Life can be agonizingly confusing. It’s especially true for students from upper middle class families who try to decide a college to attend. 20 years ago, getting into top colleges was mostly about how hard students work and how much they achieve. Yet with the admission rates of top colleges plummeting in recent years, things have become more and more like winning lotteries.
High school graduates from upper middle class families are in particular screezed from both ends. Although their families are not poor enough to receive extra consideration, they are also not rich enough to become big college donors. For them, merit alone can no longer guarantee a seat in top colleges. As a result, these ambitious high school seniors are forced to apply for increasing number of top colleges just to beat the odds. As a result, when the college admissions roll in, many high school seniors find themselves in the business of trying to decide which college to go. Of course, it’s a happy outcome. However, no matter how many colleges a student feels good about, he/she can only choose one to attend, which means to say goodbye to all other very appealing colleges.
The good news is that, statistically, most students will feel happy spending time in whatever college they choose to attend. In fact, based on the largest professor rating website http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/, most universities receive better than passing grades from their students. However, you still want to pick the best one. It’s your only chance!
The issue here is how to choose smartly among competing options. Experts would advise you to make a priority list. You would start with the most desirable stuff you want from your next four years in college, and then the second most, and so on. Armed with the priority list, you go around collecting information and talk to people, and then you give a score to each item on the list based on what you’ve learned. The winner college should be the overall scoring champion of your priority list. However, what if you are, like most other high school seniors, not so sure about what you want from college? May be you will have trouble to build a priority list, let alone to score one. After all, you are making a life changing decision before you get chance to know something about the real world. You are definitely not alone in getting very confused. If you are lucky to receive admission from your dream college, the choice is obvious. Short of that happy ending, the next easiest choice would be to keep or drop your safety colleges, which are your ultimate fallback options. By definition, you won’t want to go to a safety college if any other more desirable colleges on your application list admits you. So if you are no so lucky and your admission list contains only your safety colleges, then the choice can be very simple. Although your ego may suffer a bit from the defeat, as long as you work hard and pay attention, four years later you will still likely remain a high achiever. Researchers have demonstrated that in aggregation, top high school students choosing to go to less glorified state universities achieve about as much as their counterparts from top private colleges. In fact, the real heart wrenching agony of choices comes from being admitted to several strong colleges, each having some very desirable characteristics but also a few glaring shortcomings. Choosing any of them would force you to give up some of the things that you hold dear to your heart. In order to make an informed decision, a campus visit to each of the admitted colleges is duly warranted. Visiting college campus as an admitted applicant is very different from your earlier college campus visits. Before you submitted applications, the question you wanted to answer was merely whether or not a college was good enough to apply for. The selection criteria was much easier, and you didn’t need to pay that much attention. In making decision to attend a college, you want to learn, observe, and understand as much as possible before you pay the attending deposit. Fortunately, colleges are in a very cheery mode after sending out admission letters. Once they extend admissions to you, the table has turned. From this point on, you become the chooser, and colleges have to beg you to come. As a result, most competitive colleges will pull all the stops to invite you and your parents to their “admitted students open house”. College presidents would frequently show up to the event to deliver keynote speeches. You would be treated with nice meals, sample courses, activities, sport games, campus tours, sleepovers, panel discussions, and many other goodies. For one or two days, the sky is blue, birds are chirping, every professors are nice, and everything (almost) is for free. It’d be like fairytale land after four years of sweat, tear, and longing. This would be the best time for you to find out the best out of a college. You can also take notes on things they avoid to talk about (which are usually stuff that they are not so proud of). If you have opportunities to go to these events, do make the trip and enjoy the hospitality. These kind of things don’t happen a lot during a person’s lifetime. A college is not merely a learning environment. It’s a living and breathing place where you will spend the most productive four years of your life and make the strongest social bond and network. It’s the last stop of your sheltered bus before you exit into the wild and unpredictable society at large.
- Pay a personal visit to all colleges on your list, preferably to attend those “admitted students open house”. You may already visited these colleges in your previous college tours. But this time is different. You are no longer a wandering prospect students halfheartedly looking for a list of colleges to apply for. You are the real deal now. If your parents are with you on the trip, try keeping a distance from them and ignore what they have to say about the college. If you could manage, do wear the college’s school shirt while you are on campus. Make effort to go around to chat with current students, especially junior and senior students. If you are a girl, size up those guys. If you are a guy, take a look at those girls. Asking current students about stuffs like course load, food, dorm, clubs, sports, social scene, etc. Observe their willingness to help you. Don’t worry about beautifulness of the campus. If you can’t fit in with the student population, no amount of pretty buildings can make your life worth living there. Also ignore those smiling professors. They are on a mission to be super nice to you just for this day. Instead, pay attention to the attitude of those administrative secretaries. Are they friendly and competent, or layback and inflexible? A college may boast how great their research is and even parade a few famous researchers. Don’t be fooled. The best researches are off limit to undergraduate students. So it doesn’t matter. You will worry about it four years later when you apply for graduate school. What’s more relevant is the work study opportunities and available grants for internships. After visit, do jot down your thought before the night is out. Your writing doesn’t have to be pretty. But it prevents you from mixing up colleges after a few visits.
- Trust your instinct. If a college smells bad for you, it probably isn’t a good fit. In contrary, if you feel very much at home on a college campus, there is a good chance you will be very happy attending that college.
- Don’t worry too much about your college major or even your future career. College is like a large shopping mall. You don’t want to make any purchase decision before actually spending some quality time in those stores. From now to four years later many things will happen to you. You will change a lot too.
- If it doesn’t hurt too much, choose a college that costs less. Nowadays, college demands a ton of pretty pennies. During the next four years your parents will need to pay as much as $300,000 to support your college education. Because the money is after tax, it means your parents literally must dedicate a six figure income for four years straight just to pay for one child’s college education. If you take loan to pay for college instead, then you are going to leave college deeply in debt for many years. Therefore, be very serious about any scholarship opportunities and make some side money while in college.
No matter which college you choose to attend, you will experience failure and suffering on that campus. The truth is that no college can keep you happy all the time. You are the one who will make a difference.
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