Last week, my family and I made a trip to the Midwest to look at some colleges. While there, not only was I overwhelmed with information about each school’s curriculum and campus life, but I also learned something that no tour guide could tell me (or would certainly ever admit to, even under direct questioning): No school is perfect.
That sounds like simple, intuitive advice. But the clouds that swirl around you and this “selection” process are thick. First of all, what do you want to do with your life? Second, even if you knew that much, how can anyone possibly figure out if an institution can help you achieve that by strolling through manicured campuses, watching well-crafted slide shows and being led on tours by the bubbliest-of-the-bubbly student ambassadors who have perfected the art of talking while walking backwards?
It’s also very hard to ignore the opinions of family, friends and the media when it comes to colleges. Maybe you have family legacy, or your friend goes to a school you’re considering or Edward Fiske (founder and editor of The Fiske Guide to Colleges — a pretty good tool!) put it at the top of his list, but that doesn’t mean that the school everyone speaks so highly of is the best place for you to pursue your interests. It’s always good to make a list of non-negotiable factors when visiting schools — something that proved very helpful during my visits.
I chose to focus on a small number of characteristics that the school I will attend must have. Some of mine include a safe campus atmosphere, internship and study abroad opportunities, a strong alumni network and preparation for graduate school admissions — because these things are important to me. Knowing the intangible things that a prospective college must possess makes it easier not to be distracted by tangible things such as a Hogwarts-looking dining hall and a state-of-the-art student gym.
Nevertheless, impressive campus facilities are important to me as well. It is very difficult, however, to distinguish the difference between these things among universities. Every school will claim that they have the best spirit, residence halls, meal plans and traditions. It becomes tough to make a choice based on things so close to the surface ... these things will be very similar no matter which school you choose to attend. That is why you must dig deeper — ask questions about the really important stuff to you, talk to current students, meet with professors of your area of interest, grill alumni on how big of an influence the school has had on them now that they are out in the “real world.” Listening very carefully to their answers is the key. An example of this: I wanted to know what weather was like and how it impacted student life throughout the school year. The answer I heard from a student was “My friends and I love playing hockey and going ice skating when we have time in our schedules; and luckily, every building has heating.” Translated: “It gets really, really cold here and therefore we do a lot of indoor activities.” That’s important info to consider.
The more colleges you visit, the more differences you will begin to see. But even more so, you will begin to see the similarities — why else would it be so hard to choose just one? Through visits and lots of research, I learned that my goal in this whole college-searching process is not to find the perfect college but rather to find the college that is perfect for me.
Mari Andreatta is a junior at Notre Dame High School in Belmont. Student News appears in the weekend edition. You can email Student News at firstname.lastname@example.org.