How to Pick Colleges -- Like a Professor, Part I

Learn how to pick colleges like a professor with these helpful tips.

By The Professors' Guide

April 21, 2009

How to Pick Colleges -- Like a Professor, Part I How to Pick Colleges -- Like a Professor, Part I

More than 4,000 choices. Not sure of the price. Everyone telling you what to do. It’s picking a college! It’s amazing that anyone ever picks the right college. Let the PRO – fessors – the folks who know – give their best, insider advice about how to pick. Read on:

1. Never trust anyone over 30. It’s a good idea to talk to people who have actually attended the schools you’re considering. Just make sure you’re talking to the right people. Recent graduates. Because colleges change. You need to know what it’s like now, not when your parents were going to sock hops.

2. Big is big, small is small. When selecting colleges, size matters. Know the pros and cons of each type. At the mega-U you’ll find a smorgasbord of courses and of majors, hot shot professors, and often a more diverse student body. But you’re more likely get lost in the crowd and to have intro courses from graduate students, not professors. At smaller colleges you’ll find a more nurturing environment, smaller classes, and more opportunities for one-on-one work with professors. But the choice of courses and of social life will be more limited.

Have you seen your scholarship matches recently? Look now.

3. It’s not a Chinese restaurant. Avoid the temptation to make your initial list of schools look like a Chinese menu: 2 from column A, 1 from column B and 3 from column C. This happens when you pick some schools Mom and Dad like, some your high school adviser suggests, and some your MySpace friends post as bulletins. Limit your list to schools from a single category – big schools, state schools, schools in your region, party schools, whatever. Think what will happen if you only get into a couple of schools from your list. You might actually have to go to one of them.

4. It’s the 21st century dude/dudette. When scouting out schools, use internet resources. Any college you want to go to, today, has its own “college portal” — a website which has incredible amounts of info about the place – even videos. And be sure to check out the U.S. News ratings, the Princeton Review website, and the (print) Fiske Guide to the Colleges.

5. Ignore the sticker price. Unbelievably good news (for some): if your family income is less than 50 or 60K, many of the best private colleges in the country will take you for free. You study (and go on facebook and hookup) and the big U pays. And even for those whose folks make more, at most schools you only need to pay the “expected family contribution” — which is the same no matter what the full cost of tuition is. Upshot? Once you’ve met your EFC, it doesn’t matter whether the (official) tuition is $29,960 (at Rice) or $36,030 (at Stanford).

Extra Pointer. Sites such as,,, and (as well as a college’s own website) provide many useful tools for figuring out your share of the load. Check ‘em out.

Talk about choosing a college with other members in our Discussion Board.

6. Look the horse in the mouth. Know what you’re buying. Find out who’s teaching the courses – famous profs, temporary ‘adjunct’ faculty, or grad student TA’s. And what about the requirements? Can you pretty much choose what you want to study, or are there 32 specific requirements you have to fulfill to get your BA (no kidding – at one school we know and love, this is actually true). And does the school have the major you’re thinking of choosing? Every year some doofus (actually, many doofuses) show up at college looking to major in something the school doesn’t even offer.

Bonus tip. Planning on a state university? Get to know your state system. Even smaller states like Iowa and Arkansas – not to mention behemoths like California and Texas – have large numbers of public colleges with different strengths, catering to different kinds of students. Don’t limit yourself to considering just the two best known ones (think Wayne State, Michigan Tech, and UM Dearborn, not just University of Michigan and Michigan State).

Dr. Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S Hyman are authors of the book Professors’ Guide to Getting Good Grades in College — the first instruction manual for college. You can download a free chapter here, or e-mail Lynn and Jeremy a question or comment here. We’d love to hear from you!

© 2008 Professors’ Guide LLC

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