With over 3,500 colleges in the United States, it can be a daunting task to decide where to apply. Here is Part One of our step-by-step guide to making this process effective and even fun! We recommend that you explore colleges throughout junior year and finalize your list in the summer before senior year.
Identify Your “Best-Fit” College Features
The most important aspect of the college admissions process is FIT. Which colleges will be the best fit for you as a unique individual? At which colleges will you be most able to grow academically, socially, and personally?
Your first step in crafting your college list is to consider your preferences, then use them to build your list of “best-fit” features:
- Size. A small college has fewer than 4,000 students and tends to offer a more close-knit sense of community, with smaller, discussion-based classes, and closer relationships with professors. On the other hand, a large college (with more than 10,000 students) tends to offer more options of courses, specialized programs, and clubs and organizations. And a medium-sized college (with about 4,000 – 10,000 students) provides a blend of qualities of a small and large school. Here are some examples of institutions of varying sizes to get you started:
- Liberal Arts vs. Specialized, Pre-Professional Programs. A “liberal arts” curriculum includes courses in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, such as psychology, history, and biology, and is typically offered by a small college. Examples of small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) include Bates, Claremont McKenna, and Swarthmore. Other colleges offer specialized, pre-professional colleges within the school, and focus on areas such as business, engineering, communication, and architecture. For example, Cornell University consists of eight undergraduate colleges, including engineering, business, and hotel administration, as well as its newest division of computing and information science. A few other well-known preprofessional programs include Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, and Vanderbilt’s College of Education and Human Development. In addition, some colleges offer a totally specialized curriculum, such as Bentley for business and Harvey Mudd College for STEM. Pair your academic interests with your preferences about size to decide which type of school is best for you.
- Academics: Majors and Minors. What subjects interest you the most? Which high school classes have you most enjoyed? Use colleges’ websites to research the academic programs, and see how many faculty members are in the departments of your areas of interest. Review the course listings and research opportunities. If you have a few different academic areas of interest, you will likely be able to pursue multiple subjects at college through a double-major or a major and minor. In addition, colleges are increasingly offering degrees in interdisciplinary areas, such as Philosophy, Politics and Economics at University of Pennsylvania, Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon, and Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) at Lehigh University.
- Distribution Requirements. In addition to the courses in your academic major, think about whether you have a strong preference for being exposed to a broad-based curriculum, or having the freedom to construct your entire course of study. Most colleges require that you take 8-10 courses (about a third of your total coursework) in a variety of academic areas in order to receive a broad-based education. Colleges range from having no distribution requirements (e.g., Brown University) to having a prescribed core curriculum (Columbia University). Most colleges fall in between, offering choices of courses in a variety of categories. For example, Princeton has distribution requirements in the areas of Epistemology and Cognition, Ethical Thought and Moral Values, Historical Analysis, Literature and the Arts, Social Analysis, Quantitative Reasoning, and Science and Technology.
- Study Abroad. Most colleges offer the opportunity to study abroad for a semester or year and provide credit for coursework at other universities. Some colleges, such as New York University and Syracuse University, have developed their own programs abroad, staffed by their own faculty. If studying abroad is important to you, research colleges’ policies to see how feasible it would be given your intended major, and find out the percent of students who typically do study abroad to determine if it is part of the school’s culture.
- Internships. Would you like to work for an organization for a semester or more during your college years? This opportunity can be an excellent supplement to your academic coursework and expose you to potential careers. Some colleges build internships into the curriculum by requiring that you participate in one or more “co-op” semesters. Keep in mind that internships are more available in cities than in remote areas. Georgetown and Cornell offer many undergraduate internship programs, and Georgia Tech, Drexel, and Northeastern are known for their co-op programs.
- Extracurricular Activities. Are there clubs and organizations that are very important to you in college? These might include a cappella groups, theater, athletic clubs and intramural teams, religious organizations, or community service opportunities.
- Location. Do you prefer a certain location in the US or beyond? Do you want to be in or near a city, or do you prefer proximity to nature? Is it important for you to be close to home? Here are some ideas to get you started in your exploration:
- Religious Affiliation. Would you like to attend a college that has a strong religious affiliation? University of Notre Dame’s mission is strongly guided by Catholic traditions, while Brandeis University follows a set of values rooted in Jewish history and experience. In addition, Haverford College relies on its Quaker origins to inform many aspects of the school, including its Honor Code.
- Social Life. What is your preference for the social life on campus? How important is it to have strong athletic spirit? Can you see yourself rooting for your team at a school like Penn State or University of Southern California? Would you like a school with a strong presence of Greek Life on campus, like Vanderbilt or Wake Forest?
What is your personality like?
As you reflect on these features, take into consideration your personality! Are you more extraverted or introverted? Would you prefer meeting a lot of people or spending time with a small group of close friends? Do you prefer a more structured or laid-back environment? Do you like to learn from classroom instruction or do you prefer a more hands-on approach? The more you understand yourself, the better equipped you will be to find a college that is a good fit for you.
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Up next is Part Two of our blog series, Crafting Your College List: College Visits, where we discuss how to make the most out of these trips (or virtual visits!).
Whatever your question, Collegiate Gateway is happy to help!