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

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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 three sets (totaling nineteen altogether) I have learned you should be thinking about. I will post six more on Sunday and the last six on Tuesday.

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.

After two introductory questions, one focused purely on the pandemic’s impact on campuses you’re considering, this set of questions focuses on what might be called “environmental” factors on and around campus that can impact your experience.

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. 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, 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.

Once you’ve answered question one, and started drawing up a list, your next question should be: How have the colleges you’re considering done with respect to the pandemic? A hint: Most large universities, whether public or private, have done relatively poorly. As of this writing in mid-November 2020, smaller schools, if they’ve let students on campus, have done relatively well. This is not comprehensively true but, so long as “relative” is understood to be the key word here, this is a relatively safe rule of thumb to follow all the same.

This rule of thumb is important because the future is inherently unclear. Despite hopeful indicators to the contrary, policy makers cannot be certain the vaccines that are soon to become available will reach college student populations by fall of 2021. Although reports say the vaccines we expect to be FDA approved soon may be available to the general population by next Spring, it cannot be said for *sure* that young, healthy people will get them then, given the known limits on how many doses can be produced and then put in the arms of populations who, it will be argued in many communities, need it more than most college students do. Furthermore, the vast majority of people will need to choose to take whatever vaccines are available if colleges are to reopen normally.

It is also important to be aware of the fact that some schools and states require college students to get the flu shot and/or the Measles Mumps and Rubella vaccine. It is more than possible they will do something similar with vaccines for Covid-19 if one is available to you by the fall of 2021. Your views on vaccines may, therefore, impact your thinking about where to go to school if you are choosing among several options in different states.

3. Once you’ve answered Questions 1 and 2, we then get to the next questions. First of these is: are the campuses you plan to apply to in cities/towns/communities in which you will feel comfortable? This is important because even if you live on campus all four years, you will probably interact with the community around you. If you’re in a place that isn’t comfortable for you for whatever reason, it will be much harder to make full use of not only the resources your college has available to you but also those in the community around you.

Failing to take advantage of as many resources as possible can close doors leading to achievement and personal fulfillment you might otherwise walk through, and yes, Covid-19 will impact this as well.

Some communities and colleges will share nasty outbreaks this year and, in spite of increasing vaccination rates, might do so again next. Some, mostly in the Northeast as of this writing, will have done relatively well at managing through the outbreak but many pairings will have done very badly. Either outcome may affect town-gown relationships for some time to come.

4. Do you know enough about the weather and do you think you can handle it? This is relevant because many students who apply to colleges and universities in New England or the upper mid-west of the US are utterly unprepared for winters there. If you’ve never seen snow before, or if you get it once or twice a year, you need to be ready for a radically different climate. Some people find the winters in Boston or New York hard to deal with. Those who attend college in upstate New York, in upper New England, or in America’s upper Mid-West can become depressed due to the long, very cold, gray winter seasons. Alcoholism, drug abuse and suicides are not uncommon at many schools. In my experience, there are many on-campus factors that can add to these problems whatever the weather outside may be. Fortunately, there are many services at all colleges to help you with your transition and the stress of being there. We’ll briefly consider some of the services colleges have to help students over the next few days.

That said, environmental factors like weather that the campus really can’t control may be significant contributors to these problems. For this reason, do your best to do careful research through friends or peers who have made moves like that which you would make if you do apply and are accepted to, a school where you’ll be dealing with weather you’ve never encountered before. If people like this aren’t available, there are plenty of online tools like the totally free forecast.weather.gov to help you research the weather in the communities where the campuses you’re thinking about are located.

5. How hard is it to get to and from campus? You want to know this for two major reasons. If you live far away, going home for long weekends or full vacations (difficult and expensive enough as it is) may be very hard if the campus you’re looking at is far from a major airport. Even if one is nearby it is important to remember that long-range travel may still be complicated by Covid-19 as well. It may also be the case that travel will cost more during the early phases of the recovery as business travelers, who support many airline’s prices for the rest of us, may well not be doing much traveling for some time even after people have access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Factors like the complexity and cost of travel can be particularly important if the school does not let students stay in the dorms over Winter Break or at other times during the academic year. Asking these questions can reduce your stress later if you’re prepared or if you simply choose not to apply to schools whose locations, schedules, and dorm policies make vacation times relatively stressful.

6. Are the students like you to at least some degree? This question is important because if you’re studying where people have radically different values, views and priorities than you, it can be difficult to make friends and connections that can help you succeed at college — and later, too. In some cases, the sense of isolation (homesickness) many first year students feel as a normal reaction to leaving home can be exacerbated if you’re in a place where few people share your interests, values or life experience.

7. Are there extracurricular activities available for people like you? Students have an incredible range of interests and needs. You may be most comfortable with others who share life experiences and perspectives based, for example, in culture or religion with you. You may also want to be around people whose thoughts on science, service, the arts, foreign language etc., are like yours. Any campus you’re considering should have lists of student organizations like service clubs or theater groups and community organizations (like churches or local service opportunities) where you’ll have an easy start in connecting with people you’ll be happy spending time around. This information should be available online.

Databases of student organizations on the campuses you’re interested in can also help you find opportunities to learn, grow and interact with people you would never have met before. This is a huge, and highly valued, part of the college experience for many people, particularly as they get older and join a workforce where being able to interact with diverse people is increasingly important to employers and graduate programs alike.

IN SUMMARY, as you consider colleges, there are a lot of factors that can and should shape your choices. Your personal educational goals need to match the campuses you’re applying to. If they do, your chance to be admitted to colleges you apply to should go up sharply. Your odds of having a great college experience should also improve.

Given the amount you’ll invest in your education, getting answers to these questions and those in parts two and three, is very important. Schools are different. The answers you get to these questions will vary widely and affect how you think on each and every campus you’re investigating. Parts two and three of this set of questions to ask yourself as you decide on colleges to apply to — and ultimately which school you will attend — will go up soon. Other essays on relevant topics like writing a strong personal statement are coming soon.

See Dr. Matthew Weed’s website at www.drmatthewweed.com to learn about him and schedule personalized attention if you are interested in that. He also posts potentially useful material @drmatthewweed on Instagram and Twitter.

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