Picking the Right School For You

by Eliot Applestein

Special to The Washington Post

April 11, 2000


You've waited patiently for three months, the angst of the Jan. 1 deadline behind you. If you're like most students, you applied to five or more colleges and now the large acceptance envelopes are arriving. The good news--you're in. The bad news--you're burdened by choice. How do you make the final cut? How do you zero in on a college that fits you?

* What's the ambiance of the campus? Make the most of the college visit. Contact the admissions office and request a weekend stay. Be sure to bring a sleeping bag. This is one of the best ways to see if you will fit in.

Ben Takai, a senior a Watkins Mill High School who will be entering Bates College in Maine this fall, had a rude awakening when he visited one of his college choices in Connecticut on a Friday night. "Within 10 minutes of putting my bags down in the dorm, my host student began pouring hard liquor. Students were going room to room drinking. It was a coed dorm and the girls were drinking even more than the guys. In fact, people were drunk all over the campus." He dropped the school from his list.

Debbie Truman was offered a generous scholarship to Franklin Marshall College in Pennsylvania. But on her visit there, she didn't stay the whole weekend and, she says, failed to look more closely at the students. On her first day of classes, she realized she hadn't taken into account that most of the students at F M were more conservative than she. As a retro-'60s flower child, she didn't feel at home with this J. Crew crowd. Mid-year she transferred and now she is happily enrolled at Tulane.

* What do your friends say and where are they going? Ignore it. What's right for them may be a disaster for you. Neither should you base your decision on the fact that a friend has been admitted to the same school. College is about expanding your horizons, stretching your independence, and taking risks.

According to Nikki Woodhouse, a Thomas Jefferson senior who is looking at UVA, USC, George Mason, and Florida AM, "A lot of seniors from Thomas Jefferson apply to UVA. While being with high school friends would be fun, college is about reinventing yourself. Being with friends might prevent you from doing that."

* How much will the size of the college affect your experience? It's likely that your choices include both large and small colleges. Each has its pluses and minuses. At a large school, there are lots of opportunities. You'll find hundreds of clubs, multiple theaters with numerous audition possibilities, radio stations seeking DJs, etc. But you'll also find lots of other students vying for these same positions. It's sometimes quite a shock for an involved high school student to find out that there are no more available positions on the college newspaper or roles in an upcoming play.

*How much of a go-getter are you? If you are assertive, the large university may fit your bill for extra-curricular activities. Otherwise, the slower pace of a smaller school may better match your style.

At large universities, popular classes like psychology may have 200 to 500 students. In large classes, you will sit passively while the professor lectures. Ask yourself these questions: Are you the type of student who hangs in the back of the class and tends not to get involved? If you are in a large class and don't understand an assignment, will you seek clarification from the professor during her office hours? Is a personal relationship with a teacher important for you to learn? If you answer "yes" to the first two and "no" to the last, then you may do fine in this type of environment. But be honest. Would you allow yourself to slip through the cracks? In a class of 200, your professor will not even know if you are attending. You have to be self-motivated to make sure you follow through.

Sarah Robeson, a student at Carnegie Mellon, rejected Rutgers partly because of the size. "The fact that you had to take a bus to get between different parts of the campus was not very appealing. I was debating about majoring in biology and music. So while on the tour, I made note that the music/art school and the biology/nursing part of the school were about 15 minutes apart by bus. I didn't really feel that I could take classes in both subjects. I felt that I would be physically isolated into one college or area, and that is definitely not what I wanted. I wanted to be able to take classes in everything, meet all kinds of people, and not be hindered by the distance between buildings and other people. I would only get to meet people who were studying whatI was studying, and I wanted all kinds of friends."

At a small school, you will have greater opportunities for knowing your teachers, and in some cases greater opportunities to get involved in your professors' research. While course offerings will be less diverse, the sense of community at a small school can be very reassuring.

Khalid Hassan, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School, is being wooed by several schools, including an offer for four years free tuition and expenses at Washington University at St. Louis. When Khalid received an invitation to spend a weekend at Washington and Lee College in Virginia, he accepted because the letter was personally signed by the dean of admissions.

But he worried that being in a small, rural college would feel dead. What he found changed this misconception. "I really liked the landscape and the dean of admissions actually has a house on campus and he interacts with students on his porch. It felt really personal. There were also students playing outside and holding club meetings. All in all it was very homey and had a close-knit feeling."
Students may believe that there will be more to do at an urban school. While the hustle and bustle of a city can spice up the college experience, be aware that urban schools often feel less compelled to bring cultural events to the college since the city serves as the "playground." Rural schools may work harder at bringing in outside entertainment.

* How competitive is the school and how hard are you willing to work? One way to look at this is to decide whether you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. Some students do their best work when they are competing with other highly motivated students. However, if you are a good student and enroll in a less competitive school, you may shine in comparison to your classmates. At a more competitive school you may be middle of the pack. Being at a less competitive school doesn't mean you will get an inferior education. You need to know what motivates you.

Allison Parver, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High, finds competition a positive motivator. "When students aren't as academically strong as me, I feel that I can slack off and not really try. So I want to be at a college where the kids are at my level or better, so I'll have to push myself."

* How important is name recognition? A recent study by Alan Krueger of Princeton and Stacy Dale with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, found that students attending both selective and non-selective schools do well after graduation. The bottom line is that students at the Ivies and less well-known schools can achieve similar success if they are diligent during their college careers. So don't base your choice solely on whether your chosen school has regional or national name recognition.

As Nikki Woodhouse observes, "The education comes first. Name recognition is not important to me. I'm tired of all the hype. There are lots of good schools that cost less money. I'm looking for a program that fits my personal needs."

* How much will the Greek system influence the campus environment? Some students are well suited for joining a fraternity or sorority. These tend to be gregarious people who already have lots of acquaintances. The Greek system can also aid in creating a social life. Courtney Ullrich, a biology major at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., for example, notes, "I'm really a serious student and thought that by joining a sorority, I'd get more of a balance in my life--not spend so much time just on academics."

Other students, typically those who prefer one or two close friends, often find too strong a Greek system on campus cliquish.

So take a deep breath and tackle these important questions. The good news is that you can receive a satisfying experience at a number of different schools.