10 Ways to Pick a College

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve been getting questions from parents who are agonizing about where their teenagers should attend college. It’s a tough decision and time is running out to pick the winners. The national deposit day for freshman is May 1.

Here are some of choices facing a family that contacted me yesterday:

College of Wooster, University of California at Davis, San Diego State University, University of Redlands and Sarah Lawrence.

Here is another family’s list:

St. Olaf, Grinnell, Bryn Mawr, Whitworth, Rose Hulman and Trinity.

A friend of mine came over last week to talk about her son’s final four:

Willamette, Lewis & Clark, University of Redlands and Texas Christian University.

My friend’s son appears to truly not know where he wants to go and he also has no idea what his major might be. I’m going to share the advice that I gave my friend that might help other families with this big decision. Taking this approach is going to be better than flipping a coin!

1. Review the finances.

It should be easier to eliminate schools from a list if they are too expensive. I don’t think any school is worth going into scary debt. (I’ll be writing about college loans soon.) In my friend’s case, two of the schools gave her son merit scholarships and two didn’t.

2. Check student opinions.

I’d check out student opinions at Unigo and College Prowler.  You might be surprised at how candid students are in their reviews.  If you read enough of them you might be able to see a consensus of opinions.

3. Ask students questions.

Students making last-minute visits to schools should stop several students and ask these questions:

  • What do you like about your school?
  • What don’t you like about your school?
  • What would you change about your school if you could?
  • Why did you pick this school and would you do it over again?

If a teenager thinks he/she knows what his major will be, try to arrange to talk with students in that department to get the real scoop. Also see if you can chat with professors. You might have a tougher time pulling this off at a university where professor contact with undergrads can be more limited.

4. Know the Difference Between a College and a University.

Many parents and students don’t understand how vastly different a college can be from a university. Students who have both on the list, such as the teenager above who applied to San Diego State and Sarah Lawrence, would have a dramatically different experience at each of these schools.

Here is a primer on what the differences are between these these two types of institutions:

Do you Know the Difference Between a College and a University?

5. Check a school’s graduation rates.

You don’t want to get stuck at a school for five or six years. You can obtain the four, five and six-year rates for any institution at College Results Online.

6. Research how happy are the freshman.

Ideally, you’ll want to attend a school where the majority of students stick around after their freshman year. You can find freshman retention rates at College Results Online and at the federal College Navigator. Here is a post I wrote about freshmen retention rates for my college blog:

How Happy Are the Freshmen?

7. Check RateMyProfessors ratings.

You can get a sense of the quality of teaching at a school by looking at its composite professor ranking for its faculty. Millions of students have ranked professors on a 1-to-5 scale at RateMyProfessors. You can also drill down and see what the rankings are for individual departments and professors at a school. Here is a post that I wrote recently about this site:

Are the Professors Any Good?

8. Know the graduation requirements.

This is an excellent suggestion from Paula, a mom and frequent visitor to my college blog:  Students should compare the general graduation requirements for each school as well as the requirements for their presumed major. In terms of graduation requirements, further foreign language, writing courses, and/or math/science study would be a deal breaker for some students.

Paula’s son attends Willamette University which requires four semesters of language! That was a deal breaker for my own son Ben after he applied to the liberal arts college in  Salem, OR.

9. Discover how the school treats AP credits.

Find out if a child’s AP credits will count.

10. Inquire about a Greek presence.

I don’t mind admitting that I’m not a fan of the Greek system. When looking at student life, teenagers should assess what impact fraternities and sororities have on the campus. Do you want to attend a school where a large percentage of students are Greek? I am sharing the link to a  hellacious story that I read last night about runaway fraternities at Dartmouth that is in the current issue of Rolling Stone Magazine:

Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuse

Bottom Line:

Finally remember that there isn’t one perfect school for your child. If a student is committed to making college work, he or she will be fine at just about any school.

Does anybody have any other suggestions for last-minute college research? If so, please share in the comment box below.

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  1. Lynn,
    What are your thoughts on these creative admission offers colleges are extending to students in lieu of a traditional acceptance/ enrollment? Cornell offered my daughter a transfer option so that she may enroll at Cornell her sophomore year. However, they require she matriculates at another school freshman year (could be community college) and maintain a 3.3 GPA. They say that she will not need to reapply or do anything else as long as she keeps her grades up and does not get in any trouble.
    Cornell was/is her 1st choice. So, at first she was sad because “she didn’t get in”, then she was happy because she thought “Hey, this is better than the wait list and YES I’m going to graduate from Cornell.” My concern is that she is now looking for a school where she can most easily achieve the freshman GPA requirement to get into Cornell instead of choosing from other very nice schools where she was accepted (like College of Wooster).
    I have your 1st and 2nd editions and while I got VERY useful information from them, you didn’t cover this! 🙂 What are your thoughts? Do you know of anyone that has done this transfer deal? Is this a good thing? Or do you think my daughter should just let go?

