When families come to me seeking guidance about college admissions, most of them have “dream schools” in mind. When I ask why they chose those particular schools, I almost always hear something about them being the “best” schools. While it’s important to seek out colleges that align with your student’s academic ability and future career goals, choosing a college isn’t about finding the “best” school. It’s about finding the college that’s best for them. 

To do that, you are going to have to go a little deeper than the traditional college brochure. Here are five essential questions every student should ask before choosing a college.

Five questions to choose a college

1. What is the college’s culture and character?

Get an idea of what to expect before you visit the campus by looking into what the university states about their own culture and values. While many of us often skip the “Mission and Vision” page (or something similar) when we’re perusing a website, what’s stated here can be extremely valuable. Their mission statement is likely to be several paragraphs long, but you might find one sentence that summarizes it. 

Another underrated resource for choosing a college is the school motto! It may seem inconsequential, but a motto provides a sense of the school’s values and educational philosophy. For example, Carnegie Mellon University’s motto is “My heart is in the work.”  To me, that says “the core of who we are is what we do.” Does this sound like you? If not, it may be best to consider another university. 

2. What are the college’s strategic goals for the next few years?

Universities will have a published strategic plan, usually from a college president, a document that announces a school’s goals and priorities, how they intend to support that plan with resources, and how students can take advantage of those resources. If we continue to use Carnegie Mellon as an example, their key priorities are to “foster innovation and to use data for social good.” 

This means that CMU may be interested in students who are highly engaged in volunteer work, have worked with big data, or are actively involved with a nonprofit. If this aligns with the work you’re doing in high school, or if you’re interested in this type of work, this could be a great fit. If you decide to apply to CMU, take it a step further by showing you understand the link between their passions and the school’s stated goals.

3. What are the academic choices?

The way students learn can look very different from one school to another, so it’s important to understand the academic experience, both long term and day-to-day. 

Does the school use block scheduling (scheduling short but intensive classes), or traditional semesters? Does the school emphasize a core curriculum, or their lack of a core curriculum? What about the subject you’re interested in; what kind of research are students and faculty doing within this program?  Think about possible majors, and check out those academic programs. Would going to School XYZ adequately prepare someone for a future in that field?

4. Where is the money flowing?

How a university spends their money is a good indicator of what school priorities are today and where they may go tomorrow. Colleges often have this information available on their websites via press releases, and The Chronicle of Philanthropy can also be a helpful resource. Take a look at the academic areas of interest to you. More money means more opportunities; if a program has just received a wad of cash, it could be to your benefit. 

You’ll also want to know if the school funds the initiatives they claim to care about. Conversely, if a potential college is donating to causes and programs that go against your core values, you don’t want to find out about it midway through the first semester

5. Where are your opportunities to build relationships?

Connecting with people associated with the college is the best way to learn about a school’s culture, so consider reaching out to an alumnus to get the inside scoop. 

Don’t know where to find alumni? A quick online search can yield tons of potential contacts. Regional alumni groups are often listed on the college’s website, and there may also be alumni you’re connected to through via your high school or social media. But don’t stop with alumni! Go on campus visits or attend summer programs. Talk with administrators, current college students, and professors.  

A college that doesn’t match your student’s values and priorities won’t be right for them, no matter how prestigious. Before sending off another application, encourage your child to explore what really matters to their most authentic self.

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