Going to college is a big deal. It really is. Why? Because it’s four years—that may seem really long but are honestly really short—where you have the time and space to figure out who you are, who you want to be, what you believe in, what you value, and everything else in between.
There are tons of lists and checklists and guidelines out there to help you identify the best schools for you. Hopefully this one is quirky enough that it’ll give you a few things to consider that you might not otherwise have thought about….
- Think about where you might see yourself. You can never be quite sure who you’ll be by the time you set foot on campus (months after you submit your applications!), but you still know yourself better than anyone else. Do you see yourself at a small liberal arts school, crossing the quad and waving to familiar faces on your way to class? Do you see yourself at a big state school, covered in face paint and surrounded by a sea of students, alumni, and football fans at the homecoming game? Most of my students at UCLA, for instance, relished the energy associated with being surrounded by thousands of students on campus every day, especially after national championships! On the flip side, most of my students at Kenyon are there precisely so that they don’t get lost in the crowd. What does your vision tell you?
- Don’t underestimate the weather. If you love the sun, feel cold all the time (and don’t like it), and prefer to be in flip flops year-round, think about whether schools up north are right for you. If you enjoy the transition between all four seasons, places that are pretty much the same temperature year-round may not be the way to go. You may not think any of this is a big deal, but your physical environment matters and your body responds to it in unexpected ways. Take your physical likes and dislikes seriously, and tread carefully.
- Consider how far outside your comfort zone you’re willing to go. You’ll often hear that you need to step outside your comfort zone to grow. That’s completely true. Determining just how far outside your comfort zone is the tricky part. For example, one of my favorite Wharton students grew up on a farm in rural Ohio before she arrived to face the onslaught of light and noise in Philadelphia, while one of my favorite Kenyon students hails from Los Angeles and continues to wear his shorts throughout the brutal Ohio winters. It took some time, but both adjusted pretty well—and pretty quickly—to their surroundings. If you don’t step out far enough (or at all), you might get bored reliving everything you already know. If you step out way too far, you might have a hard time adjusting, which can impact how you perform academically and acclimate socially. The key is to find some reasonable middle ground.
- Think about what excites, inspires, and motivates you. Do you want a place where you’ll get to know your professors really well? Do you want to hear published authors speak and meet famous artists? Do you want to be surrounded by old buildings with hallowed halls and portraits of former presidents (college or otherwise)? Do you want modern architecture with advanced technology? Do you want the bright lights and bustling feel of an urban campus? Do you want to see the stars at night spilling over the ocean? Do you want access to mountain hikes and ski slopes? Do you want to read the great works of ancient philosophers? Do you want to design your own curriculum and work independently with your professors? Some of these things are mutually exclusive, while others are not. Think about what combination of things would be the best possible combination for you—and try to find that in your schools. Four years may seem like a long time, but it’s not. So try and get the most bang for your buck—money- and time-wise.
- Make sure you’re the one doing the deciding. Everyone else’s ideas matter, but you’ll be the one going, so make sure you’re taking the lead. And make sure you’re really asking yourself what you want and why you want it. If your answer is “I don’t know,” think about whether you’re ready to be going to college if you’re not ready to be answering the necessary questions to get there. Gap years are far from the norm, but going to college right after high school is no longer de rigueur.
- Know that you can change your mind. Transferring is by no means easy, but most decisions are not life-or-death ones. Where to go to college certainly isn’t. You won’t know that you’ve made a mistake until you show up on campus and realize it. Know that you can still alter your situation at that point. In fact, one of my Kenyon students felt the school was too small, transferred to another school for a year and realized it was too big, and then transferred back. Nothing is lost until it’s lost. But think critically about your experience wherever you end up. Whether you decide to stay or go, know that you’ve thought it through.
Remember: the best school out there—academically, athletically, socially, etc.—won’t necessarily be the best school for you. Think about who you are and whether you’ll fit well into everything a school has to offer. Do the research, visit campus, do an overnight stay. Collect all the data you can and make the most informed decision you can. Just don’t forget that some of that comes from your gut.
Hoi Ning Ngai is currently the Dean of Academic Advising and Support at Kenyon College. Having been in academic affairs and advising for over a decade, and worked at institutions of higher education across the United States, she is committed to helping students find and become the best version of themselves in college/university—and craft and tell their stories over time.