  2. Lynn – Asking a high school student to figure out the “impact” of Greek life on a campus is ridiculous. It’s a complex question with many variables unlikely to be uncovered by a teenager and his or her parent(s) on a quick visit. Crime on campus, student and non-student social scenes, local drinking laws, take-back-the-night events and other markers of safety and social temperature are equally valid and should be mentioned.
    Hazing is an issue in many campus organizations – including music groups such as the Florida A&M Marching 100. To say nothing of many ROTC units, sports teams and other groups. Avoiding Greek life may or may not help a student steer clear of hazing and other ‘wild’ behavior such as binge drinking. Students don’t live in bubbles and should be prepared to deal with challenging situations as a matter of course.
    Penn State has dealt with binge drinking for years, for instance, with little correlation to the Greek orientation of students. Relatively isolated campuses – like Penn State – often have higher reports of binge drinking by students than at Emory or Berkeley. Cities sometimes have more to lure students’ attention than endless rounds of beer bong.
    Do you caution people about that hazard?
    Greeks at some campuses are oriented around religious affiliation (such as the large, mostly Jewish houses at the school I attended.) In many families these memberships go back generations and are proudly cited.
    Other Greek houses have a basis in racial ties, such as the nationally prominent AKA for African American women students. AKA states that it is a major funder for black coeds who are able to attend and stay in school with its help; the group also has an active alum presence for networking and support as students enter the ‘real’ world.
    Other frats and sororities are service based, some are academic (even major-specific) and many are no-house groups – they don’t have a ‘frat house’ but meet informally or in college meeting rooms.
    Dartmouth’s carefully burnished rep as the ‘bad boy’ of New England Ivy and near-Ivy schools has led to many Animal House-like stories. True and not so true, and some entirely separate from Greek life.
    Blithely announcing that you are in general opposed to Greek life and citing Dartmouth as a source is a shallow analysis and a straw man.

  3. I think you have provided some great suggestions for students and their families to consider before making a final college decision. I also suggest to my students that they reconsider the factors they initially listed when they began their college search. Are any of these factors more important or less important at this time? I find as I talk with students about their experiences with the schools to which they have been accepted, many come to their own conclusions and are ready to make their final decision by the end of our conversation.

  4. Lynn,
    Shouldn’t you check to make sure the facts and implications of a story are correct before you link them on your site? As a person who garners a lot of respect in the world of college admissions, you have a responsibility to carefully disseminate knowledge that is truly accurate and not sensationalized. This is one student’s account – a student who clearly has his own demons he’s battling – a student who had been suspended from Dartmouth for drug use and had been kicked out of his fraternity when he decided to publicize his account. In addition, this author is the same one that wrote an incredibly one-sided and inaccurate account of Duke’s social scene in Rolling Stone after the lacrosse scandal there 6 years ago. I understand that you have issues with Greek life, some of which might be founded, but linking this sensationalized story doesn’t begin to accurately portray the scope of greek life at Dartmouth. Kids and parents are looking to you to help them make decisions about where to attend college. Be careful of the power of your words. Karen

    1. Karen, your point is well taken that as readers we should always question the sources and the motivation behind a particular story. Andrew Lohse, the source for this story, is clearly not an untarnished pillar of society BUT that does not mean that he isn’t telling the truth. As the author states, “… whistle-blowers are almost always complex, often compromised outliers”.

      Is the story true? I don’t know. You state that the “… story doesn’t begin to accurately portray the scope of greek life at Dartmouth”. How do you know? Your comment sounds defensive; are you an alum? If so, can you unequivocally deny that these atrocious behaviors occur? If you can’t speak from experience, then your comment is purely speculative.

      What this story should do, at the very least, is to start a conversation between parents and student regarding campuses that have a Greek presence. I believe that that was Lynn’s intent in posting it under her 10th point. It’s a fact that Greek life dominates the Dartmouth social scene. A prospective student should know that and should carefully consider whether that – and all it implies – is a good fit for him or her.

