“So where are you going?” “What will you major in?” What are you thinking for a career?”
If these questions haven’t blessed your ears like a broken record yet, they soon will! I remember my last years of high school, when it seemed like everyone was so impatient for me to just hurry up and make a decision. Over and over, I had to remind myself that it was nobody’s decision but mine, and I had to choose thoughtfully and take my time exploring my options.
Narrowing down your college choice is more than just about finding a school that has the program, size, or location that suits your interests. While these factors are important, one of the biggest mistakes students make in their college decisions is prioritizing these details over some of the intangible qualities that can make or break a 4-year experience.
In the age of COVID, you have limited opportunities to thoroughly vet college campuses to see if they will work for you. However, you may have begun exploring websites. From my personal experience, though, looking online at colleges when you’re already unsure of your future career can be overwhelming. If you’re working on making your college decision, here are some questions you can use while browsing college websites to help guide your search.
1. Do my values align with the college’s?
The first step in exploring this question is first determining your personal guiding principles. What is your purpose in going to college? Is it to make money? To provide for your future family? To pursue a passion? To give something back to the world?
Once you determine what’s most important to you, you need to find which colleges can get you there. Go to a college’s website and search for terms like “mission statement”, “motto”, “values”, or “creed”. If you see similar keywords between your mission and theirs, you might consider delving deeper into the website. Look at outcomes for former students. Read alumni profiles. Do these students seem relatable to you? If, however, you see something off-putting to you, which causes you to think you might have to compromise your own personal standards in order to enroll there, it’s probably not where you want to go.
2. What opportunities might I have to voice my opinion and/or make connections with other students?
“Fitting in” is a concern of every student. In college, though, the focus should not be on acceptance as much as it is on finding your people. You want to make sure that you will have opportunities to be part of social gatherings for people with interests similar to yours. For example, are you part of NHS and you enjoy volunteering and community service? If so, you might look into available campus organizations such as service fraternities/ sororities. If you’re passionate about your faith and want to participate in faith-based programs like focus groups or Bible studies, you’ll want to make sure those communities exist on your future college campus. On the other hand, if these things are not at all interesting to you, but you see them all over the website, you might reconsider your personal fit at that college.
3. In general, do I vibe with the campus culture?
This question is fairly vague, especially considering that every incoming student brings his or her own background and personality. It can be challenging to gauge a campus’s culture, but there are ways to explore this. On the college website, browse for photographs that resonate with you. If you’re a social person, you’ll want to look for pictures or videos of students informally gathering on campus. If you’re into music and the arts, look for pictures of students at open mic nights, gallery showings, or theatrical performances. If you’re more of an introvert who appreciates a quiet space, look for photos of study settings around campus that would allow you distance from other students. Are you athletic and looking for opportunities to engage your competitive side? Seek out proof of students participating in intramural activities.
Another way to explore the culture of a school is to look for key words on the college website as well as how they are organized. Something as simple as a font can tell you a lot about a campus vibe, and professionals on campuses are very picky about specific words and layouts they use to present their brands. Here is where that inferential thinking can pay off big time! A college website that repeats words like “home” and “community” is most likely presenting a residential campus with a focus on social relationships. Another college might use words such as “opportunity” and “preparedness” is most likely communicating academic programs which might include research opportunities or internships. It’s all about how you synthesize this information and evaluate how it aligns with your interests and needs.
First impressions are very important. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to physically visit a college campus, you can still get a feel for whether a campus will fit your needs, and it can oftentimes come down to a gut feeling or an excitement you might experience. You’re a complicated, intelligent person who needs a college that can foster your spirit, and an in-depth exploration of an institution’s website can help you do just that.
And for those of you getting grilled about your future plans, you can say you’re still not sure. Your future is precious, and it’s okay to take your time.