The college search process can feel overwhelming, especially with a pandemic going on. There are so many moving pieces and options, it’s easy to just procrastinate those decisions. As a senior who’s in the midst of her college applications, the following are my recommendations of questions you should be thinking about to keep your college search focused. If you missed Part One of this series start here. Otherwise, continue reading to find out if an Ivy League right for you? Or a Christian college? Are you more SoCal, or are you a fan of the Big Apple? How can you learn about a college if you can’t visit because of pandemic restrictions? All will be answered soon!
How selective of a college do I want to attend?
The Ivy League. Stanford. Duke. MIT.
There are some people whose eyes light up at these names, who live and die by the rankings, who will only accept the best (even if it costs more than $70,000 a year) and who will do whatever they can to get into a highly selective college. But ladies and gentlemen, “prestige” cannot be your only reason for applying to a school. I myself have gotten wrapped up in the rankings and it only left me feeling anxious and confused. While these highly selective colleges often have extensive alumni networks and millions of dollars of resources, they are not for the faint of heart and are not always “the best” for who you are.
In general, consider whether you want to be a big fish in a small pond-- an exceptional student for the school you’re attending-- or a small fish in a big pond-- an average student for the school you’re attending. You may have a better alumni network and a buffet of opportunities at an elite school, but you may also get more scholarship money, one-on-one professor attention, and higher quality opportunities if you’re above-average at your school. Check out the “Colleges That Change Lives” list for examples of affordable and underrated institutions.
Also, if you’re interested in graduate school, keep in mind that usually...costs lots of money and has a much larger impact on your future career placement.
Where in the country do I want to spend the next 4 years (or possibly longer)?
Consider how far away from home you’re willing to be. Do you want to be able to visit your family every weekend? Do you want to commute to school? Or are you comfortable flying to and from school to only visit your parents on holidays? There’s no wrong answer-- it's unique to every family.
After you’ve figured out how far away from home you want to be, think about what geographic climate you’d be happiest living in. If you’re the kind of kid who wears shorts when it's forty degrees, maybe check out some schools in Minnesota and New England. If you think Chicago weather is too cold and depressing, maybe search for schools in the Southeast or Southwest.
Also, consider whether you want to be in a school that’s in the suburbs, the city, or the middle of nowhere. There are fantastic schools in the middle of nowhere, so don’t knock them off the list, but cities often provide more internship and social opportunities that college students are looking for.
Do I want to go to a Christian college?
Timothy has a great Christian community, and as a result, many high school seniors seek that out in a college, too. But for some students, it feels like God is calling them somewhere else, and it can be beneficial to have their faith challenged in a secular context. It should also be noted that, at pretty much every college in the country, there are campus faith organizations and a church or two nearby.
Institutions also fall along a spectrum of religious focus. There are colleges that many would classify as Christian colleges, but that only have a loose Christian affiliation that requires students to take a few religion courses. On the other hand, there are schools that aren’t called “Christian colleges,” but that have relatively religious student bodies. There are obviously a range of schools in between, but The Princeton Review has rankings of the most and least religious colleges and universities in the country. It’s up to you to decide where on this spectrum you would most thrive.
How do I search for colleges (during the pandemic)?
Juniors, my heart goes out to you. Junior year is such a great time to be visiting schools and doing the bulk of your college research. However, most colleges aren’t allowing visits due to the pandemic; although there are a few that are, and nearly every school has an online virtual tour.
While visits are definitely the best way to learn about an institution, there are plenty of other ways to build your college list. One of my favorites was this enormous book by the Princeton Review called The 385 Best Colleges-- there’s something so nice about being able to physically flip through a book and not just surf the internet. However, there are a couple of great websites that I used over the years as well. For example, U.S. News and World Report releases a list of pretty reliable rankings that can give you a general idea of a school’s academic standing. However, rankings are pretty subjective and don’t always tell the whole story-- Niche, for instance, allows schools to pay to be promoted on the site. I prefer to browse the website of each college that interests me to see what they value and how they promote themselves. To understand what the student body and overall satisfaction is like, the website Unigo is phenomenal-- it has pages and pages of reviews of schools written by the students themselves. Most importantly, every Timothy student has an account with the program Naviance, which is a great tool for researching and building your application list.
There are plenty of person-based ways to research as well. You can attend virtual or in-person college fairs, attend sessions hosted by admissions representatives visiting Timothy, ask your counselor for recommendations, talk to family and friends about the colleges they attended, or reach out to a college’s admissions representative.
Colleges are also putting on virtual admission sessions and open-houses where you can learn about the school overall or specific programs they have. These are great because although they are often incredibly boring, you can attend from the comfort of your couch with lots of snacks at the ready.
Being completely honest, these are the basics of your college search-- there’s so much more to consider that’s going to be unique to your goals and experiences. But that’s why it’s important to start early (although if you don’t, the world won’t end). If you give yourself enough time, imagining your future can actually be kind of exciting. Thinking about these questions and talking them over with your parents is a great place to start your college search process. Put aside all the rankings and expectations, and think about where you’re being called.
If all else fails, though, follow my dad’s advice: “Pray about it.”