As I drive through the iconic Yosemite Valley, surrounded by the tallest rock faces I’ve ever seen, I think about what I’m going to do with my life.
I’m at a crossroads of sorts.
I love Portland more than any city I’ve ever lived in, but I’m feeling it.
But not only that. There’s a pull to be more, to do more.
Which is a little weird considering I work a job where I make 3 figures an hour, and I live an incredibly rich life in one of the most beautiful places full of beautiful, awesome people.
But I'm craving to grow again, to be challenged by a project I'm passionate about (like this blog!) and that keeps me learning and striving.
As I’m driving I’m overwhelmed by a swirl of complex emotions and thoughts, like I know many of you are as you prepare to apply to your top choice colleges.
And the question is: how do you choose?
How do you choose the path that’s going to shape the rest of your life?
Gah! The responsibility of it!
You’re incredibly lucky if you already know what path you want to be on/what college you want to go to.
Even if you're already in college...how do you utilize the tools at your disposal to ensure even greater success?
For those of us who feel a bit lost, a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of making a decision that will change our lives forever, I’ve got some ruminations for you that may help make the decision easier.
And before I launch into specifics of how to choose the college that’s a best fit for you, let me first say that I firmly believe there are no wrong answers in life.
The decision you make will be the one you have to live with -- so it’s a matter of what you do with a good or right or bad or uncomfortable outcome. You always have the power to leave and do something different….you will always find growth and value in everything you do.
Ok, but now for the criteria that will help you make a more informed decision about what college to attend.
People don’t just go to college because “it’s a good school,” anymore. There are many factors that can play into the decision. I’ll lay some out here, and if you feel one of these reasons is more important to you, focus on that when you make the decision about what college to attend.
You can rank the colleges according to whether or not they meet several of these criteria to help you make a good decision.
If you know you want to be a marine biologist, obviously colleges that specialize in marine biology should be at the top of your list. But aside from the obvious, there are other types of programs that can draw you to a specific college.
For example, if you know you want to practice psychology, there are going to be a lot of colleges in your pool. You can narrow your decision by looking at the types of programs offered, like if the college is known for a specific branch of psychology you’re interested in, or if it offers more research based learning which is something that interests you.
If you want to go to med school later down the road, look at colleges that aren’t necessarily in the top rankings for micro bio programs, but that have relationships with nearby hospitals or medical labs, so you can benefit from specific research units outside of the college as well.
UC Santa Cruz, as an example, offers a wide range of research programs within their division of physical and biological sciences:
These, more than the notoriety of your college for a particular field, are helpful in directing your college decision, because these are going to be the more niche fields you can enter to develop a more specific skill set and compelling job resume or grad application.
Sports, music, theater, and other programs are also reasons for choose a particular college. If you want to study a particular academic and also do sports or something art-oriented in addition, those programs can drive your choice more than the academic side if you'd like them to.
Choose which professors you’re going to be working with may seem like a more grad-school level decision, but the truth is, your professors can largely influence your success at your undergraduate school.
At UC Berkeley I knew I would be working with some of the most respected poets and critical thinkers in the world. I had been looking at UC Santa Cruz as an option as well, because I loved the town and the college ethos, but the professor list just didn’t do it for me.
And it was a great decision, because I was able to become close to some of the top minds of their generation and was able to secure scholarships and attend conferences I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get or go to, because of professorial recommendation. And those names on your grad school application really do pull weight. Not to mention, after graduating I was able to publish a translation in a prestigious journal because my professor handed over my work to the editors.
So if a college isn’t necessarily known for your particular study of interest, but a prominent professor teaches there, you may consider adding it to your list for that reason.
Networking is the reason Los Angeles or New York are a great locations for would-be filmmakers. You may be able to find a great program in terms of technology somewhere else, but the networking possibilities make LA and NY a no-brainer for the film industry.
Considering how many people there are you could be introduced to in a given location can trump a program’s other highlights, especially if you’re in a field that you can enter the job market in right out of college.
Berkeley was home to many famous poets and writers, as well as booksellers, small presses, and literary events. So it made a lot of sense to not only study with some of the world’s most revered writers, but to also immerse myself in the literary culture there.
That was how I published my first piece in a prestigious journal. Making friends with the right people.
