The University Network

How To Choose A College That Is Right For You — Interview With Dr. Eric Endlich, Founder Of Top College Consultants

TUN sits down with Dr. Eric Endlich, founder of Top College Consultants, to discuss how you can choose a college that is right for you. 

TUN: Dr. Endlich, thanks so much for joining us. 

DR. ENDLICH: Thanks for having me. 

TUN: Early on in the college application process, students are advised to create a shortlist of schools they would like to attend. What are the primary factors that students should consider when making that list?

DR. ENDLICH: There’s really a lot of potential factors. Let me just touch on four. 

One would be geography. Previously, we had lots of students who would be willing to fly anywhere in the country to go to school, sometimes to Canada or Europe. But, now, with the pandemic, a lot of parents are saying, “We don’t want you a plane flight away. We want you within a three- or four-hour drive.” So, geography is one. 

Second would be cost. Students shouldn’t be applying to colleges that their families can’t afford to send them to. If your parents say it’s got to be under X amount per year, then that is going to set a certain pool of schools to look at. But, that’s really a more complex topic. 

Third would be what you want to study. If you know that you want to study — whether it is biotechnology or video game design, for example —that is going to narrow the field of potential colleges because not all colleges offer those majors. 

That’s pretty straightforward, but you might say, “Well, what if I have no idea what I want to study?” That’s actually a different issue. If you have no idea — and that’s totally fine — then you want to pick a college that has a lot of options. So, that might be a large public university or a large private university. Most of the really big schools are public, but there are some large private ones. 

If you know the subset you’re interested in, you might still be able to narrow it down to, say, STEM-focused schools. Or, if you say it’s going to be something in the humanities, you could probably go to a small liberal arts college that offers humanities majors.

The last one I want to mention is the hardest one to figure out, and that is the culture or vibe of a school. This is easily overlooked because families are looking at cost, location and majors, but it’s got to be the right fit. 

If you’re a student who is, let’s say, very politically active and politically progressive and you end up in a school where students are very apolitical or maybe very conservative, you’re going to be very uncomfortable. 

You want to be somewhere where you can make friends who you can connect with. So, you’ve got to find that right fit in terms of the culture. That is much trickier, but it’s just as important as the other factors. 

TUN: Touring is a great way to get a feel for a specific institution. Can you give advice that could help students make the most out of their in-person tours?

DR. ENDLICH: As we all know, in-person tours are not as easy to come by as they were before the pandemic started, but there are still colleges doing them. Hopefully that will increase as we go along. 

There are a few things to keep in mind. 

Number one, take pictures. Students have smartphones. Take pictures as you go along. If your family is taking you during spring break of your junior year and you’re going to 20 colleges that week, you’re going to forget. You’re going to ask yourself, “Which one had the campus with that dorm that I really liked?” Take pictures. It’ll make it much easier to remember and to compare apples to apples. 

Number two, take notes. Take notes on your phone. Dictate notes. Take notes on a piece of paper. I don’t care how you take notes. You could take them in the car after the tour is over on your way back home or to the next college. But, make sure you write stuff down. Again, you’re going to forget. You may think you won’t, but if you’re seeing a lot of colleges, it’ll all blur together. You want to write down, “Oh, this is the college where I talked to that professor who got me really excited about studying this topic.” So, take notes. 

Third is, go in with questions. Before you go, do a little homework. Spend at least a few minutes on the college’s website or looking at brochures so you can ask yourself, “What kind of college am I going into? What do I want to know about it that I can’t find from the website?”

Have a list of questions and don’t be shy about asking them. That’s what the tour guides are there for. 

TUN: Do you have any advice on what those questions should look like? 

DR. ENDLICH: Yeah. This is a common piece of advice: don’t ask questions that you can easily find on the college’s website. Questions like “How many students go here? Do you offer an American history major? Are the dorms co-ed? Do you have men’s ice hockey?” You can find out very quickly on the website. 

Don’t waste time on those, not because it’s going to upset the tour guides, but because you want to save that precious time for questions that you can’t find on the website. This is your one shot at getting those questions answered. 

Don’t be afraid to ask uncomfortable or challenging questions. Let’s say the tour guide is a rising junior or senior, you could ask, “If you could change one thing about the college, what would it be?”

The common questions I hear people ask is, “What other colleges were you choosing between when you were choosing this college?” and “What made you choose this college?”

You can ask, “Do you know anybody who has transferred out and, if so, why did they transfer?” 

Ask those questions to try to figure out what the downsides are of being there because they’re going to be talking about all the great things that are there. They’re going to be telling you all the great stuff. It is okay to ask about the other side. 

You might also want to ask questions that are very specific to you. If you have a very specific need because of a disability or a particular interest, that might be something that you wouldn’t be able to find on the website. 

Like, “I have a special diet. What is the food like for people who have that diet?” 

TUN: Do you have any advice for students to help them make the most out of their virtual tours? 

DR. ENDLICH: Sure. Surprisingly, some of it is actually the same. You can’t take pictures, but you can still take notes. Taking notes is even easier to do because you’re already on your device when you’re on the virtual tour. 

Have a split screen, a second device, a window open or a piece of paper where you can be taking notes. 

This should be obvious, but pay attention. I know how it is. You’re on screens. It’s easy to say, “Oh, you know, I’m going to just read that text. I’m just going to respond to that email while I’m on this tour.” You’re going to miss stuff. So, put your other devices away. Pay attention because you’ll miss stuff. 

Again, ask questions. Have questions in mind before the tour starts, assuming that it’s a live tour. If it’s a recorded one, that doesn’t really apply. But, you’ll be able to find contacts that you can email and ask your questions. Believe me, admissions people want to hear from you.  Send them an email. If you don’t hear back, call or try a different email address. 

