Should I consider colleges that I haven’t heard of?

We’ve all heard of the Ivy League schools, but most of us don’t have a shot of getting in those institutions. Big name sports schools are also well-known, but not necessarily for their academic offering. Some of the nation's finest colleges may not be on your radar so just because you haven’t heard of a college, don’t rule it out. Judge a college on its' own merits.

How important is a big name in selecting the right college?

You should go to the college that "fits" you best. If it happens to be well-known, that’s great. So how do you determine a college fit?  Well, it has to do with how you feel when you are on campus, how you learn, how the professors teach and the academic pressure you can handle. If the college and you are not a good match, you will be unhappy regardless of the prestige.

If I haven’t picked a major, will large colleges offer more options?

Many students think because there are more courses to choose from, a large college offers greater options for undecided students. However, choices alone should not be the deciding factor. If you are undecided, the best college is one that has core requirements that enable you to explore new areas and fields. Also, look for colleges with the strongest academic advising and career counseling programs regardless of their size. Good advising can help you choose a career path you will enjoy long-term rather than one you think you might like right now.

How do I judge the quality of the academic program?

About two of five students change their major field of interest before they actually enroll in college and about one of two change their major field once they enroll. Look for a college that has your current field of interest, but is also strong in all its areas to ensure you have plenty of options should your interests change.

How important is the type of learning offered?

Research on success in graduate school and in employment after college suggests that the best way to master an academic field is through a combination of learning theory and active, hands-on learning. The opportunity to do research on your own or work side by side with a professor on a project tends to be more valuable than simply taking more courses in the field.

If I want to go to professional or graduate school, do I need to attend a university that offers these specific graduate programs?

Many students and parents mistakenly think that attending a university with a law school, medical school or graduate school guarantees admission into that program at graduation. Very few universities give their students special preference for graduate study and those that do reserve it for only the very best students. The key to admission is succeeding in a strong major program at a challenging college. Many small colleges and universities have excellent records in placing students in professional schools and graduate programs.   

If I’m interested in science, should I avoid liberal arts colleges?

The "liberal" in liberal arts means "broadening" and "freeing" -- as in freeing one's mind from narrow thinking. The term liberal arts is a shortened version of the full title: liberal arts and sciences. Most liberal arts colleges have been emphasizing science for all students for a century or more. Since the best way to learn science is by doing science, colleges with small classes and fewer students in laboratories often have an advantage. Proportionally, far more Ph.D.s in the sciences and physicians have earned their undergraduate degrees from small liberal arts colleges than large universities.

Are large universities more diverse?

This is true if "diversity" simply means having greater numbers of minority and international students. Unfortunately, the size and nature of a large university often means there is little interaction among those of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. At some large universities, groups of students choose to live and learn together, separately from other students. This is generally not true at smaller colleges where the size of the student population ensures you will get to know or recognize virtually all students. Since classes are small, you get to hear the views and learn from students of all backgrounds. If you value the ability to understand and appreciate other cultures and groups, then small colleges offer greater diversity.

Do I need to know my major before I choose a college?

Unless you’re absolutely sure what you want to do, don't let anyone pressure you into deciding on a major field or a career until you’re ready. College is a time to explore so take your time and try different subjects. A surprising number of students discover the field for them while taking a course they didn't expect to like. In most cases, you can choose a major in your sophomore year and still complete the degree in four years.