Networking is one of the more valuable tools in education.
Who you know carries more weight than your GPA on your resume. If a world class artisan can train you in cabinet making...you’re already ahead of the 3,000 other students who studied the craft under a less-notable person.
If you want to make it big in the world, I suggest you do research about what kind of networking possibilities there will be in your field.
You can research things like:
- Internships offered
- Events catering to your major
- Is the location known for a particular reason
- Are there a lot of people who work in your desired field
- Are there a lot of businesses around that want people like you
As I drove past the twisting oak trees on a campus rich with ivy-climbed brick buildings I knew I’d found a college I could call home.
I had spent one year on the beach at Santa Barbara City College, but to be honest, I wasn’t really a beach person, or a party girl, which the school was infamous for. I’d lived a city over from Santa Barbara. I think I was intimidated to be in a city -- even one as small and laid back as Santa Barbara -- by myself, so I opted for a 15 minute drive outside of SB in a small, small town.
It was my first time away from home and I was a 6+ hour drive from my family. Those factors alone were enough to send me packing after the first year.
I’d chosen the wrong location.
So when I rolled past the forested campus of Santa Rosa Junior College, only an hour away from home and nestled in the familiar oak and ivy landscape of my youth, I breathed a sigh of relief.
And those years I spent at SRJC were incredible. I had a host of amazingly talented teachers, rigorous classes, and I opened my eyes to a lot of what college could be.
Going to these two colleges taught me about the importance of location.
Especially if you’re unsure about what to major in, choosing your college based on location can be paramount to your happiness and success.
Because the truth is, you can get a great education at any college. You can be successful having come from any program.
Where you end up spending the next 2, 4, or more years of your life can be really meaningful.
I know I would be absolutely miserable if I went to school in New York City, even though they have some of the best English programs there. I need my trees and mountains, sorry.
So spend careful consideration of your location. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in the place you choose. Choose wisely.
There are certain advantages to the size of college you choose to attend. If you struggle with getting your work done, or if you’d feel lost in a huge class, maybe look at smaller liberal arts colleges, where the professor to student ratio is such that you won’t just be a face in a sea of faces.
This can often help you better turn assignments in on time or go to class-- if you really feel like your professor would notice, it’s a lot harder to skimp out on your responsibilities.
On the other hand, choosing a large school means more options for courses, and there are always ways you can stand out -- even in a lecture hall full of a hundred other students.
You can think too about whether or not you want to attend a private or public institution. Private colleges are often smaller, offer more individualized attention, but cost more than public colleges.
If you’re fresh out of high school and don’t know what you want to major in, or if you want to get a taste for what college and life away from home is like without a ton of pressure, community or city colleges offer the first two years of college as an intermediary before heading off to a 4 year university.
I’m a HUGE advocate of community college in that they allow you to figure out how to navigate college before heading off to “big kid school.”
Plus, community college classes are cheaper, so you can sample a lot of courses before settling down to a major!
If you’re not feeling quite cut out for academia, you can look at vocational colleges or trade schools, which will teach you a very specific skill set meant to help you in a career right after college.
This last factor in making a college decision is pretty self explanatory. If you know just what major you want, you can search colleges by their ranking.
Going to a highly ranked University in your area of study means that some census has measured graduation percentages and performance of graduated students, how satisfied students and alumni are/were, how selective a college is in picking students, and how much the financial packages are offered off the cost of tuition, to name a few.
Oh yeah, and it also means that the colleges have great professors in that program, and have proven to be influential outside the college bounds.
It’s nice to check and see if your college is ranked if you want to go for prestige -- and yeah, going to a top-notch University can greatly help your chances in a career later on.
One of the many factors in making the college decision!
It’s not an easy decision to make. Some people have a better time of it than others. I only wanted to go to UC Berkeley for undergrad, so it was the only college I applied to. Thank goodness I got in.
Same for grad school. I only applied to one school, gained acceptance, and that was that.
I chose both colleges based on location and ranking (also professors & type for grad school -- I ended up in a low residency MFA with one of my favorite authors...super cool).
Other factors ended up playing toward my success in those colleges (networking/professors), but my admissions decision was made based on only two factors in this list.
Overwhelmed by the application process?
Unsure about which schools you should apply to?
Don't know how to make your application stand out among the rest?
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