March is a month of validation for high school seniors. For many students, receiving a college acceptance letter represents the culmination of a year long grind of online research, standardized tests, and personal essays. But the college process doesn’t end here! Most students receive offers from more than one school of interest, and have to think critically about which one to attend in the fall.
If you’re in the position to pick from multiple schools, congratulations! Having choices is a great situation to find yourself in. You have over a month to submit your deposit to your school of choice, so you have plenty of time to research the pros and cons of each option. Here are some strategies to keep in mind when choosing between different colleges.
This is Your Decision
When it comes time for you to pick a school, many people will feel inclined to weigh in. Your mom may want you to go with one college because she read an article about how its alumni have high job placement rates. Your uncle may be pushing you towards another option because it’s his alma mater. And your friends may tell you to pick a different school because of its reputation. However, you shouldn’t feel pressured to make a choice based on anyone else’s opinion. The final decision should be yours, and yours alone.
In order to make the best choice for you, you should accept helpful advice, and filter out opinions that are extremely subjective or rooted in a narrow set of experiences. Helpful advice will provide you with resources to better inform your choice. For example, your friend may say: “I know you’re passionate about community service, have you checked out this program at School X?” In contrast, a less helpful comment might be: “All of the smartest people I know went to School X, so you should go there.”
Nowadays, many people fixate on college rankings. However, it’s important to understand that these methodologies rely on flawed metrics that don’t reflect students’ experiences during or after college. Instead of relying on an arbitrary number, ground your decision in research about the academic opportunities, extracurriculars, and campus cultures at different schools. Focusing on the objective qualities of colleges will help you determine where you best fit.
Study Academic Opportunities
You can find out a lot about a school’s academic offerings online. Use each college’s website as a resource, and ask yourself these questions as you compile your findings.
- Courses of Study: Look at each school’s academic program list. If you have a specific academic interest, will you be able to focus on this topic? Or if you’re undecided, does the school offer majors and minors that you’re interested in? If you have interdisciplinary interests, is there an option to create your own major?
- Course Requirements: Assess how structured the school’s curriculum is, and think about what makes sense for you. Does the school have an open curriculum, like Wesleyan, allowing students to explore whatever courses they want? Or does the school have a core set of classes that every student must take, like at Columbia? Are there some general education requirements with multiple ways to fulfill them?
- Special Programs: Are there any unique programs that cater towards your interests? For example, if you’re passionate about food systems, Duke Immerse offers coursework centered around “Food Policy” that culminates in an international travel experience.
- Study Abroad: If of interest, check to see what kinds of school sponsored programs are available, and whether there are resources on campus to help you identify the right opportunities.
Reaching out to professors can also give you an inside perspective on a school’s academic culture. For example, if you’re interested in conducting brain cancer research, you could email faculty at each college that specialize in clinical science. You might ask them if they take on undergraduate assistants or provide funding for student projects. Having these sorts of conversations will give you a nuanced perspective on the opportunities available to pursue your interests at each school.
Explore Opportunities Outside of the Classroom
At college, you won’t just be spending time in the classroom; you’ll participate in clubs and explore internship and career opportunities. To inform your decision, look at each school’s website and reflect on the following:
- Student Organizations: Are you interested in pursuing debate at the collegiate level? Have you always wanted to try out for an a capella group? Exploring the student organizations at a college will give you a better sense of where you could get involved on campus. Most colleges have a “club list” online that prospective students can look at.
- Career Services: In addition to providing you with a strong academic foundation, college prepares you for a career after graduation. Look at the career resources available at each school you consider. Does the school have dedicated advisors for helping you write a resume and find internships? Are there on campus opportunities to connect with employers in industries that interest you? Does it have a strong alumni base to reach out to for advice and networking?
Get a Feel for Campus Life
When picking a college, you’re choosing where you want to live, eat, and socialize for the next four years. Each school has a different culture, and you can research aspects of campus life to get a sense of what it would be like to be a student there.
- Student Housing: Think about what kind of housing arrangements you prefer, and explore the offerings at each school. Do most students live in campus dorms, or is off campus housing the norm? Do all first year students live together, or are housing accommodations mixed by year?
- Social Life: What is social life like at each of your choices? Do the schools offer Greek Life or other organized groups, or is social life more decentralized? What do students do for fun on the weekends?
- Campus Events: What events happen on campus? Are there concerts? Speakers? Social events planned by student organizations? Can you see yourself attending these events?
- Sports: Do you want to attend a school that has a strong sports culture like UNC - Chapel Hill (basketball), or Clemson (football)? Or would you prefer a school that has non athletic traditions like Swarthmore’s Pterodactyl Hunt or Cornell’s Dragon Day.
Speaking with current students or young alumni can provide unique insight on campus life. Only someone who has attended a college can tell you about the student meal plan, and the best places to check out within a ten mile radius of campus.
Visit Different Colleges
Visiting a college gives you a feel for a day in the life on campus. Many schools organize admitted student weekends that provide you with an opportunity to attend classes, try the food at the dining hall, and stay in the dorms overnight. If you’re able to visit your top choices after you’ve been accepted, we highly recommend doing so.
If you’re not able to visit colleges due to monetary or logistical constraints (for example, a global pandemic), try to get in touch with current students or young alumni and ask them about their experiences.
Compare Financial Aid Packages
If financial aid is a factor in your decision, compare the packages you receive from each of your top choices. However, if you find yourself leaning towards a college that has offered you a less competitive package, know that you can appeal the amount with the school’s financial aid office. For more information on how to negotiate a financial aid package, set up an appointment with a Bullseye advisor.
Trust Your Instincts
After you’ve compared your options, there may be a school you’re gravitating towards just because it feels right. Maybe a conversation with a young alum exposed you to a campus opportunity to secure funding to launch a nonprofit, which has always been a goal of yours. Or perhaps you can just envision yourself walking across the main quad to grab a smoothie in between lectures. Though you shouldn’t make an impulsive decision, in many cases, your intuition will guide you towards the right choice. Don’t second guess your instincts after you’ve done all of your research. Trust your gut feeling.
This informational essay was written by Anya Ranganathan, Duke Class of 2017. If you want to get help writing your Duke application essays from Anya or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, click here to schedule a free call.