If you’re a rising high school senior, summer is typically time to start narrowing down your college list. In just a few short months, you’ll be sending in applications!
Of course, choosing where you want to study and live for the next four or five years of your life is never an easy task. And it’s particularly difficult this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With that in mind, we at The University Network (TUN) are trying to make things a bit easier for you. Considering the closures and disruptions caused by COVID-19, we’ve listed nine tips to help you find the school that’s right for you.
1. Consider your chances of acceptance
This can be the most discouraging part of the college search, but you shouldn’t waste your time, money, or effort on applying to a school that you don’t have an honest chance of being admitted to.
If you have any interest in attending a specific college, take a look at that school’s criteria for admissions — things like the average GPA and test scores of students admitted — and ask yourself, “will the school accept me?,” said Joe Korfmacher, a director of counseling at Collegewise, the nation’s largest college counseling organization.
If you haven’t already, you should categorize the colleges you are most interested in attending in three sections: “safety,” “match,” and “stretch.”
List a college as a “safety” school if you exceed its typical criteria for admissions. List a college as a “match” school if your grades and test scores fall close to the 50th percentile of those admitted. And list a college as a “stretch” school if you still fall within the college’s criteria for admissions, but you’re towards the bottom.
2. Consider the location
When deciding where you want to go to college, you are choosing where you want to live for the next portion of your life. So, it’s very important to consider “geography,” Korfmacher explained.
If you are able to afford an out-of-state college, you should consider which parts of the country you know, which parts you have family in, and where you are comfortable exploring, Korfmacher continued.
“Maybe you’re someone who lives in the East Coast but has family in Southern California; you should look at some schools out there,” Korfmacher said. And if you like snow and snowboarding, maybe consider schools in Vermont or Colorado.
For those who are more adventurous, you can venture abroad if international travel is an option for next year. You can apply to foreign universities directly. Additionally, some U.S. schools, such as Marist University, grant students the possibility to study abroad for four years.The government is currently advising all U.S. citizens to avoid international travel, and many colleges and universities have postponed current study abroad programs.
While you’re stuck at home due to COVID-19, consider using Google Maps to your advantage. You can virtually hover above the beach next to Flagler University in St. Augustine, Florida, or take a virtual walk through the streets surrounding UCLA.
3. Consider the campus and community environment
Even in your home state, colleges can have drastically different settings and cultures. So, when choosing your college, you should self-reflect and pick the one that is best fit for, specifically, you.
Say, for example, you’re from the state of Georgia. If you decide to attend Georgia State University, you will be living in the bustling city of Atlanta, but if you choose Georgia Southern University, you will be living in the small south-eastern town of Statesboro, Georgia.
And if you have the financial means to leave the state, and feel comfortable doing so amid the COVID-19 uncertainties, the same rules apply. You just have many more options.
“Going to NYU, right in the middle of the country’s biggest city, will be a very different experience than if you went to, say, Villanova, which is 20 minutes outside of a really big city in Philadelphia, but it is very much a suburban campus,” said Korfmacher. “And those two are very different than, say, Miami University of Ohio, which is in Oxford. You drive an hour through corn fields, and once you get there it is a great, beautiful campus, but your life is on campus there.”
Additionally, it is important to find a college with a culture that matches your interests. For example, if you are a huge fan of college athletics, and enjoy tailgating and going to live sporting events, you may consider attending a school that prioritizes athletics, such as Penn State, Ohio State University or the University of Alabama. Or, if you are very interested in seeing or playing live music, maybe it is best to seek out schools with an impressive orchestra or a local music scene.
And to get a better sense of the type of people who go to the college or university you’re interested in, check out the social media pages of some of the clubs the school offers. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, reach out on social media to students majoring in the subject you’re interested in to ask them about their experience.
Also, it’s important to get creative. If you’re a foodie, for example, look up the menus at local restaurants. Or if you like to collect records, do a Google search to see if there’s a nearby record store.
4. Try to get a feel for the school culture
The best way to gauge the culture of a school is by touring it.
Unfortunately, in-person tours aren’t really an option for this summer at most colleges and universities. Instead, nearly every school is now offering virtual tours, which are relatively informative and can give you a good feel for what the campus you’re interested in looks like.
But if you’re going to spend the next four years somewhere, you might want to see it in person, rather than just on a computer screen.
Take a summer road trip and make pit stops at your choice schools along the way. Chances are you won’t be able to tour campus buildings, but you can still get a feel for the environment and the people by, say, hiking in the surrounding woods or by walking through the city streets.
You’ll want to stay as safe as possible while you do this, though. So, if you’re visiting a school in a rural setting, consider bringing a tent and staying at a local campsite. Or, if you’re going to visit a college or university located in a city, rent an Airbnb so you can sanitize the place yourself without having to run into other people.
5. Consider your academic interests
You don’t need to go into college with an idea of what you want to major in. Plenty of students start college undecided.
