If you're a high school senior, November is more than just the start of the holiday season. It's also college season. You're probably skimming college catalogues and soon you'll start filling out applications. But with so many different colleges to choose from around the country--or even just in California--how do you pick the right one?
College counselors from some local schools and my own college-bound seniors at Santa Monica High School helped me to make a list of the most important considerations in choosing a college.
Everyone agreed that the foremost question is whether to go away to college or stay home and commute to school. Generally, students strongly prefer distance if it's financially feasible.
"Many young people look upon college as the socially acceptable way of leaving home, a rite of passage," said Mickey Braimen, college counselor at Fairfax High School.
My students agree. "You shouldn't live at home," said senior Lena George. "It would just be like going to work every day; you go to school, then you come home. That's not a real change."
The size of the college is also important, because a biology class of 25 students is starkly different from a class of 400. Large schools such as UCLA or UC Berkeley offer benefits such as world-class scholars, more clubs and activities, a wider range of courses and greater resources such as libraries and labs. But for all that you usually sacrifice personal contact with your teachers, and in fact may receive most of your instruction from teaching assistants.
Other factors may draw you to a smaller college. "If you're coming from a small high school, it would be unwise for you to jump into a freshman class of five or six thousand unless you were one of the top students at your high school," said Bette Irwin, a counselor at Culver City High School.
Candace Tom is a top honors student at Santa Monica High School, but still opts for a small college because of the lower teacher-student ratio. "I would go to UCLA only if I had no other choice left," she said.
Let's not forget the real reason to attend college: academics. The obvious question to ask about a college is whether it offers your intended major. A well-rounded school is best, though, because counselors warn that you'll probably change your major several times before you've earned your degree.
Browsing through college catalogues is the best way to explore the school's academic value. See what courses are offered and the descriptions of those courses. See what kind of credentials the professors have. Where did they go to school? What have they published?
To decide whether you and a college are well suited for each other, compare your own academic standing with those of the school's typical incoming freshman. "I look at the SAT score range, grade-point average, and class rankings," said senior John Frank.
"People should consider the college's graduation rate," suggested Marilyn Goodman, counselor at Crenshaw High School. "Some say they're interested in a certain school and they have no idea that only 20% of the students there graduate."
Cost cannot be ignored as a factor, but even the poorest students can attend the most prestigious schools. Forty percent of UC Berkeley students and two-thirds of Harvard students receive financial aid.
Nevertheless, cost is a great determinant for some students. "If I can get a partial scholarship to Loyola, I'll go," said Scott Juergens, a Santa Monica senior. "If not, then UCSB (Santa Barbara) looks pretty good."
Ultimately, counselors and students agree, the question is whether you have a sense of "belonging" at a particular college, or, as student Lena George asks, "Will I fit in?" Each campus has its own personality and you must make sure it matches yours.
Minority students should check a school's minority enrollment rate and cultural activities. "As a Hispanic, I look at colleges that really pay attention to minority students and don't make them feel left out," said senior Javier Rey.
The last step--and probably the most telling--is to visit the campus while classes are in session. Do you feel lost, or could you eventually feel at home there? Who's teaching the classes and how many students are in the room? Are the dorm rooms big enough, and will you really eat the cafeteria food?
Talk to 20 or 30 students you see on campus. This may seem awkward, but such candid conversations are more real than any catalogue.
Also, ask yourself whether these are your kind of people. Besides academics, "the people are what make the school," George commented.
Once you're through all these steps and you've mailed the applications, the sweetest and easiest part comes: saying yes to the right school and no to all the others.