Five Factors Prospective College Students Should Consider When Picking a School

I vividly remember the rainy, overcast day that I first stepped foot on the campus that I would later call home. I stood in the bookstore of The College of New Jersey as my mother lagged behind, pestering me into revealing whether or not “this was the one.” At that same moment, we watched as a father reprimanded his daughter, whose face was damp with tears. He screamed over the fact that she had yet to pick a college and she was, obviously, distraught.

The scene that I watched play out in that bookstore wasn’t, and still isn’t, uncommon for prospective college students to experience. Choosing a college is one of the hardest decisions young people have to make and the stress put on them by society is just short of overwhelming.

Now, as a freshman in college, I have come to realize that the stress endured during the admissions process is unnecessary and that there are far more important things in life than picking a college.

In an effort to determine what factors are the most important to consider when picking a college, I spoke with Lloyd Thacker, the founder and Executive Director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming college admission practices, over email.

According to , Thacker spent 30 years in college admissions and counseling and has appeared on CNN, CBS Evening News, NPR, and the Today Show. During our conversation, Thacker told me the five factors he thinks are important for prospective college students to remember when picking a college. Here’s what he shared:

“Selecting a college is an important personal decision, but it is not as crucial and consequential as many people (parents and students) think.”

In the moment, choosing a college may seem life-changing and, while the decision will certainly influence a prospective student’s life for the next four years, it is unlikely that a student’s choice in college will completely alter their life path.

“At best, the college selection process is an educational experience. Students should be thoughtful, ask questions, trust their own educational instincts and experiences – and realize they are doing precision guesswork, at best.”

It is impossible to know whether a college is the right one until a student actually starts attending the school. For some reason, students expect, and are expected, to know what the best school for them is, prior to attending. Unless there are some psychic perspective college students out there, there is no way of telling.

Uyen Vu, a freshman Biology major at The College of New Jersey, agrees that there is no way for a student to know if a school is right for them, until they start. Vu believes that the success of a student is dependent on their experience, not necessarily on the credentials of the school they attend.

Vu said, “If a school has a good program, but you are not happy there, you’re not going to succeed.”

“There is no such thing as one perfect college! There will be several, if not many colleges, where a particular student will flourish. Lives of great worth are developed in all kinds of colleges.”

As someone who was completely unsure of which college to attend, I often wondered if the college I chose would have any influence on my ability to succeed in my future career. After gaining insight from Thacker, and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve come to realize that the college itself has little to do with the success of the student.

Kaitlin C. West, Admissions Counselor and College Ambassador Coordinator at The College of New Jersey, believes that finances should play a role in a student’s college pick. She agrees with Thacker in that there are many colleges in which a particular student can succeed. If a student doesn’t attend their dream school, it isn’t a life or death situation, it is likely that another school is also a good fit.

West told me, “Picking your dream college is great, but do you want to spend the rest of your life in student debt? Consider the financial aid and scholarship package each school offers. You’ll thank yourself down the road.”

“Where a student goes to college is not nearly as important as what a student does in college. It’s the doing, not the going that matters.”

West also agreed with this point made by Thacker. She told me that a prospective student should put themselves in the shoes of a college student on the campus and ask if they can picture themselves getting involved on that campus.

“Can you see yourself walking the campus? Hanging in the student center? Joining the clubs? Doing work in the Library?” West said.

As a freshman myself, I have come to understand the importance of involvement. Getting immersed in the campus is just as important as attending classes.

“What matters most in the process –and in college and beyond – are student qualities, such as confidence, curiosity, imagination, willingness to take risks, compassion, honesty, critical thinking…”

Thacker recognizes the challenges involved with the college admissions process, but also encourages prospective students to realize that their worth isn’t dependent on their choice of college.

If only I could go back in time, I would give myself Thacker’s advice, and maybe pass some along to the girl I watched cry in the bookstore on that rainy day.

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