6 Factors to Help Choose the Right University

The passage to college is a sacred tradition passed down through generations of young adults, and maybe one that you’ll soon witness first-hand. It’s marked by curiosity, freedom, and inevitably, a dose of angst. If you’ve decided to pursue college, then you’ll want to prepare yourself by choosing the right school for you. Don’t choose the right school for your friends or parents, but rather for yourself. Your future self will thank you.

The following is a list, in no particular order, of the most important factors to consider when picking out a university. You might get overwhelmed with that pile of university brochures sitting on your desk, but with some deep thought and research, you’ll soon be able to find that diamond-in-the-rough that will shape your next four years and the rest of your life.

As you’ll begin to see, each factor is deeply intertwined with all the others.  A shift in one can change the whole picture, so don’t analyze any of these factors in isolation.  

Cost

More so than any other consideration, tuition costs can be a quantifiable barrier to attending a school. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year was about $33,480 at private colleges, $9,650 for state residents at public colleges, and $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. That marks a wide range, with Ivy league and other expensive schools topping over $50-60k. After four years, the total tuition difference between schools could be as much as $150k or more.

To put that into a long-term perspective, the average college graduate in 2017 has $37,172 in debt, which is up 6% from last year. And the tuition that you’ll be paying is likely higher, because the average per-year increase hovers between 2-4%.

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 6.18.39 AM

These high costs may deter you from entering college completely, but they do offer new experiences, connections, and other aspects discussed later. In any case, you should at least speak with your parents to determine your financial options. If you qualify, you may be able to receive need-based or merit-based scholarships.

Ranking

A school’s ranking, especially on US News & World Report, is an indicator of the strength of the faculty, student retention rate, undergraduate academic reputation, and other variables that are applied to a comparison calculation. These rankings are by no means definitive, and don’t always provide an accurate judgment of the school’s education. However, they are useful as a basic reference, and the specific school rankings (such as the School of Engineering or Medicine) can be a better estimator of the education quality than overall ranking.

If you’re a competitive high-schooler, then choosing a school based on its prestige is likely on your mind. This pertains especially to Ivy League institutions, which are well-known for their extensive history and successful graduate pool. Prestige is by no means a bad factor to consider, but it may cloud your judgment. For example, if you are sure about studying engineering and want a world-class education, Ivy Leagues may not be the best option. They specialize far more in the pure sciences and humanities, and don’t offer as many project-team or engineering-workshop opportunities. We’ll dive more into choosing schools for specific majors in the next section.

Major

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 80% of college students change their major at least once. This isn’t surprising, since you are only 18 or so when entering, and don’t know a lot about yourself or the scope of the career options available to you at that age. The reason that a major is important when choosing a school is because, as mentioned, certain schools have specialties that outweigh their lacking in rank. But the trade-off is that the school may not offer other options of study if you reconsider. Consequently, it’s in your best interest to have an idea of the top 3 majors or subject-matters that appeal to you, and proceed from there.

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 6.18.53 AM

When contemplating a major, keep in mind that you do know some of your academic inclinations from your childhood and high school years, which can point you in the right direction. Most importantly, consider the job opportunities for that major, or related ones, that would be available when graduating. For example, a biology degree is valuable when on a pre-medical route, but less versatile than a computer science or business degree in case you change career plans.

Choosing a major, and even a career, can be discussed at length for hours. So I won’t get into it here. But I will say this: a college major does not pigeonhole you into a specific career path. It’s merely your general focus of study for a small period of your life. You’re always free to change it, and can always teach yourself new skills through extracurriculars or on your own.

Location

A school’s location will affect your ability to stay close to familiar people, tuition costs, climate, and social life. For example, a school that’s closer to home might speak to your desire to be close to family and high school friends, as well as save on tuition. One that’s farther away could mean that you just want a 180-degree shift in environment.

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 6.19.03 AM

Whatever the case, you might find it difficult to move away from home, and even more so to make a decision about where you’re going to stay for four years. Just keep in mind that the move is temporary; you’ll likely be able to visit home periodically, and you’ll mature from the experience either way.

Social Life & Extracurriculars

Even if you’re not into the partying lifestyle, a school’s social life will impact the people you meet and how you spend your free time. It will probably play just as much of a role in your development and enjoyment of college as your major. So it’s worth thinking about. To get an idea of a school’s social life, you can usually do a quick Google search, or consult websites like this one: https://colleges.niche.com/rankings/best-student-life/. Niche rank schools across the globe based on student life and other factors. Another way to research this topic is to consider the location of the school, which we’ll also get into later. For instance, a rural or suburban location changes the students’ interactions with each other and might lead to a more cohesive student body than a city location.

Extracurriculars are key when expanding your skill-set beyond your major, and can be valuable in generating a portfolio of projects. A strong project background is becoming increasingly more important for career recruiting, and can even be more important than the GPA you achieve. This is especially true for engineering and computer science majors. By researching the school’s team project opportunities, hospitals nearby for research, or local connections with businesses, you can get a better idea of what to explore outside of school.

Admissions Criteria

While searching for schools and converging upon your top choices, you should keep in mind the school’s selectiveness and the required application materials.

The school’s selectiveness plays a role in determining if you can make the cut or not. Getting rejected from a school isn’t as big of a deal as many of your peers may make it out to be, but it is a big deal when you don’t have other options. As a result, having a back-up school that you would be happy attending is useful for maintaining your sanity during the decision process.  

All schools accept both the ACT and SAT, but some might require Subject Tests as well. You should research the scores you need for certain schools, or the test dates that you can take them. The website you’re on now provides ample knowledge and resources on these tests, so I won’t get into it in this article.

For your easy perusal, the following is a quick summary of each aforementioned factor:

  • Cost: Be aware of your current financial situation and the predicted payoff of a certain major
  • Ranking: While national rankings definitely matter, don’t get overly caught up in small differences in positions; also look for rankings of specific programs within universities if possible
  • Major: No matter what, do two things: QUESTION YOURSELF & RESEARCH; research the opportunities available for that field, and then select a major for both subject-matter interest and realistic career opportunities
  • Location: Be mindful of a location's strong impact on a school's social environment
  • Social Life & Extracurriculars: This will play just as much of a role in your development as the education
  • Admissions: Know what tests are required, and the likelihood of getting into the school; have backup options