However, your academic aspirations should play a role in your decision on where to attend.
If you are bent on engineering, for example, it’s advisable for you to prioritize colleges that specialize in engineering and technology. In contrast, if you aspire to earn your degree in English, attending a tech school may not be in your best interest. Instead, you might consider a liberal arts school where they specialize in humanities-based education.
To help you decide, reach out to professors in your desired field at your choice schools to try to set up a time to speak via Zoom or a phone call. They’ll explain the program to you and, hopefully, give you an honest opinion about it.
And if you anticipate going into college undecided — as many students do — “you want to be at a school where you have a lot of options that you can explore,” Korfmacher said. Typically, big state schools are a good option for undecided students, as they often offer a wide variety of majors.
6. Consider the school’s size and enrollment
When it comes to choosing your college, you should absolutely consider size. Colleges range in enrollment from less than 200 students to upwards of 68,000 students. And the number of students a college enrolls can have a huge influence on its academic and social culture.
Academically, large colleges often offer a wide range of majors. However, students who choose to attend big schools will likely have to spend their first semester or year taking classes in huge lecture halls with hundreds of other students, said Korfmacher. This can make it difficult for students to speak up in class or arrange a time to meet with their professor.
At a smaller or medium-sized college, however, students may start their freshman year taking classes with fewer students than they did in high school. So, if you’re someone who learns best in intimate classroom settings where you can actively converse and meet with your professors and peers, a smaller school may be best for you.
The size of the school will also impact your social life. At large schools, it’s easier to remain relatively anonymous to most people on campus, and just be someone in the crowd. At smaller schools, however, faces start to seem familiar really quickly. By the time you graduate, there is a good chance you’ll know, or at least recognize, most people in your graduating class.
7. Consider and compare each school’s cost
Cost plays a huge role in deciding where to go to college for many students. But, it shouldn’t affect where you apply to, according to Korfmacher.
“What I tell students is, from the beginning, when you just start searching don’t look at that price tag, because they are going to be very scary and very large,” said Korfmacher. “You don’t want to look at that. You want to look and see what school will match you, which will be a good fit.”
However, once the time comes to make a decision, you should absolutely consider the cost.
Before May 1, when you have received all of the information about acceptance, financial aid reports, and scholarships, it’s very important to sit down with your parents or guardians and have a conversation about which school will be the best social, academic, and financial fit, said Korfmacher.
Two schools could be very similar academically and socially, but one school could end up costing you $30,000 more. If you could see yourself happy at both schools, it is “100 percent advisable” to choose the cheaper option, said Korfmacher. This makes financial sense, particularly if you have to take out student loans to pay for the more expensive school.
To get a sense of where you stand in terms of financial aid for the 2020-21 school year, you should fill out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) when FAFSA applications open on October 1, 2020. You should also research the deadlines for state aid and financial aid from the schools you’re interested in, and submit your application as early as possible, to maximize aid from those sources. Schools often award aid on a first-come, first-serve basis. And there are a few documents you’ll want to get together before filling out your FAFSA. A full list of the documents you’ll need is available in TUN’s complete guide to the FAFSA.
8. Be open in terms of your college options
There are more than 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States, so don’t just focus on the Ivy League universities. While the other schools may not have existed for hundreds of years or be the best at marketing themselves, that doesn’t mean you won’t get a good education. Also, don’t limit yourself to the schools your high school friends are going to.
Your college experience is what you make of it. Instead of attending a school for its name or history, choose the college that is the best academic, social, and financial fit for you.
9. Learn all you can about your choice schools
You may have learned about certain colleges through your high school counselor, by watching their athletic teams on TV, or through a personal connection. But there are so many different colleges, and your perfect fit may still be out there waiting to be discovered.
Traditionally, it’s easy to learn about new schools through your community’s college fair. But with those currently canceled, you’ll have to get creative. Spend some time online researching schools. Start by looking up all of the colleges and universities in your home state, where schools will likely be the cheapest, and venture out from there.
If any college or university catches your attention, reach out to your high school’s college counselors to ask if they can provide any further information. Additionally, you shouldn’t be scared to reach out to college admissions offices.
“Admissions officers are here to extend to you good information,” said Gil Villanueva, the associate vice president and dean of admission at the University of Richmond. “We’re here to let you know what we have available. And if we don’t have the answer, we’re happy to refer you. Let’s say you want to learn a little more about financial aid and you have specific questions. Well, guess what, we have a financial aid staff. We can connect you with them and they can answer your questions.”
Choosing where you’ll study and live for the next four or five years is an exciting and overwhelming task. And, unfortunately, closures and disruptions caused by COVID-19 have made it all the more difficult.
But rather than dwell on the fact that you can’t go tour the libraries and dormitories of your choice schools, try to make the best out of a bad situation. Use the tips provided in this article to choose the school that’s right for you.
News & Content Manager
Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.