A Note on Selecting a College

To all high school seniors who are weighing college options:

With the release of Ivy League admissions on Thursday, the college selection process is drawing towards a close. By now, you have probably heard all of your college application results. Some of you have already selected a college to which you will be attending. But many of you are now looking at a stack of acceptance letters and are wondering, “which one should I choose?”

Before you begin, take a break. You have just undergone a long, tiring application process. Don’t let your emotions — good or bad — impel you to make an impulsive decision without consulting all of the factors for any given school. Take a few days off from the worries of your future. Read a book or hang out with friends. After clearing away the stress for a bit, go back to assess your options with an open mind.

Selecting a college to attend will be one of the biggest decisions of your life. Do not take it lightly. On the surface, you will be determining your field of study, institutional resources, and campus atmosphere for the next four years. Implicitly, your choice will impact the professional connections that you forge, your circle of friends, career paths, alumni relations, and quite possibly the person that you marry (at Princeton, we always joke about “marrying rich”). While your entire life will not be mapped out by your college choice, it will still have a lasting effect.

To make a decision, you should carefully weigh the aspects of finance, academics, resources, and culture.

The first thing that you should consider — and probably the most important — is finances. College debt horror stories dot newspaper headlines. Students have left college with $150,000 or more in debt. Let me say this: no school is worth going +$150,000 into debt. Not Harvard, Princeton, or any other university. This amount is equal to a mortgage. No one wants to have themselves tied to that at the beginning of their careers.

Your decision will be a bit trickier if there are some close calls. Take my possible situation as an example. Had I received the Robertson scholarship, I would have had to weigh free college at UNC against Princeton at cost. I probably would have picked UNC in that scenario. But that does not necessarily mean that it would have been the “right” choice for everyone. If I was a classics or politics major, then the benefits of attending Princeton would have outweighed the costs of it and passing up the Robertson scholarship. Only after careful analysis of the next few collegiate aspects will you be able to make such differentiations between two lucrative options.

Academics form the foundation of colleges. It’s why they exist. Some have better academic programs than others. There are multiple ways in which you can judge any particular program’s strength.

Begin by browsing through the list of offered courses. Look at the faculty members who are teaching them. Check to see if any of them are reputed scholars in their fields. A lack of famous professors does not necessarily mean that a school’s program is weak, but it can certainly help to have someone on the “cutting edge” of a field.

Also be sure to look at graduates’ career paths. Strong academic programs should be good at helping students find jobs in their field or move on to graduate school.

One last thing to take into account is the research opportunities that are provided to undergraduates. Even if you do not want to pursue a career in academia, research is important. It allows you to truly delve into a field and shows employers that you are capable of high level thought. In my opinion, student research opportunities are what distinguish great universities from good universities. World class students are drawn to the Ivy League because it offers the chance to work with renowned scholars in their field of expertise. Good research programs should definitely weigh heavily as you consider your options for higher education.

A college’s structure and resources are usually overlooked by prospective students, but they can be critical to the educational experience. First, consider a school’s various components. Most “universities” host an undergraduate and graduate school at the very minimum; a number will have professional schools (law, medical, dental, business, etc.) as well. It is imperative that you study how this affects undergraduate students. Universities with small graduate programs will give undergraduates much more attention and support than those with large graduate programs.

Think of it this way. A professor has a limited amount of time to divide their attention among various people, so he or she creates a mental hierarchy. Post doctoral researchers, Ph.D. candidates, and master’s students will be at the top and receive the most attention because their work is directly tied to the professor’s research. Next are upperclassmen. They may be crafting a thesis or senior project with the professor. A few could even be in his research group. Again, their needs will trump yours. You, the underclassman, fall at the bottom. While you will not be completely ignored, it may be difficult to interact with the professor both in and out of class as he or she balances competing interests.

I described this hierarchy to demonstrate why a university’s structure matters. This will impact the resources that are directed to you. A small liberal arts college (i.e. usually no graduate school) may be better choice over a large scale university because it emphasizes undergraduate education. That means the top part of the professor’s time hierarchy will be slashed so that they can devote more attention toward you.

On a side note, this is where I believe that Princeton distinguishes itself in the Ivy League. Although it is not as large as Harvard and Yale or have equal name recognition, it has the strongest undergraduate education program in the country. Everything truly is devoted to undergraduate students. There is a prestigious graduate school, but its effects on student life are negligible.

One final thing to consider is the campus culture. This will be difficult to judge until you visit the campus for a day or two. Try to talk to a current student. Read the student newspaper. Go to the welcome event for admitted students if one exists (e.g. Princeton Preview, Decision Day). Some places are high stress environments. Others are party schools. A few are very artistic or politically active. Again, you won’t know this unless you investigate the school beyond the campus tour.

In general, you should choose the school that best fits your interest. But you should weigh all of the costs against the benefits first. It is possible that you will have to decline a request from your dream school or a prestigious university due to financial reasons. That’s okay if it happens. You will be happy wherever you go. Even though this hackneyed phrase has been repeated countless times to incredulous high school students, it is true. I can confidently say that I would have been happy to go to the University of Delaware, UNC Chapel Hill, or any one of my other options regardless of whether Princeton had accepted me.

Ultimately, you have to make and own this decision. Run with it and never look back.

 

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