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Selecting A College: How To Find One That Fits

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A Male and Female College Student Attend A Lecture With Other Students

When I was a college counselor in the Virgin Islands, I brought my students stateside to visit campuses. I thought it was a college tour. They showed me that it was also a shopping mall tour. In their honor, and for TeenLife, I offer a metaphor: selecting a college is going shopping in the biggest mall you’ve ever seen.

You need to be in the right store to find the right item at the right price, one that fits, wears well, and will be worth it in the future. The mistake some young people—and parents—make is wanting the brand name regardless of fit, price, and practicality. Those who want only the fall fashion, who will buy whatever’s in the window regardless of price, perhaps even before trying it on, are not being smart shoppers. Here are some ways to find the right college to buy.

Size Matters

You may want big—including big name—but is that size right for you? If S or M is your size, what are you doing trying on XXL? My school just graduated 65 seniors. Some will attend small colleges of 2,600 students, where the class they join will be 10 times the one they have just left. Some will attend universities of 26,000—100 times what they know. A few are enrolling in universities that have more than 50,000. 200 times. As in clothing, size matters. Know yours.

Is It The Right Garment By The Right Designer, Made To Wear Well?

If you need work clothes for a traditional setting, why are you looking at casual tops and jeans? What do you need for where you’re headed? Think of curriculum design as you might clothing design. Different designs suit different settings, and here are three designs to consider:

At one time I had 1,000 books in my office. The students who took time to look at them were ones for whom the liberal arts, Undecided, might be right. They are curious and love to learn. Are you one of those kids? Parents can worry about aimless intellectual life, but smart, engaged kids will, with guidance, figure out the right path. Such students thrive in smaller colleges with professors and advisors who focus solely on undergraduates. That’s one type of design.

Other students’ eyes glaze over at the sight of my bookshelves. They are best off choosing universities that are not as much about the adventure of the mind as about the practical application of knowledge. They are perfect for co-op programs, going back and forth between the classroom and the world of work, or at least strong internships through the career center, to answer a question some ask: “Why do I/when will I need to know this?” Another type.

In between these types are those considering medical, law or another professional school. They often have wide-ranging curiosity and high ability, but also are considering specific career paths. I urge them to do internships to be sure they are on the right path. Before you commit to even more education, be sure the career, and the curriculum to pursue it, is truly a fit for you.

Must It Fit Perfectly Right From The Start? Room To Grow? Can It Be Exchanged Or Altered?

Some people are only comfortable with an instant perfect fit. If you need to be the smartest kid in the class to feel good about yourself, be careful in your shopping for the right college. Those hyper-rejective, single-digit-acceptance-rate places can at times make even valedictorians feel dumb. Be honest with yourself about your tolerance for lower grades, as well as with your chances for grad school if you’re not a star in undergrad. Especially when you’re young, it can be right to buy some things with room to grow, to think a little bit farther down the line.

Also, some colleges make changing your mind and major or program easy. Others less so. Most students change majors, sometimes returning their original purchase for an alternative. It’s better if you can do that without transferring. Be sure you can exchange your purchase or tailor your garment as needed.

Is It Your Style?

Some people buy things because other kids think they’re cool. Is that right for you? When you’re not studying, do you want frat parties, sororities, and the chance to paint your face to attend sporting events with tens of thousands of fans? Or do you want to hike, bike, swim, surf, or ski? Or perhaps see films, visit museums, and have a range of dining options (assuming that you have the money to dine elsewhere than on campus)? Some campuses are all about the big game; others have kids who ask, “We have teams?” In person or online, find out what the students do when the adults aren’t around. Is that what you would want to do? Ask yourself: Are these my people?

Pay Retail? Use Your Credit Card? Look For A Deal And Pay Cash?

When I was in my own college search in 1975, a men’s clothing store ran a TV ad that concluded, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Shop for a deal, considering public options, including honors colleges, and merit scholarships, as well as need-based financial aid. Some purchases can be worth hitting your credit card, then paying the cost, with interest, over time—even decades when it comes to college. Instant gratification, but perhaps not smart.

When it comes to clothes shopping, we’re usually paying dozens, at most a few hundred dollars. When it comes to college shopping, someone’s paying tens of thousands a year, eventually even hundreds of thousands. Buy the right college at the right price. Don’t walk out of the mall having overpaid for something that doesn’t really fit because it has a label that will impress your friends and neighbors. They’re not wearing it—or paying for it. You are. On college, you might even save enough for a car, an apartment, grad school. So, shop wisely.