Every year, winter break seems to arrive just when I start conspiring that the fall semester is truly endless. After enduring a plethora of assignments and somehow an even greater number of tests, high school students deserve a restful break filled with nothing but an army of snowmen and gallons of hot cocoa...and maybe some research on colleges.
While you may be tempted to blissfully do nothing and think nothing, there is no better time to narrow down your college list than during winter break. It is one of the only times during the year when you likely don’t have any school work or extracurricular commitments to worry about.
So go ahead, grab a warm blanket to wrap around yourself, and start to reflect on what you want your future to look like. We will start by discussing how you can research colleges and then we’ll dive into how to actually pick colleges to apply to.
How to Do Your College Searching
- Go on a college tour.
I find it ironic that this is my number one tip for college research when I myself have never been on an official college tour. Unfortunately, COVID-19 took over right at the beginning of my second semester of junior year- precisely when students begin to go on college tours.
Facing the shutdowns of college campuses all over the country forced me to find a viable alternative to in-person tours: virtual tours.
Nearly every institution you can think of has a virtual college tour. While these tours are admittedly not the same as actually being on the college campus, they deserve credit for being immensely informational.
Simply Google the name of the college you are researching and then "virtual tour." For example, if I was looking into Northeastern University, I would Google "northeastern virtual tour." The top result will almost always be the one you are looking for.
- Make Niche your best friend.
The Niche College Search Site has been bookmarked on my laptop for quite some time now. For every college you type into the search bar, Niche will give you the “grades” that particular college has earned in a variety of categories including academics, diversity, student life, and safety.
Something that applies specifically to this year’s (and maybe even next year’s) college applicants is the COVID-19 update that appears on the top of the screen. This update will provide you with valuable information on how that particular college has adapted to the pandemic.
As you scroll down the screen, you can learn more about the university such as its national rankings, application deadlines, and current students’ common majors.
Through the years, Niche has proved to be a wonderful resource that pools all the important information in one organized platform. I highly recommend it.
Factors to Pay Attention To
- Cost of Attending a Certain College
Most students like the idea of getting a college degree without drowning in debt. For this reason, the cost of attending a certain college is an important factor to consider.
Keep in mind that the sticker price for a college is not always the one that will apply to you. For instance, for most highly ranked universities, the sticker price tends to be well over $65,000. However, this is the price before any need-based financial aid has been awarded.
Be sure to pay attention to universities’ “percent need met”. If a certain university promises 100% of your financial needs met, that means that all of your financial needs, as determined by the FAFSA, will be taken care of. However, if a university has a 50% need met, that means that the institution guarantees to cover up to only 50% of your need.
If you have a social security number (SSN), you are eligible to fill out the FAFSA, which will allow you to be considered for financial aid from the US government. Check out more information on the FAFSA here.
You can also take things into your own hands and apply to merit-based scholarships. While there are some really big scholarships like the Gates Scholarship and the Coca-Cola Scholarship, local scholarships can also do a lot to alleviate the burden of high tuition.
- Your Major
If you are strongly interested in a subject and are likely to pursue it in college, the first thing you want to do is make sure that the school you are looking at actually has that major listed as one of the degrees it offers.
If you are like me and are not entirely sure what you want to study in college, it is a good idea to choose a school that offers a variety of majors. This will ensure that you will have plenty of opportunities to explore your interests.
Once you have double checked that all the colleges on your list have your intended major, or at least one you are interested in, one sure way to narrow down the list is to compare the quality of resources that each college has for that particular major.
For instance, if you want to study biology, maybe check to see if students have access to labs to perform research. Maybe one college on your list allows only seniors to work in labs while the other allows all students, including freshmen, to participate in the ongoing research. Based on how important performing research is to you, the school that allows only seniors to be lab rats might seem less appealing than it did before.
- Your Surroundings
The process of narrowing down your college list requires you to ask some important questions. In which environment do you grow the most? Do you want a college campus in which you know everyone or do you want a campus that will ensure that you are meeting new classmates even in your final semester? That is, do you want a big school or a small school?
Do you prefer being in lectures with hundreds of students or lecture based classrooms that nurture conversation? Do you want a traditional college campus? Do you want to study in a bustling city or a homely suburban town? These are all questions to consider, and thanks to Google, all questions that you can answer from the comfort of your couch.
- The Little Things
And after you have considered all the big questions, you can consider the small things as well. Maybe you have always imagined your college experience to include weekends at football games. Or maybe you were always the kid that wanted to join a poetry club. Give yourself the freedom to see if the college you are researching has a football team and a poetry club.
These things don’t necessarily have to be deal breakers, but I would be lying if I said they had absolutely no role in shaping your overall college experience. Keep in mind that you can always start the things that you find to be missing at a certain college. Granted, it is probably easier to start a poetry club than an entire football team.
Finalizing your college list isn’t simply about finding the place you will be at after high school. It's about finding a new home. And while this process can seem daunting and stressful, you can take pride in the fact that this is your decision to make. Have fun with it, and good luck!