Applying to College? Ask These Questions to Increase Your Chances of an Optimal Experience: Part One of Four.

Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash

Where you apply — and go — to college can literally shape the rest of your life.

Apply to the wrong colleges and you’ll waste lots of time, money, and emotional energy. You’ll also make “contributions” to campuses that won’t benefit you. Apply to the right colleges and you’ll have a lot of great options to choose from when those acceptances start rolling in.

Having worked with hundreds of students over the years, I know there are many questions you should ask either yourself or others when you are deciding which colleges should get your time, energy and application fees. The answers to these questions can affect your chances of getting admitted, and also how likely you are to succeed once you’re on campus.

These questions are the first of four sets (totaling 21 altogether) I have learned you should be thinking about. I will post six tomorrow, six the next day and the last six the day after.

College search consultants like me can help you answer some of these questions but ultimately your knowledge of who you are and what you want from your college experience will guide you — and anyone who helps you — in the decision-making process.

These introductory questions focus on whether college is the right plan for you. They also consider whether your planned area of focus is best served by attending college in the first place. This is important because it is an unfortunate truth that in some cases attending college may actually put you in a worse position later in life than you would be in if you focus your time and energy on acquiring skills that will serve you best in other venues.

The next set of questions focuses on what might be called “environmental” factors on and around campus that can impact your experience and yes, Covid-19, and for that matter, other diseases, is still one of those factors you need to be aware of. The third set of questions considers the resources available to you on the campuses you’re applying to. The final set of questions considers what you can learn about how going to various campuses and following different programs of study can shape your return on investment after you graduate.

1. Why are you applying to college? While this question sounds a little philosophical, the answer can really shape the types of campuses you want to apply to, and even say whether now is the right time for you to apply. After all, barely half of college students finish in four years and more than a million drop out every year, so being sure college is the right thing for you is very important. It is also the case that if you drop out, you are, per Mark Kantrowitz, 100X likelier to default on your college debt than you will be if you complete your degree.

If you’re applying because you need your college education to provide immediate return on your investment, the majors and campuses that may fit you best may prove to be very different than those to which someone who is fairly sure they will be going on to further training would be best served by. This will also be the case for the classes you take once in college.

Think these things through carefully, and be sure that college is your best option given your personal circumstances, expectations, and readiness to take on several years more academic work after graduating from high school.

2. Given your interests, is college the right thing for you at all?

An odd thing for a college search consultant to ask but we are learning many students really shouldn’t go to college. Or, of equal importance, they are taking majors that will leave them with enormous debt and little chance of earning what they need to live comfortably while paying their degrees off.

These students are, per a wide variety of data, taking a surprisingly wide variety of majors.

So, do your own research, and ask tough questions of people advising you to go to college about whether your particular dreams are best facilitated by getting a degree and taking on the potentially significant debt you may have to accept in order to get it.

In very brief terms, you want to know if your investment in going to college will be met with returns that justify your spending at least four years and many thousand dollars on going there or are there other paths that may lead to your dreams that will allow you to get there at a far lower cost to you. Sometimes there won’t be another way other than to complete a degree. In these cases, do your best to economize in both time and money while you work your way through to your qualification.

3. Once you’ve decided college is indeed right for you, we need to ask: Are you getting good advice on where to apply?

Unfortunately, I’ve found that in the high school environment, students are often encouraged to apply to schools that aren’t best for them. Rather they are encouraged to apply to schools that look good for the school if the student is fortunate enough to get in. Often, what is best for the student, and what looks best for the school is quite different. This happens in schools of all kinds where the administration wants to raise its number of students accepted to selective, and highly selective, campuses to satisfy status conscious parents (and tax/tuition payers).

Get some outside advice if you can, whether through someone like me, programs like QuestBridge (if you qualify) or others as may be appropriate in your circumstances.

Our answers may be very different from your counselors and, for that matter, than your parents. They should be part of your process for deciding where to apply, just as the answers to the three following sets of questions that focus on the campus environment, campus resources, and outcomes for students who go there that are linked here should be.

In short, before you even draw up a list of campuses to apply to, think hard on why you’re going to college, what you want out of it, and whether your life plan might be better served by *not* going to college at all. Once you’ve figured these things out and gotten some advice on these questions from diverse sources, you can turn to thinking about the environment on the campuses you are considering applying to and how they may shape your time there and beyond.

See the Educational Search Consulting page on my website to learn about my work in this area and schedule personalized support in your application process. I also have rapidly growing sets of hundreds of pointers to material by a wide variety of authors in my Resources for Students Applying to College and collection of links to information on Covid-19 And The College Scene which, for now, there is no cost to access.

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Matthew Weed

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.