Tip from Jen: The College Search

JenHi, everyone! My name is Jen Walker, and I’m a rising sophomore at Harvard, studying Economics. I loved being an HSA Tutor last year and can’t wait to start up again this fall.

Freshman year of college is a whirlwind of different experiences, some of which are wonderful and others challenging. Your success and personal happiness during your freshman year will depend upon a number of things, but most importantly on the college you attend. There are many factors what weigh into this decision, and it can seem overwhelming at times. To help clear up the process, below are some important and not-so-important things to consider when you’re deciding which college is right for you.

Important: How far away is it from home?

When you’re in high school, it’s easy to say that you can’t wait to “get away” from your hometown, your high school life, and your overbearing parents. This is true for some, in which case a college in a new, exciting place on the other side of the country sounds like a dream come true. Other high school grads aren’t quite ready to fly the coop just yet and would be more comfortable at a college that’s right down the road. The most important thing here is to know yourself and evaluate what distance will work well for you and your family. You have to consider travel-time for holidays, convenience for friends and family to visit, and how difficult you think your transition will be. Even if you choose to go to school close by, that doesn’t mean you have to go home every weekend, although having a free place to do laundry and eat a home-cooked meal do make home a bit more enticing. Whether you decide near or far, you will have times when you are homesick and missing your family, so understanding yourself enough to know how far you want to be is a crucial step in choosing a college.

Not Important: Where are my friends going?

College is a new chapter in your life and no matter where you go, you’re embarking on an exciting adventure of self-discovery and higher education. The last thing any new college student needs is their three best friends from high school right down the hall. While having friends might make the initial transition less intimidating, it won’t give you the complete college experience that comes with new connections, new friends, and a clean slate. New friendships are harder to form when you brought some along with you from home. Nobody wants to be around your inside jokes and high school stories—no matter how funny they are to you.

Or, if you’re having the opposite problem, and you don’t want to go to your local state school since you think you’ll have to see so many of your high school classmates, this is also unimportant. These state schools are generally pretty massive, making it easy to not see that annoying girl from your old homeroom, that mindless jock from high school football team, or anyone else you’d prefer to never see again.

Important: How big of a school do I want?

When it comes to colleges, size does indeed matter. There is a huge difference between the environment of a quaint liberal arts school of 2,000 and that of a massive state school of 40,000. If you like big crowds, huge attendance at sports events, and a sprawling campus, go big! If you prefer a quieter, closer-knit environment, then look into some schools with smaller student populations. If you’re not quite sure what you want, visit both types of schools to see what an actual campus with a certain number of people is actually like. The size of the school vastly changes the dynamics of student life, so it’s important to figure out what you prefer.

Not Important: Does my GPA fit the school’s range?

As I’m sure those of you who have started looking into schools know, colleges will report an average GPA of accepted applicants. While helpful, this also can discourage high schoolers from applying to a certain school just because their GPA does not fall into this range. It’s important to remember that this is the average GPA range, which means that students with higher grades and students with lower grades are admitted. Do not take a school off of your list just because you don’t fit this range. Not only is it in an average, but colleges take a lot of other factors into account. Your extracurricular activities, your test scores, your job experience, your leadership roles, etc. all weigh in to a college’s ultimate decision in whether or not to accept you. So, if your GPA is lacking, build up some other areas to compensate. And if you feel like your grades are still bringing you down, then use the personal statement section or essay portion of the application to explain why they are the way they are. Things like: “I was working a part-time job” or “I had to take care of my grandmother everyday” give admission officers an understanding of your situation. This is not to say to make up excuses to cover up your bad grades, but if you have an explanation for why you didn’t quite hit that range, then explain it in your essays or personal statement and don’t take the school off of your list.

Important: How much will it cost me?

Depending on your personal situation, cost can either be a big factor for which college you attend or a really big factor. No matter what your financial situation, everyone wants to get the most bang for their buck which, in this case, translates to the best education possible for the least amount of money. This can be a tricky balance to calculate, since there are so many ways to weigh how “good” of an education a school provides. One tip is to make sure you start weighing this balance early on in your college search. Make a plan. Work with the college’s financial aid office to check if you qualify for any aid. If so, how much? Look online and ask your counselors to see if you would be eligible for any scholarships. Will you have the opportunity to work while at school? If so, how much money will that bring in? If you decide to take on debt, how much are you willing and able to pay back? All of these questions are crucial when looking at schools, and making a plan will ensure that you are prepared for any costs you are taking on.

Not Important: The “fluff”

A college’s “fluff” are the things tour guides yell out to wide-eyed students and nodding parents during an admissions tour: “Award-winning dining hall food!” “Dorm rooms so big you won’t even see your roommate!” It’s hard not to get distracted by all of these shiny promises (who doesn’t want a luxurious place to live and amazing food to eat??), but these are not the aspects upon which to judge a college. If a school is emphasizing this “fluff”, odds are that they’re lacking in other, important areas and are hoping you won’t notice or care as long as they promise you a walk-in closet. The real college experience is about the classes you take, the connections you build, and all of the memories you make while you’re there. Besides, having sub-par food and cramped rooms just gives you more things to bond over with your fellow classmates. Nothing like making your dining hall’s horrible lasagna a common enemy to unite over.

All in all, I think that most people find a college that is right for them. And if it doesn’t work out the first time around, you always have the option to transfer to a better fit. Hopefully these tips will help you while you’re sifting through all of the amazing institutions available to you. Happy searching!

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