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Two Steps to Narrowing Down Your College Search

How does one begin a college search? Nowadays I often encounter high school students as young as sophomores who are starting to think about where they might go to college. Many of them—and many of their parents—want advice about how to wade into the ocean of information about colleges and universities that is already inundating them, and rises with each passing season. The widespread belief that more information and more transparent data will help students and parents make more informed choices has foundered on the reef of overchoice—the cognitive state of paralysis that occurs when one is faced with too many options.

First there are the many different college rankings, all using different methodologies and different data to arrive at different rankings. Then there is the government’s “College Scorecard,” which seems to use less than reliable data and an extremely simplistic notion of cost/benefit to cobble together some statistics that might somehow be helpful—although how is beyond me. And then the thousands of books, counselors, public speakers, consultants—is there any way to look at this other than as a case of TMI, too much information?

And is it any wonder that so many are looking for a way to cut through all this?

The first piece of advice I usually give strikes many people as strange: Ignore the stated tuition price. Why? Because colleges and universities have found so many ways to make their education affordable to all that the advertised tuition price may have very little relation to what a particular student actually ends up paying. I would lay that concern aside entirely at the beginning of a college search.

I usually tell people that “fit” is far more important than all this data and verbiage. Fit is the compatibility between the character of a college community and a student’s interests, social inclinations, and personality. This is important because if the fit isn’t right, students will not be able to make the most of their college experience. Struggling with an inhospitable environment inevitably expends energy that should be used for learning and personal growth. If the fit isn’t right, students may make it through to graduation, but it will be a matter of surviving rather than thriving.

And the question of fit applies from the colleges’ side as well. A college that sees it is a good fit for a student who is seriously intent on attending will very likely go to great lengths to make itself affordable to that student. When you get to the stage of receiving offers, cost will be a very important factor in your decision. But a good education is priceless, and economic considerations alone should not drive such an important decision. First let your imagination suggest what is ideal and what is possible for you. Then get down to the practical questions, which—more often than not—have a way of resolving themselves when you know what you want from a college.

So how do you decide about which colleges are a fit for you? It boils down to only two activities.

1. Research

Ask people you already trust for suggestions about colleges they recommend—teachers, guidance counselors, friends. Make a list. Then go online and look up the schools’ websites. Try to find out things that matter to you about each school—the size of the student body (large, medium, or small?), the campus setting (urban, suburban, or rural?), the part of the country (do you like the colonial atmosphere of the Northeast, or the wide open spaces of the Southwest?), the educational focus (do you prefer an atmosphere of intense studiousness, or a more social ambiance?), the programs of study (do you want a strong liberal and general education, or intensely specialized training, or something in between?), and so on.

Make comparisons, lists of pros and cons, and boil down the list to about five top choices.

2. Visit

If you can, visit your top choices. All colleges have programs for visitors. They will be more than happy to welcome you and help answer your questions. Try to talk with some teachers and students about their experiences. Try to sit in on some classes that interest you. Tour the campus. The poSt. John's students walking on campusint is to get a feel for what it will be like to spend a lot of time living in the campus environment.

This is not an entirely rational exercise. Sometimes—especially if the fit is really poor—the decision can be instantaneous. I remember going with one of my sons to a meeting with an admissions officer at one of the colleges on his list. When we pulled onto the campus, which was beautiful but quiet, sleepy, and somewhat out-of-the-way, my son said immediately, “Dad, let’s go home. I’m not going here.” When I insisted that he was obligated at least to attend the pre-arranged interview, he replied, “All right. But as soon as it’s over, let’s get out of here. There’s no way I’m going to school here.”

But even if your response is not instantaneous, a few hours spent on campus can impress you with a feeling that you can compare to the feelings you get from being on other campuses. And sometimes it is precisely this feeling that can tip the balance in favor of one school over the others on your list.

Of course, going on an extended “college tour” is not within the means of every family. If you are not able to make such trips, then try to visit similar schools in your local area. From this experience, you can tell how you respond to a large school versus a small school, a liberal arts college versus a university, a school with an intense academic character versus a school with an intense social character.

Then contact the admissions offices at your top schools and ask whether they can put you in touch with some teachers and students who wouldn’t mind talking to you on Skype or FaceTime about their experiences. Use your imagination to try to link up the feel of the schools in your area with the impressions you get from these interviews. It’s not quite the same as visiting a campus personally, but it’s a good alternative when that isn’t possible.

By researching and visiting (either personally or virtually), you can get a pretty good idea of whether a college is a good fit. Once you know that, then you can wade into the data looking for whatever is most important to you, because your decision about fit will probably narrow down the relevant information to a manageable size.

Overchoice overthrown!