Two months into my senior year of high school, I was the only one not proudly wearing a T-shirt with the insignia of the college I would attend.
Selecting a college would be my first adult decision, and I wanted it to count. My guidance counselor, parents and peers continually reminded me of the importance of college, but no one was telling me how to choose a college.
I ended up composing a list of five factors that I thought were important in starting your college search and that formed the acronym REACH: Region, Estimated costs, Academics, Campus life and Housing.
How to Choose a College
I had to narrow my college search. I wanted—big, little or somewhere in between? One thing I found helpful was to consider how I wanted to spend my spare time. You may want to consider how you will spend your weekends. Does the region offer the beach scene, mountain climbing, hiking or ice skating?
Making a list of your hobbies can help narrow your college search—especially if the universities do not accommodate your hobbies. I decided on a four-year institution in a small town. My sister, Olivia, began her college search much differently. She resolved to move away from home. Her region had to be far enough away that she wouldn’t have to come home every weekend but close enough that she could return when she needed to.
Yes, apply for all the scholarships you can that will reward you for your community service and SAT or ACT scores. But look beyond your freshman year award potential. Do the schools in your college search offer scholarships for your major? What are the requirements? Do you qualify for work-study? Are there other jobs, such as being a tour guide or resident advisor, that can help you offset the cost of college?
Academics usually fall to third place when seniors are doing a college search. It should have been my first. When I was a senior in high school, I didn’t know the importance of a program being accredited—or even know there was such a thing. Ask your guidance counselor or admissions counselor if the department you’re considering majoring in is accredited. Also ask who teaches the courses, what the student-teacher ratio is and the average class size. Remember, not every college is equal, and it is your job to find out which colleges pass your test. “Finding a college with your major is the most important thing in any college search,” says Ranee Mitchell, secretary of admissions at the University of North Alabama. “If they don’t offer it, you are wasting your time.”
College is a package deal—and campus life is an important piece of that puzzle. One of the best ways to get the feel of a campus is to attend an event. Most colleges offer a preview day of some type to give prospective students a taste of what they offer. Also, consider taking a campus tour. My college tour sold the idea of UNA to me. I could see myself walking to class in the crisp fall breeze with the leaves blowing across the windy sidewalks. I loved it! I was excited at the opportunities UNA presented through its campus life. I was encouraged that my tour guide knew the people we passed. It made the campus feel homey. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about your tour guide’s experiences, what types of student organizations are present on campus, and the main events the campus hosts each year.
Housing, a cousin of campus life, is of varying importance to high school seniors. Some colleges require all freshmen to live on campus; others don’t. You may want to ask if the university offers any freshmen-only housing. Living on a freshmen floor helps ease anxiety and is a great way to make friends. You will also want to know when the dorms close, what’s included in the room cost and whether the halls are co-ed.
The best way to get the answers to your questions about your college search is to—yep, you guessed it—take a tour.
Abby Tennant is a senior professional writing major at the University of North Alabama (una.edu). Her favorite activity is giving campus tours to incoming freshmen, but she has also enjoyed being a resident assistant and freshmen orientation leader.