Friday, October 7, 2016

Choosing the College that Fits

The school year is well underway and high school seniors are busily considering the next stage of their lives. That means it’s time for them to think hard about where they want to be next fall. We’ve written in the past about the value of a college education, when to start planning for college, and how to navigate the world of FAFSA and student aid. Today we’re going to take a slightly different angle and consider the biggest question of all – how do I choose the school that’s right for me? Is there even such a thing as a “good school” or is it just a “good fit”? So much of our work here at The Yellin Center focuses on matching a learning environment to each individual student’s needs. The post-high school years are no different; every student has unique needs and expectations when it comes to higher education. 

There are a few questions every student needs to ask her- or himself before setting off on the four-year journey to a bachelor’s degree. First and foremost, we should take some time to reflect on who we are as individuals and why we’re going to college in the first place. If the first answer that comes to mind is “I have to go to college to get a job that pays well and offers stability” that’s fine, but put that thought on the back burner for just a moment. What else do you want to get out of your education? What else would you like to experience or accomplish? Perhaps there’s a particular area of study you want to explore, or a big project you’d like to become involved in. Different universities and colleges offer very different experiences. For example, your blogger chose to attend a small women’s college with no sororities, a very active student government, and a deliberate focus on developing engaged citizens. This was after spending my freshman year at a large public university with strong Greek life, huge lectures, and a focus on research. Neither campus was better than the other, but it was clear which was right for my individual needs and aspirations.

Another question to ask yourself is who you want to surround yourself with. Research has shown that classrooms full of people from all different backgrounds do more to push their students to higher levels of thinking. That means that the most comfortable campus isn’t always the one where we’ll thrive the most. Ask yourself how you feel about entering a situation where you’re forced to think differently and form bonds with people from different cultural backgrounds, races, faiths, and political ideologies. How does a specific school stand up to our expectations of diversity? On the other hand, some of us really benefit from the comfort of being close to home, surrounded by other students in similar situations. Do you feel that you would benefit more from engaging deeply in a community you’ve grown to love, such as what you might find at a local school or community college? Or do you want to dive head first into the unfamiliar and challenge yourself to see the world from a different perspective? Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. Take a few moments to consider your own limitations, aspirations, and expectations.

After considering these questions, it’s important to take into consideration the preconceived biases we already have about colleges and universities. First and foremost, we need to fight the inclination we have to equate the relationship between a school’s “ranking” and the quality of education we can get from a school. Instead of relying on one publication’s ranking system, decide what’s most important to you and build your own ranking system based on those criteria. Another resource that may lead you to schools you had not considered is your high school guidance counselor. Connect with current and former students of colleges you’re interested in to get a feel for the rigor of the classes, the nature of the instructors, and anything else that you have deemed important. And remember – you can build a challenging, rigorous course load at any school. It’s more important to find a campus that offers the types of classes you want to take and a variety of degree tracks you’re interested in. It’s normal and expected to explore a few different paths before choosing a major, so try not to lock yourself into a school that doesn’t provide wiggle room for exploration outside of what you think you want to do. We’re not the same people at age 18 as we are at age 20, so we can’t expect to stick to a plan we made our senior year of high school. 

After reflecting on your needs and considering the academics, look into the available extracurricular activities and clubs. When you’re not studying, how do you want to spend your time? What campus activities would you find most rewarding? Is it important that there’s studio space on campus? What about research opportunities or professional organizations? Again, the best source of information is often current students. The college website is a good starting point for information, but you won’t really know a place until you’ve heard first-hand accounts. You don’t have to visit every school you’re interested in, but make sure your top few contenders are on your schedule.

Finally, consider any special needs you might have, like accessibility issues, a learning disability, or ADHD, that interferes with your learning. If you make use of testing accommodations, or class modifications like recording lectures or receiving a copy of the notes, make sure to contact the school’s office for students with disabilities to get a sense of how effectively they operate and how supportive they are of student needs. Don’t stop there, though. Reach out to students and instructors to get their take on these issues as well. Some campuses are more open and supportive than others. For more information on navigating life after high school with a disability, check out the book by Susan Yellin, Esq., the Director of Advocacy and Transition Services here at The Yellin Center.

Picking a college or university that fits your needs takes some time and willingness to explore, but it’s well worth it. All those little details add together to make up some of the most rewarding years of your life.

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