The Best-Laid Plans: 5 Tips for Choosing a School

As admission offers are coming in, you may be fortunate enough to have a few different schools to choose from. As exciting as this is, it can also be a time of uncertainty. Which school should you choose? What should inform your decision? Who should you trust to guide you?

There’s really no “one-size-fits-all” answer to any of these questions, so the best we can offer you are some pointers that may make the process a little easier.

1. Compare Tuition Fees and Financial Aid

Sometimes one school wins out over another because of its lower tuition fees or higher amount of financial aid. If an institution offers you generous scholarships, grants, work-study opportunities, or bursaries, or if you’re able to pay in-state tuition, then you should definitely consider it—especially if the alternative means taking out large loans.

By the same token, be wary of private institutions that charge extremely high tuition fees in order to create the impression that they’re “better” than their competitors. Sometimes exorbitant tuition fees really are just a ruse, and you’d find comparable instructors and programs at a much less expensive public institution.

2. Be Aware of What Rankings Show – And What They Don’t

Remember, too, that rankings and prestige only say so much. The various academic rankings (QS, US News, ARWU, Forbes, THE, Maclean’s, and so on) often have different priorities both from one another and from the average undergraduate student.

For instance, Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) measures the quality of schools by, among other things, the number of times faculty members are cited by their peers. Information about highly-cited researchers is useful to graduate students, but will likely not have much bearing on your experiences as an undergraduate student. Those world-famous faculty members might even be too busy to teach undergrads!

3. Assess the Programs

If you have a firm sense of what you’d like to study, your best is to compare the specific program offerings at each school. If you are undecided on what you would like to study, then you should try to find a school with a diverse array of good faculties and programs to sample from (in other words, not a specialized school like the Merchant Marine Academy).

Either way, campus tours, correspondence with admissions officers, or even conversations with current or former students can give you a clearer picture of the programs on offer.

4. Don’t Forget the Location and Campus Lifestyle

There’s also a lot to be said for the location of a school, its campus culture, and its size. This too requires a healthy bit of introspection on your part. If you love the outdoors, you might prefer Humboldt State in Northern California to DePaul in downtown Chicago. If you love warm weather, you might pick New College of Florida over the University of Minnesota.

5. You Can’t Account for Everything

Finally, remember that any decision you make will have some unanticipated consequences. Let’s say you pick a school in a city you’ve always wanted to live in, but when you get to campus, you’re dismayed by the dinginess of the buildings, the outdatedness of the gym, and the blandness of the cafeteria food.

For a few weeks you feel terrible, and second-guess your decision. “It wouldn’t be like this at school X!” you think. But you like your classes and your new friends, so you decide to stay. The unappealing campus encourages you and your friends to explore the city more, and you come to love it far more deeply than you expected. Your time there remains one of the great formative experiences of your life.

Of course, we can’t guarantee that your college experience will turn out like this, but the point is that nothing is guaranteed. All we can do is try to make choices based on the best information we have at the time, while admitting that the future remains unclear.

If you keep that in mind, we hope you’ll be empowered to make a college decision that works for you.

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