Saturday, July 27, 2013

How do I pick the right college? The top 5 things you need to know

Since I covered exploring graduate programs in my previous post I thought I should now focus on what you should take into  account when choosing the right college. There are obviously many things you should know before you embark on this adventure and I suggest talking to your academic advisor about it first. Here is an overview of the top 5 things I think you should pay attention to when you explore colleges:

1. Academics
Whether you already have a potential major in mind or you want to spend the first year shopping around you should already know what kind of courses interest you in general. Explore the curriculum of schools that look interesting and check out rankings to see what programs would best suit your fancy. If the courses offered excite you and you feel that they challenge you intellectually and could lead to a career one day, put that college on your shortlist.

A word of advice here: college is the time and place to experiment, even when it comes to courses, but please don't forget how much this whole thing is costing your parents and that you will probably spend a good decade repaying pricey loans. Taking an interesting yet useless course here and there is fine but please don't make a habit of doing this, and four years later you get stuck with a BA in Art History and $150,000 in debt. I mean, if you are really in love with art history, are ready to do a Ph.D. in it, and this is what you always wanted to do in life - go right ahead! But if you have even a trace of doubt about whether you want to work in a museum or teach at a university you'd better sign up for some econ 101. That never hurt anyone's job prospects.

college, academics, career center, financial aid, scholarship
Pepperdine University

 2. Cost of school and financial aid available

Harvard does sound great but can you pay for it? Basically, what you need to pay attention to are two things: the cost of school and how much you can save through financial aid. Check out the school's website and see how much it costs to attend and then see if you qualify to receive some sort of discount.

 And if you're good at sports, use this to your advantage. I know plenty of people who got out of paying for college by getting a sports scholarship. You don't have to be the next Michael Jordan to play basketball in a division II team and there are lots of good schools out there that would be lucky to have you. I know this option is not available to most people but if there is any chance you could get even a small scholarship out of this, it is worth the time you spend researching school programs.

Also, if you are an international student, know that colleges like to be able to say that they have students from X number of countries. It makes them look better when they try to attract students and it may be your ticket in, especially if you're from a small country (if you're Chinese, the chances are there are many of your compatriots there already - one more or less doesn't mean that much to them).  You can also try to find scholarships available only to international students.

3. Internship opportunities

Is your future employer going to care where you went to school? Yes, but mostly when you apply for that first job out of school. Is the company going to care about your grades? Probably not. Do they think work experience is a must before getting a job there? You can bet everything you have (or owe) that the answer is YES. So where do you get this experience?

The answer is quite simple and it assumes you don't mind working for free. You know, that's when they ask you about the meaning of life in the interview and then you realize on your first day that you'll spend most of your time doing photocopies and retyping stuff. But hey, if you choose wisely and have a bit of luck maybe somewhere in between running errands for staff members you'll get to do something that will help you decide what you (don't) want to do once you graduate. Whatever it is, choose the school that will give you the opportunity to do internships, even if they don't immediately land you a full time job. Most of the time it's great hands-on experience and you literally can't get a job without it. Here is a nice inside scoop on what it's like to intern at some publications.

college, academics, career center, financial aid, scholarship
Texas Legislative Internship Program: Class of 2013
By Texas Senate Media Services [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4. Career Center

You might want to check right away if the school has a good career center. This information shouldn't be too hard to find if you ask alumni about their experiences and how much help they received when they were looking for a job. See if they offer mock interview sessions, organize job fairs (and who the employers are), resume workshops, offer statistics on where their graduates find jobs and what their average income is, etc.

Another thing that is very important is the alumni network. You want to know if the school keeps in touch with its former students, if they are available for informational interviews and if they attend panels on how to find jobs in their industry. This can be of great help, there are companies out there with a lot of people from a handful of schools and this is no accident!

college, academics, career center, financial aid, scholarship
Alumni House, College of William and Mary
By Jrcla2 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

5. Student clubs and organizations

This really depends on your interests but make sure you do get involved in the life on campus. For your college experience to be complete, you'll have to find a balance between studying and living one of the best periods of your life so try to find a school that can provide you both. Some schools will give you the opportunity to do (or follow) sports, some will let you find the artist in you and if you're into volunteering at a homeless shelter you can find a place for that, too. Whatever it is, find something fulfilling and it will make your college experience so much more worthwhile!

Stay tuned, next Wednesday I'll write about the GRE and TOEFL.

P.S. I couldn't help including the top 10 colleges where students work hard and party hard. Enjoy!

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