  5. Just one additional area for consideration – determine (in detail) how easy and costly it will be for the student to get home and back to school. SO many of the best schools are in the middle of nowhere, and a high school student who is eager to leave the nest may find those schools that are further afield especially appealing, until getting home is necessary. Daughter #1 has to access a cab or shuttle to the airport (30 minutes away from her college), and then take 2 planes to get home. While this is doable, there are more breaks from class than we considered, and the costs of travel add up. Ease of travel home has become a top priority now that son #1 is looking at schools!

  6. I think an important factor in college selection these days is job placement after graduation. This information is not well published and hard to find for most schools. Do you have any ideas where to obtain this information? Thanks.

    1. Hi Patrick,

      Unfortunately, schools have no requirement to publish job placement stats and frankly when schools do release them they are often dubious. That’s because its voluntary for grads to report what they are doing. What’s more, a school will report that a student is gainfully employed even if it’s at Starbucks.

      I believe states have the ability to keep track of where employees went to school via their unemployment infrastructure, but it’s not being taken of advantage of. I believe Arizona is one state that has this in place.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  7. Excellent article. I would also want to know about average student debt upon graduation, internship opportunities in the area, and possibly percent of grads who eventually attend grad school. I would also want to know how outside scholarships are applied by each college’s financial aid office.

    1. Hi Theresa,

      Thanks for the great suggestions. I think average-student-debt-upon-graduation is an important fact when researching schools. As this point, the students have their aid packages and will know what kind of support they will be getting. They should also know how outside scholarships have impacted their aid award. It’s good to ask about intern opportunities. As for grad school, I think too many students are attending grad schools because they don’t know what else to do. I think that’s a bad idea, but that is a topic for another day.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. I agree attending grad school to just attend grad school is a bad idea. However, if a student has a strong desire for a particular field that would require a graduate degree — medical doctor for instance– I think it would be helpful to know thew success rate of getting into grad school is from a particular college.

  8. As horible as the fraternity story is, the source is not only circumspect, but the houses has been cleared of charges by the national office and the university. While we shouldn’t ever condone hazing, many claims in that article have been proven false and the author downplayed the criminal and drug-related problems of the subject. There are better resources to refer to regarding hazing such as stophazing.org

    1. Bennett – Sorry, but I can’t agree with you on the Dartmouth hazing issue. It’s too easy to tar the main source and leave it at that. Clearly the author talked with other people on campus who volunteered that there are serious problems at Dartmouth. It’s hard to imagine anybody disagreeing with that.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  9. I’m wondering they these topics aren’t discussed PRIOR to applying to these colleges. And boy, I sure wish these things could be a class for sophomores and juniors in high school. I know so many kids and parents who haven’t got a clue about the college search process and so hung up on big name schools.

    1. Kelly – Unfortunately, most kids don’t even meet with a counselor until the spring of their junior year or even the fall of senior year. Obviously I agree with you about the big-name fetish.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Lynn – I disagree with you about spending more for a big-name school. Prestigious schools speak volumes on a resume – and the connections provided by active alumni associations are extremely valuable. How much debt is too much? I’m not sure, but the $50,000 debt for my son to attend the University of Southern California has, to date, been well worth it. USC has opened many doors and created many connections for him.

  10. Lynn,
    Excellent list! I only have one to add:

    11. Visit the college’s Career Center (or review it online). Ask them about their resources, such as interest inventories, career seminars, workshops for resumes & interviewing, internship opportunities – both paid and unpaid (It’s becoming more important for students to have some experience when they graduate and apply for jobs.), and career fairs. How actively do businesses pursue graduates from the the college/university. Most students don’t think about the career center until they are a junior but entering freshmen need to know where it is and use the resources offered.

    1. Excellent idea Wendy. I would say, however, that students are going to need to hussle on their own to find most opportunities. Don’t assume the career center will make your job easy.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  11. Can’t say enough good things about The College of Wooster — a hidden gem slowly but surely being unearthed by more people. It is interesting that the schools on these kids’ lists show such a variety in size and geography. You would think that enough pre-research would be done so that the final acceptance list is slightly more homogenous. That being said, I definitely agree with your 1-10 list of factors. The only other research suggestion I would add is “How Happy are the Recent Alumni?” — try to interview/reach out to young (as in very recent) alumni.

    1. Barry — I think College of Wooster is a wonderful school too! And the average aid package is very good.

      I agree that the lists should be more homogenous by now!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy