(Check out Part 1 if you missed it at the end of March.)
It’s time to get practical. When trying to decide between schools, the best of course of action is to visit each one and mingle with the community of current and incoming students. That’s right: if you’re considering attending a school sight-unseen, think again. A prefrosh visit is utterly essential. Don’t even consider attending a college without first seeing how it fits you and your personal preferences.
When visiting a school, the most important variable to observe is the student body. This is the community in which you’ll be living, working, and socializing for the next four years. If you feel at home and happy early on, the transition to independent and challenging academic work will be much easier.
As we’ve said before, the best place to look for a diverse, social college experience is the dining hall. This is the single place on campus that will showcase the entire cross-section of social life. Everyone has to eat, and generally speaking, like-minded people tend to dine together. If you want to understand the implicit and explicit social dynamics of a college, then take a long lunch and/or dinner and pay attention to your surroundings and even try speaking with some of the current students. As a prospective student, you will certainly be welcomed and inundated by numerous opinions about the school. Let this be your first lesson in filtering information to suit your preferences rather someone else’s.
You also must go to some classes in subjects you find interesting. While the anonymity and awe of large lecture classes is appealing, also seek out smaller seminars to gauge the collegiate discussion dynamic. Of course scholarship is going to transcend most high school curricula. Don’t be daunted; you’ll fit right in by the end of freshman year.
Last but not least, you have to understand that there is no perfect school out there. Every setting will have times both good and bad. Exams and papers will be more frequent than parties; the hallways you end up walking will keep you company through successes, failures, and mediocre experiences alike. The key is to place yourself in an environment conducive to success in and out of the classroom. That way you’ll get the most out of the next four formative years of your life.
Imagine that you were planning to go to a restaurant with friends and family to celebrate a very, very important event: getting your dream job, graduating, getting engaged, whatever. You want the perfect restaurant, and you wouldn’t pick it just by glancing at some arbitrary list of “best-ranked restaurants” in your city, would you? And that’s just one night, not four incredibly formative early years of your adult life.
We’ve discussed the US News & World Report rankings on this blog before. We’ve told you that they’re far from sufficient when making your list of colleges to apply to. They’re even further from sufficient when making the decision of which college to attend. When choosing between the nearly 2,000 4-year colleges in America, you should rely on equal parts investigation and introspection.
The first choice students must generally make is between a university and a college. We’re sure you know the difference by now, what with all that researching we asked you to do back when you finalized your list of applications, but here goes again: universities include both undergraduate and graduate programs. Universities tend to be larger, to possess abundant resources, and to focus on research ahead of instruction. While faculty at colleges are also always actively engaged in research and scholarship, colleges focus unwaveringly on undergraduate education. At colleges you will find smaller classes and focused attention and mentorship.
Beyond that large question, there are numerous issues of personal preference to consider: city vs. suburb, geography, proximity to home, cost, opportunities abroad, campus culture, even culinary options.
(Read on in Part 2)
What does all of this mean for you? Perhaps you’re hell-bent on going Ivy. Don’t start filling out all eight applications, though—at least not until you know that if you feel like you’re allergic to reading, Columbia and its core curriculum requirements will drive you crazy; or that at Dartmouth, a majority of students who are eligible to go Greek do. Or maybe you dream of an elite liberal arts college? Just make sure you know the difference between Wellesley and Wesleyan first. (Hint: one of them only admits women!)
All humor aside, we can’t emphasize enough how important these distinctions are.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, no one-stop-shop, no prefab college experience. Why? Because you are, undeniably, a unique individual. The process of filling out all those forms in the first section of this book may have been incredibly dull, but we beg you: do not skimp, shirk, shrug off, or otherwise ignore them.
You know how in the Harry Potter series all Hogwarts students are sorted into houses based on their personalities and characteristics? Well, we can’t create the Sorting Hat (if we could, believe us, we would), but we can urge you to use those surveys to get to know yourself and to begin to form a picture of the kinds of schools you feel you could call home. At the same time, we can also urge you to think of the college admissions process as one of self-discovery, a set of moments that can help you realize that even though you could belong in both Slytherin and Gryffindor, your true home is Gryffindor.