I'm not giving you that advice, though, because I doubt you need it.
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