Nothing makes the blood pressure of a high school student or parent spike more than the words “college admissions.” The college search process can feel overwhelming, and that feeling has only been aggravated by Covid-19. Thankfully, the first step of the process has remained largely the same: ask yourself some questions. Thinking seriously and deeply about what you want for your future and from your college of choice is incredibly helpful in keeping your college list and search manageable and focused.
“But Kate,” you may say, “What questions should I be thinking about?”
I’m so glad you asked.
You see, I started thinking about college early—I researched, read, and visited as much as I could. This has paid off enormously; I’ve known the list of schools I’m applying to since the beginning of this past summer, and have been able to plan for changes. Most importantly, I thought through what I actually wanted for my future before I started tossing schools on my application list. Based on my experience, the following are three questions that you should be seriously thinking about to ensure a successful college search and decision, as well as a few tools and resources to help you along the way.
Question 1: What do I want to do with my life?
This may be one of the most-hated questions amongst high school students, and for good reason—how in the world are you supposed to know what you want to do with your life at the age of 16?
You don’t have to know, but you should be actively searching for answers, or at least be crossing careers off your list. You can do this by figuring out what classes or extracurriculars you’ve enjoyed most in high school and talking to people who are working in the field you’re interested in. During Renew at Timothy, you can actually try out an internship in that field and see if it’s a good fit.
You can also schedule a visit to the College and Career Office for some advice, or use the StrengthsFinder and career tests on Naviance. One of the most helpful tests I took was Sokanu’s Career Explorer, which tells you what careers would best fit your interests and personality. Career Finder, by the College Board, is also a great test.
You should also consider what extracurricular activities you want to pursue in college. Maybe you’re interested in journalism, you’re a mock trial prodigy, a talented musician, or a gifted athlete (I’m sorry, I know literally nothing about sports). Sometimes experience in a college extracurricular can lead directly to a career opportunity or the acquisition of an important skill. Also, colleges have tons of activities that high schools don’t even begin to offer. There’s usually a page on each college website that has a full list of their extracurricular offerings.
Figuring out what majors and activities are best suited for you can really lighten the load of your college search. It’s easy to cross schools off the list if they don’t even have a good program for the career you're interested in. Once you have a grasp on at least an area of majors in which you would thrive, you can figure out the next question
Question 2: What Type of college should I go to?
If you were to ask everyday Americans what the difference is between a college and university, most people would probably just look at you blankly. However, there is a difference, and there are subgroups and sub-subgroups within those groups. It’s a mess. Anyways, according to the College Board and College Greenlight, these are those major groups and subgroups of higher-ed institutions.
- Public vs. Private vs. For-Profit Institutions
- Public Institutions are funded by local and state governments and typically offer higher admissions and lower tuition rates for in-state students. One example of a public university would be University of Illinois, where Illinois students have automatically discounted tuition rates. There are only a few public liberal arts colleges, including institutions like the U.S. Naval Academy. Community Colleges are also public institutions—more on those later.
- Private Institutions rely mainly on tuition and other private sources of funding like alumni donations. Private institutions are typically more expensive, but especially selective ones often offer lower-income students very generous financial aid. For example, Williams College meets 100% of demonstrated financial need, but has one of the most expensive sticker-prices in the country.
- For-Profit Institutions are businesses that offer a variety of different degree programs-- of widely varying quality-- for specific careers. For example the DigiPen Institute of Technology offers degrees focused on animation and game design. These businesses tend to charge a lot, and there is not always financial aid or merit scholarships to count on. You should have a serious conversation with your parents and with your guidance counselor before you apply to a for-profit school.
- Academic Types
- Colleges, also known as Liberal Arts Colleges are 4-year institutions with an undergraduate focus that primarily awards bachelor’s degrees. Classes tend to be smaller and taught by professors who view teaching as their primary responsibility, and thus give students more individual attention. Students who attend liberal arts colleges are exposed to a broad sampling of classes instead of training for a specific career path, but are usually required to select an academic concentration known as a major.
- Universities offer 4-year bachelor’s degrees for undergraduates, but tend to be more focused on graduates (with some exceptions). Universities are generally very large, and include a liberal arts college, as well as colleges focused on preparation for a specific career, like nursing or education.
- Technical Institutes and Professional Schools enroll students who are very sure as to what career path they are taking. These schools often specialize in music, culinary arts, engineering/technology, fine arts, or technical sciences.
- Community colleges primarily award 2-year associates degrees, but a few have 4-year bachelor's programs. These schools are rising in quality, and are also far more affordable than 4-year schools. For example, in-state annual tuition for the College of DuPage is around $9,720, whereas in-state tuition for University of Illinois is around $32,000-$38,000. Students often attend CoD for two years and then transfer to another college for their bachelor’s.
- Institutions with Specialized Missions
- Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have exclusively African-American enrollments and aim to empower these students through celebrating black culture and the experience of an educational community where they are the majority.
- Tribal Colleges are colleges that have entirely Native American constituencies.
- Single-sex Colleges are colleges aimed at empowering women through an almost entirely female administration, faculty, and student-body. These schools often turn out lots of STEM majors.
- Christian Colleges have a Christian element to their academic and social environment.
Question 3: What school size is right for me?
When we see college classes in movies, we usually see an enormous lecture hall and a tweed-clad professor standing in a well about one hundred feet down from the back row. Coming from a high school at tight-knit as Timothy, that can be quite an intimidating image.
So maybe you’re not interested in being one of 107 students at the VanderCook College of Music (the smallest college in America), but maybe you’d feel lost in a crowd of almost 59,000 at University of Central Florida (the largest college in America). Thankfully, there’s a whole range of college sizes.
IvyWise sorts colleges into 3 different size ranges, each with different academic and social climates.
- Small Colleges (<5,000 undergrads): Academic offerings at these colleges may be more limited than at bigger schools, and may focus more on a broad liberal arts curriculum or specialize in STEM. Class sizes will likely be smaller, which means more student-professor interaction and opportunities. Great for students who like discussion and attention, and not-so-great for students who thrive flying under the radar. The social climate may be more community-based and supportive, but also harder to escape or find a true stranger.
- Large Colleges (>15,000 undergrads): You probably guessed it-- large schools have a wide range of academic offerings and research opportunities (although fancy small and medium colleges usually have research opportunities as well). However, these are the schools where you’ll have those auditorium-style lecture classes and you’ll probably only get smaller courses as an upperclassmen. Socially, sometimes students feel lost in the crowd at these schools, but this larger environment provides them with opportunities to meet new people and have a new experience everyday. Plus, they typically find a community in an extracurricular or social group.
- Medium Colleges (5,000 to 15,000 undergrads): These schools may have more academic offerings than small colleges, but fewer academic offerings than big colleges. You’ll likely have a mixture of large lecture classes and small, discussion-based classes, and classes will get progressively smaller as your academic journey becomes more specialized. Socially, it’s a best of both worlds situation-- you’ll likely be able to recognize some friends as you walk across campus, but you’ll also have room to branch out and meet new people.
That’s a lot of information that I just threw at you—and we’re not even to part two yet! Keep your eyes peeled for the last four questions (and a few little tangents) that will help guide your college search. We’ll talk about college selectivity, the best locations for you, Christian colleges, and how to build your college list during the pandemic.