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2 Key Questions You Should Ask When Searching For a College

COVID-19 has changed every aspect of our world. From the increased time at home for everyone to students learning from home via Zoom, it has been a year of transition and change, particularly for high school and college students. Many colleges, for example, have waived ACT and SAT requirements completely during the admissions process, likely opening up new possibilities for tens of thousands of students. But hopefully, the COVID-era won’t last forever. By the time students applying to college in the next few months actually head to school, Coronavirus may be in the rearview mirror.

Most high school seniors are still planning on packing up and heading to college (even if some may wisely be considering a gap year) next year.  In this article we’ll explore two key questions that all future college students should be considering.

Have you cast a wide enough net in looking at schools?

One of the main factors many students targeting more selective colleges consider when evaluating colleges is the “rank” of the school, typically as measured by U.S. News and World Report College Rankings. When I was applying to college, selectivity and school rank was a major factor for me. I wanted to attend a top-ranked school that would look good on my resume. I think this goal is OK, because there are a lot of selective, highly ranked schools. So as long as you think through a full range of factors in addition to rank, you should be OK. The mistake I made was, with that context, only including schools in my decision set that were already on my radar. The schools on my radar were all in the Midwest, and they were all large. I didn’t do any additional research to identify different types of highly ranked schools that could have been a good fit for me.

I applied to Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Indiana University. I had sort of a unique academic background. My GPA was good, but not great. I really hadn’t focused too much on getting As, and had been fine getting Bs. I was in difficult classes though and earned a 4 or 5 on four different AP exams. I had a high ACT score, but not a jaw dropping one. I played three different sports and was in a leadership role on the school newspaper.

Because the schools I had applied to were all very large and competitive, they all basically did an initial screen of GPA vs. ACT score, and I think I immediately got screened out of Illinois and Wisconsin on that basis. Northwestern may have always been a stretch for me. So with three rejection letters in hand, I ended up going to Indiana (my 4th choice out of 4).

Upon reflection, I realized that there was no particular reason I was at a large state school. It would have been interesting to go to a much smaller school. It’s possible I would have found it easier to fit in. Eventually, when I started taking classes in my major and joined the club hockey team, Indiana became “smaller to me” and I had a fantastic experience. But I wasn’t a person who really wanted to go to a large school necessarily. I had just chosen it as my safety school because I liked sports, it had a good business program, I knew people there, it was a pretty good school, and after all, it was my safety school anyway.

The point of the story though, is that my overall “application” may have been considered strong at a range of smaller yet still highly selective schools that might have been interested in rounding out their student body. Perhaps a school like Grinnell, in Iowa, which is actually harder to get into than Illinois, would have taken the time to review my overall application and been able to overlook by less than stellar grades. Big schools like Illinois and Wisconsin just don’t have the time to do that, and so I did not get in. Grinnell is a small, liberal arts school with 1,700 students. Indiana has over 30,000.

However, not all students are focused on more selective, highly ranked colleges. Many students may be focused on location, cost, specific majors available, etc. There are just so many colleges available. For example, Grand Canyon University accreditation was achieved many years ago. It’s clearly not a very selective school, but it’s in a desirable part of the country and comes with a reasonable price tag. If you were worried about the quality of school and its reputation, you could converse with Grand Canyon University accreditation professionals to get questions answered.

When evaluating potential colleges, do your research and cast a wide net.

What non-academic outlets are available?

While many parents are hoping their kids are hitting the books all the time while at school, that isn't possible or in fact desirable. Students have to find a balance, and the best way to find that balance is through extracurricular activities and campus organizations.

The non-academic side of a campus or university is important for a few reasons:

  • You want to have fun in college
  • You want to be able to do things you are passionate about already
  • You want to be able to explore new activities
  • You want to be able to explore activities and interests that may shed light on future career options or allow you to demonstrate leadership skills

Check out what different schools offer and see if they have clubs and other groups to supplement your in-class studies. When you start building a resume, a future employer will want to see how you got involved outside the classroom. However, if you have always been a competitive baseball or hockey player or swimmer or chess player, you may want to choose a school that will allow you to continue to pursue these interests.

If you are shy, consider the size of the school. You’ll want to make new friends, but a larger school isn’t always the right path to doing that. You could get lost in the shuffle unless you join some activities. Smaller schools might be a better option as everyone who has chosen a small school tends to naturally feel as if they are a part of a tight knit community from day one, making it easier to engage with others.

If you keep these two questions in mind, you are likely to have a better outcome in your college search process.