There’s often a specific admissions rep assigned to your region, state or area. If you can track down who that person is, they want to interact. They are not spending as much time traveling as they normally would, so they’re available to answer your questions. 

TUN: If a student is set on a major, how can they go about comparing that major at one school to the major at another school?

DR. ENDLICH: That’s a great question. That takes a little bit more digging on the college’s website. College websites are all unique. They’re all set up differently. They can be very challenging. 

But, most of the time, you can do a deeper dive into a major and find out what the required courses are for that major, what the electives are for that major, how the major is set up, what the opportunities for internships are and how many professors are teaching in that major. Is it three professors? Is it 10 professors? How deep does that department go?

Do that research. Try to get a feel for what this major is going to be like. What is the department like? 

If you can’t tell enough from that research, reach out to folks. You can usually see at least a general email address for that department, if not specific professors’ email addresses and phone numbers. 

If that major is associated with a particular profession, you might be able to find a professional organization that rates those colleges that will say, “These are some of the top colleges for that particular major.”

I wouldn’t go to some of the major college rating websites. Those are not all always completely as useful as going to something that’s done by that profession. 

TUN: Of course, students want to make money after college. They want to get good jobs after college. They want to make sure that they have security. There are some websites like the College Scorecard, which is offered by the federal government, that students can go to to get a sense of their potential earnings and their likelihood of getting a job after graduating from one specific college. So, to what extent should students be using the College Scorecard, and how effective or realistic is it?

DR. ENDLICH: I think it’s a useful tool. It’s only as good as the information that the sources — the colleges —are giving. But, because it’s put out by the government, I think it’s relatively objective and unbiased, compared to something that’s put out by a college that’s going to be trying to make themselves look better than other colleges. 

So, I think it’s a relatively objective source of information. But, again, it’s only as good as the information that’s given.

The one thing I think that would be missing from a tool like that is trends. If you’re going into a field that doesn’t really change very much, that hasn’t changed in the last 10 years and probably isn’t going to change that quickly, then that may be a fairly good predictor of what you can expect to earn. 

But, if you’re looking four years out or maybe six years out because you’re going to get a master’s and you’re trying to guess how much you’re going to make and evaluate the job prospects, it may be different. 

What if you’re going into a field like robotics or artificial intelligence that is rapidly changing? I don’t think a tool like the College Scorecard is going to tell you what you are going to get paid four, five or six years from now. 

You also want to know your job prospects, how good the job market is going to be when you graduate.  

To get trends, you’re going to have to read the news. You’re going to have to go to industry publications, magazines, journals and websites that focus on the industry that you’re going into to see what the trends are. Are there more jobs over time, or are people getting laid off? If people are getting laid off in huge numbers, maybe now is not the best time to go into that field. 

TUN: Now speaking about students’ abilities to pay for college. Would you ever advise a student to not apply to a school because of its average annual cost?

DR. ENDLICH: Not exactly. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t advise students to apply to a college they can’t pay for. If parents say, “We can’t pay more than X amount,” don’t apply to a college that’s going to cost you more than that amount.

But, this is where it gets tricky. 

When you go on the college’s website, or when you go to various websites that list college costs, you’ll see the tuition or, even more importantly, the cost of attendance, which is the total cost of tuition, room and board and other fees. 

If you’re going to a college that’s far away, you’ve got to take travel into account. If you’re going to be flying back and forth a few times a year, that’s additional money that you’re going to have to spend. 

Total cost is just the sticker price. Like when you look at the price of a house or the price of a car, that’s just a starting point. That doesn’t mean that it is your final cost. 

What are your chances for getting scholarships and financial aid? Your actual cost could be much, much lower than the sticker price. There are sources that can help you figure out what your chances of getting aid are, how much you can expect to receive and what your actual cost is going to be. 

That is going to vary, depending on your financial situation, your academic proficiency and other accomplishments. So, that’s the piece that you need to look at. 

Ask yourself, “What am I likely to have to pay if I get accepted into this university?” If it’s still more than your family can pay and your family is either unable or unwilling to take out loans to cover that gap, then don’t apply. You don’t want to get in and get all excited and have your parents say, “No way. You’re not going there. That’s too expensive.” That would be a huge waste of time and be very upsetting.

TUN: Once students get their acceptance letters and financial aid packages back, comparing those can be confusing. Figuring out the total amount that you would actually have to spend to go to a certain school can be confusing. So, are there any online resources that students can use to help them analyze their financial aid packages and compare their offers?

DR. ENDLICH:  You can go to the federal financial aid websites, which will help you kind of decode that.

There’s another website, myfinancialaidletter.org, which you can use to upload your letter. It will help you decode it. 

But, unfortunately, even though there’s been some pressure to standardize these letters, they can be very confusing in a number of ways.  

I won’t go into detail into all the ways that they can be confusing. But, you can always reach out to the financial aid department of the university and say, “I’m confused. I’m not sure if this is a loan here. This number that I’m looking at, is that the final number?”

There are some questions you might have that you can’t find the answers to other than from the university, such as, “Is this guaranteed all four years? This is great. I love this. It’s a great scholarship, but what is it going to be next year and the year after that?”

That’s really important. You can’t find that from a website. You can only find that out from the college itself. You want a definitive answer. Is it renewable and are there conditions to maintaining that scholarship over time? If they say that you’re getting a merit scholarship of $25,000 a year, great. But, you should know if you have to maintain a certain GPA or if you have to be enrolled for a certain number of credits. What are the conditions for keeping that scholarship? 

You wouldn’t want a nasty surprise to find out that you’re not getting it this year because your grades weren’t high enough or something. 

TUN: Thanks, again, Dr. Endlich.

DR. ENDLICH: My pleasure! 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.