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College 101

What You Want, What You Need, What to Consider When Choosing Colleges
Article Type: Checklist

There’s nothing worse than ordering a mushroom, pineapple and anchovy pizza and having them get your order wrong. Except maybe having them get it right.

But most of the time, we simply want to get what we ask for. Surprises are for birthdays. Same deal when choosing a college. The more you think about what you want in a college environment, the less likely you are to run into surprises once you enroll. Unless, of course… you happen to enroll on your birthday. (Card’s in the mail.)

The goal of college isn’t just to get in, but to be happy and successful while you are there. And… hopefully beyond.

Here are the Top 10 ways to make sure you’re happy at college:

Top 10 Ways to be Happy at College

  1. Schedule only classes starting 3:30 pm or later
  2. Don’t befriend anyone named “Spike” or “Willow”
  3. If you open the microwave and there’s already food in it… don’teat it. It seems convenient, but… just don’t.
  4. Buy your professors lots of presents. Like cops, they love bribes.
  5. Boxes and boxes of Pop-Tarts
  6. Call your mother (she made us include this one, sorry)
  7. Be the star quarterback of the football team
  8. Buy your RA (Resident Advisor) lots of presents.
  9. Don’t wake up with your face in a pile of your roommate’s dirtysocks
  10. Don’t let your roommate wake up with his face in a pile of your dirty socks

Of course, before you even get to college, there are some steps you can take to set yourself up for happy times to come.

Here is a rundown of what you should consider as a first step to crafting your Ultimate List of Schools:

1. Location — Pretty straightforward. Where do you want to go to school? East coast? Somewhere sunny? In the back of a van, down by the river?

“Location” is… kinda vague. Let’s break it down.

Actual Location on a Map — Are you dying to get away from (or get to) New England? The Midwest? The Pacific Coast? Or maybe you have an even more narrow location in mind, like a specific state or city? We’re not sure there are any colleges in Glacier View, Alaska, but we’ll see what we can do for you.

Geography —Do you need to live in the mountains or you’ll just die? Maybe you can’t live without seeing the Great Plains or the Great Lakes every day. Hey, that’s not such a crazy thought. Lake Michigan can be pretty when it isn’t completely frozen over.

"Now that’s what we call football weather."


Weather — If it rains for two days straight do you begin to twitch? Or… something else that rhymes with it? Have you lived your entire life in flip-flops? Do you recoil from the sun like a pasty vampire? If you have specific climate needs, try to find schools that provide them so you don’t wither up like the lettuce left in the back of the fridge.

Distance from Home — Think about how often you may want to visit home, or have family visit you. In other words… how often do you want to see these people? Your instinctive answer may be “as far away as possible,” but that might change when you are hungry and have no clean laundry.

Urban, Suburban or Rural — There are two kinds of people: city-lovers and… city-haters. Don’t set yourself up for a difficult experience by choosing an environment you can’t stand. And if you do decide to make the big move to the city… please don’t saunter down the middle of the street. There are cars there.

2. Size — Turns out… it does matter. Colleges can be grouped into the (very technical) categories of small (fewer than 5000 students), medium (5000-15,000 students) and large (15,000 and up). And sadly, there is no Biggie Size option. You get what you get.

Large SchoolAt least 15,000 students, maybe as many as 30,000 or 40,000. You’ll probably get some top-notch facilities and plenty of random course options (ever wanted to learn horse-shoeing?). Also increases your odds on the dating scene. Not that… you’ll have time for that sort of thing….That’s a lot of people. Your professor may not know your name. And not just because you’re forgettable.
Medium SchoolBetween 5,000 to 15,000 students. You’ll still see familiar faces around campus, and there will be a variety of student organizations and activities to keep things interesting. And there’s much less chance of you getting lost on the way to the theater building. You get neither that big city feel (probably) nor the personal attention of a small school. But if you were the middle kid growing up, you’ll probably feel right at home.
Small SchoolFewer than 5,000 students. Often private institutions, which means high quality instruction and lots of personal attention. Do you really want all that personal attention if your plan is to fly under the radar? Not the best option if you intend on skating by. But hey, if you actually want to learn something… you can’t go wrong. Maybe not as diverse an array of course offerings, but that’s about the only drawback.

