Figuring Out What You Want in a College

This article describes what to look for in a college to make sure that it will be a good match for you.
Table of contents

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Figuring Out What You Want in a College

After you spend some time thinking about your own likes and dislikes, you'll want to consider what it is that you want your ideal college to have. You might have heard your counselors talk about an ideal college profile--think of it as your college shopping list. You probably won't be able to find a college that has everything you want and you'll have to make some compromises. But having your preferences laid out will help you focus and save time. As you begin to research and visit schools, you can consult your ideal college profile and see how the various schools measure up.

The Academic Menu
Keep an open mind about the fact that your interests change fairly quickly at college. Those words were said to me more than a handful of times but I ignored them because I thought I knew everything. After four years I realized that I'd changed dramatically.

--Recent Grad

Based on your interests, what courses and majors do you want your college to have? If you love theater you'll definitely want to apply to colleges that offer a theater major and have a strong theater department. But remember that your interests might change and evolve, and your college needs to have enough majors and departments that interest you so that you can switch without having to transfer.

In addition to the types of courses you want to take, you should also consider how you want them to be taught. Think about how you learn best, how much individual attention and guidance you need, and how disciplined you are about studying. Some college classes are taught as lectures: They have a large number of students and the professor lectures while you listen and take notes. You're responsible for keeping up with the reading, and there is usually not a lot of interaction with the professor or with other students during class. Many introductory courses are taught in a lecture format.

Smaller, seminar-style classes have fewer students. In these classes, there is more interaction with the professor and more opportunity for you to contribute to discussions. You'll probably take some of each type of class while in college, but if you prefer smaller classes you'll need to apply to schools that offer a lot of them.

For me, being in a lecture class with 300 other students wasn't a good match. I really like discussions and wanted more interaction with the instructor and other students in the class.

--Recent Grad
Columbia University

Another thing to think about is whether you want to attend a school with a structured curriculum, or if you're a more independent spirit who needs freedom to design your own program. Most colleges have certain courses that you must take, usually called the core curriculum, but the requirements vary from school to school.

Another important academic aspect to consider is this intangible but ever-present thing called academic tone--how much of an emphasis is placed on academics, how challenging the coursework is, and how much is expected of you as a student. If you're the type of person who loves talking about ideas, studying, reading tons of dense material, and learning new things all the time, then you'll probably feel right at home in a college with a strong academic bent. If you were to attend a college where you weren't sufficiently challenged, you might end up feeling bored or uninspired. However, if you're the type of person who is more interested in things outside of academics, say sports or other extracurriculars, you might feel out of place in an academically competitive atmosphere.