For a lot of students, the college hunt begins the Spring/Summer before their senior year. However, more and more students start earlier – as early as their sophomore year. Personally, I barely knew what I wanted for breakfast in tenth grade, let alone where I wanted to go to school, or what I wanted to study. Wait, I still don't really know all that! But, earlier is a good thing. Don’t let the search get the better of you. Start early and it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.
Regardless of when you begin to search and research, what the college hunt boils down to is what you want. That's step one.
Where do you want to go to college? This extends beyond basic geography and touches on the type of town you want (big, small, city?), the atmosphere of the people, regional climate, distance from home (as far away from mom and dad, or just enough distance so that they don't make weekly trips?).
What kindof school works best for you? Do you want a big, bustling campus with tens of thousands of students, or a small, close knit student body that I can come to love as a family, or something in between? Do you want a technology-centric school (RIT plug!), somewhere liberal arts focused, vocational school? Make visits to your top choice schools; it's the best way to feel out the campus and see what you like best. Take notes, ask questions, and bring your parents/guardians/friends. Take the time to feel out the campus as much as possible. It’s worth the trouble and travel!
What majors/degree programs does each school offer? This is key: to help find the schools that are right for you, you’ve got to have some idea of what you want to study (easy for some, hard for others). When you’ve got a list of programs that interest you in general, search for schools that have them and fit your requirements.
>> Sidebar: I chose RIT because although we have almost 20k students (graduate and undergraduate), I feel like I can connect to the students and faculty with ease. However, I have a very close friend who attends Bryn Mawr College with only 1,300 students... that's barely bigger than my high school. But, it's what she wanted, and she loves it, just like I love RIT. A great tool for school searching is the College Board Search - check it out, if you haven't already.
At this point, you should have a list of schools narrowed down by the size you want, locations you like, and programs that interest you. Great! Now it’s time to look at cost of attendance and financial aid – step 2.
Almost every school website will have a link to Financial Aid, and on that page should be a section labeled “Cost of Attendance,” or something similar. This is where the schools puts an estimated total cost for tuition and room/board. They may also list in/out of state tuition and other anticipated costs. These are good numbers to go by; while they may not be exactly what you end up paying, they will be critical in helping you and your family determine which schools are affordable, how much and what kinds of loans you may need to take out, or how much in scholarship dollars you should start looking for.
Tuition costs have an extremely wide range, so be conscious of them. I won't get into too much detail, that's what Financial Aid is for.
>>Helpful Hint: When your decision letters start rolling in, you'll likely get an anticipated financial aid award letter, which tells you roughly how much it will cost to attend said school. If School A offers you a better, more affordable package than School B, but you really want to go to school B, don't be afraid to tell them that. Often schools will work to match others to get your admission (especially if they're competing schools already). Give them a call and see if they can't bring that number down a bit. There are exceptions, of course, but it can't hurt to try.
Step 3 is about standards. Imagine: you love School A, and School A is affordable, and your parents even like it too. What a bargain!
"But, wait," said the eager-beaver college senior, "they want a 3.8 GPA and for me to be in the top 5% of my class? And isn't that SAT score only 50 points less than perfect? Crap. CRAP."
Throughout the search you need to be realistic about our grades and test scores. High school counselors will say it's good practice to apply to a "safety" school (your above their requirements), a "regular" school (your close to or right at their requirements), and a "reach" school (their requirements are above yours). By applying to these 3 types of schools, you help to create a safety net.
The college hunt can be a tedious, tiring, and even difficult process. College is a huge decision! But, just because the search can be hard, doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of it. Always keep in mind the things you’re looking for (step 1) and you won’t be disappointed. Your dream school is out there, you just might now know it yet!
Got questions? Post 'em below, or hit me up on Twitter: @RIT_Tanner
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