3. The Academic Program — How challenging are classes? Wait wait… in college, you actually want to be challenged. Promise. Otherwise, the real world is going to challenge you after graduation and you won’t be prepared to deal with it. You’ll wind up being one of those people who wanders the sidewalks of Chicago, mumbling to yourself about cheeseburgers and hot glue guns.

It’s clearly important to consider the quality of a school’s program, especially if your high school experience fell at either end of the spectrum: you flourished when challenged and loved rigorous classes… or you tended to float along at “just good enough.” Those who floated in high school… sink in college.

If you know exactly what you want to study, make sure the schools have the majors and minors you want, and that the required and elective courses offered sound like something that could tickle your learning bone. (Note: There are no bones in the brain. “Learning bone” is just a figure of speech. That we just made up, right now.)

"Your kind of people."


4. Demographics — Do you have a need for a community of people… like you? Could be kind of fun to have classes with a bunch of your exact clones. At least you’d know when you had food in your teeth.

Different schools may have different make-ups of specific racial, religious, gender and socioeconomic populations. If you depend on a specific group for support or a sense of belonging, be sure it’s on your list. If you’re a mime and feel like only other mimes really “get” you… then focus on colleges with large mime populations. Try schools in the San Fran area.

5. Admissions — This is not the time to ignore the numbers. (Honestly, we at Shmoop believe you should never ignore the numbers. They’re a spiteful bunch.)

Be realistic. Do your grades and test scores measure up to the averages of the school you’re looking at? If so, great! If not, suck it up and keep looking. Somewhere there’s a school that doesn’t care you didn’t nail Home Ec.

See How Your Scores Stack Up and I Have a ___ GPA, Am I Golden or Screwed?

6. Cost and Financial Aid — Unless you are an heir to an oil fortune, money will be a consideration. If you are an heir to an oil fortune… call us, we need to talk. About something… totally unrelated. Oh, and have your debit card handy.

But if you’re one of the throng of non-rich people, think about the total cost of tuition… plus room and board… plus books. That equals… expensive. (We’re rounding here)

What kind of financial aid packages do you need? Does the school agree to meet 100% of financial need? Is their admissions process need-blind? Will you have to make up the difference by drumming on overturned trash cans at street corners?

Check out How Do I Pay for All This?

7. Graduation and Retention Rates — Unless your plan involves a sixth year of college, transferring colleges, altogether dropping out, or just being that really old guy at frat parties… make sure the school you’re interested in has a high rate of retention (who sticks around) and graduation (who does it in four years).

8. Campus Environment and Facilities — What will it actually be like to live, work and play on this campus? Unlike high school, you’re not going to be taking the big yellow bus home at the end of the day so you can tell mommy and daddy all about what you learned.

Do you want an urban campus among skyscrapers where your commute to class might involve the subway, or a picturesque rural campus (think: Frisbee golf course)? Consider features like student dining options, sports and exercise facilities, academic support centers and housing availability. It’s like you’re school-hunting and apartment-hunting at the same time. Cue panic attack.

9. Athletics — Is your varsity letterman’s jacket your go-to item of apparel? Do you own a t-shirt with the definition of either “pain” or “victory” printed on it? Do you love the big spirit that comes with getting ready for the big football games? Then a school’s athletic program or intramural offerings should be part of your decision.

Rah, rah, you’re our man, if you can’t do it, no one can. Check out our section for recruiting athletes.

10. Social Activities and Clubs — If you are a dedicated scrapbooker or a member of the International Quidditch Association, you’ll want to investigate what each school on your list offers… or be prepared to start your own club. You may have to supply your own flying brooms.

If the social scene revolves around fraternities and sororities, and you can’t stand beer or high-fives (you should certainly never do both at once), look for a school with social activities that do interest you.

Once you have thought long and hard about all of these aspects of your decision… take a nap. You’ve earned it. Then, after you wake up refreshed, think long and hard about them again and write down what you want in terms of each. You can now input your preferences into a College Search Engine to Generate your Big List.

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