Optimize the College Search Process

The college search process is one of the hottest debated topics at the holiday dinner table. Dad wants you to do something that will get you a good paying job. Aunt Callistus tells you to follow your passions and use your college career as a time to explore yourself and what you love. Cousin Jimmy says “screw it, I make 80k a year driving a UPS route. Why would I need to go to college?” All these perspectives represent unique and important aspects of making a college choice. Regardless of which relative’s advice resonates with you, you may have to rely on your college degree at times as a certification of your competency, a link to a professional alumni network, something to share as a common accomplishment amongst close friends, and perhaps even a reminder of the place you met your spouse.

With all these competing factors whizzing about, I offer a few pointers below to clarify the college search process, and to get you or your child more acquainted with the true impacts of  college selection.

Know thyself

Make a list in Excel of all the things you believe are important in a school. Canvas your friends and family to assist you. Include access to subjects and learning types you’ve come to enjoy, types of friends you’ve enjoyed spending the most time with, do you enjoy urban, suburban, “college town” or rural surroundings the most? Do you thrive better in a homogenous environment with like-minded people or in a place with a diverse range of thoughts and people of diverse cultural backgrounds? How much can you afford and how much debt are you willing to incur? Do you need to be close to home? Do you want to be close to home? Do you want access to student loans? A study abroad program? There’s a great post on Reddit to help guide you to a few more good questions to ask about your school choices. 

If you’re a data nut like me, assign importance weights to each category and give a score for all your top school picks. Numbers help in an emotionally charged decision-making process like this one.

Choosing a location

First, know that any college can be fun. Don’t choose a school because it’s fun. Pleasure and enjoyment are location-independent interior dispositions. Read the memoirs of Viktor Frankel if you don’t believe me. Having a fun time at school is more a function of your ability to bond with new people and seek out activities than it is about which specific school you go to. As long as you choose a school that doesn’t clash with your personal beliefs and life goals, you can have a fun time.

I had a lot of fun going to school in Montreal. The limitless restaurants, bars, clubs, parks, shopping, and entertainment were awesome. But the best part about school, even in the heart of North America’s most intriguing city, were my friends and learning environments my school provided me. Don’t choose your school because it’s in a place you really like. Choose a school for the people and opportunities it will give you during your four years and beyond.

Choose a school, not a program

According to the National Center for Education, 80% of college students end up changing their major at least once. Choose a school with good alternative programs you’d be interested in case you decide you don’t like math as much as you thought you did in high school. In most US schools, unlike in Canada, you’ll likely be spending a lot of time in GenED courses with students across multiple disciplines. You’ll want those courses to be filled with people who challenge you, are enjoyable to work with, and like to ask sharp questions. It’s said that we are an average of the 5 people we spend the most time with. It’s probably more accurate to say we are the weighted average of ALL the people we spend our time with. Choose a school with people who will make you better, as a student and a person.

Choosing a school

Here’s where data becomes important. Although money is not everything, college is an investment. It costs money and you need to know how much it is worth. PayScale keeps an updated list of college Return on Investments for nearly every university in the U.S. See where the schools you are looking at stack up. Perhaps this knowledge will change the way you rank your decisions. Consider that someone graduating MIT is likely to make $40,000 per year more than someone who went to Eastern Illinois. That is a massive difference. Break down college ROI’s down by major . Look at this uber-long list of job salaries and pay by college major. Know what you can expect to make when you get out of school. This is not to discourage doing something you’re good at, even if it’s low paying. But you need to know the impacts of your choices. Then you won’t be surprised about how little you’ll be making.

Understand and know where your school choices fall in rankings amongst academia. This will help you to understand the international reputation of the school you attend. If you are sure you plan on sticking near home, speak with business professionals that are friends of your family for insights on which school holds sway amongst local employers. Niche is another great ranking site with its own algorithm for seeking out the top schools in the US. They have a phenomenal search tool that concisely breaks down what students hate and love about their school. This is something you won’t find in US News.

Go to Quora.com and ask “What is it like to attend x university”? Most schools will have answers. If they don’t, ask a question there. Browse school websites. Visit the campus dining hall and library. Are students studying during the day? What is the tone of conversations on campus? How laid back is it? Sit in on a big lecture. Do students seem engaged? Do they ask questions? Go hang out in town at 1am on a Thursday night during finals? Is the campus a raging party scene or a ghost town? This might tell you where students place their priorities.

On Campus Tours

Reddit has a nice list of questions you hadn’t thought to ask on a campus tour. 

Using ratings data

College searches are often dominated by sites like US News and World Report. Do you trust them? I don’t. I’d preferably hear from the students. RatemyProfessor does this. Read lists where students rate their professors and the site gives schools with the highest averages.

Want to know where graduates from schools end up? Use Linkedin. The advanced search feature will allow you to see where graduates work. If you’d like to contact a graduate of a school that lives near you, type in the Facebook search bar “People who attended [insert name of school] and live in [insert name of town].” You’ll find several recent graduates who would be happy to talk about their experiences at a specific school.

Your college choice is a deeply personal one. I won’t pretend to tell you where your priorities should lie, but I do think the strategies above will help you be a more informed consumer.  Consider the average return on investment for your school choices, their selectivity, program offerings, social vibe, emphasis on academics, reputation, career services. Compare these against your criteria. Do the schools you are looking at match your needs? Are graduates of your choices people you are striving to be like? Having a knowledge of yourself and crowd-sourced data from hundreds of thousands of graduates online makes the college search process less daunting.