Getting into college remains one of the most competitive obstacles young people are faced with. Admission rates for America’s most prestigious schools remain extremely low in 2014, with schools such as Harvard and Stanford offering admission to less than 7% of applicants. Students need to be strategic when making their college decisions and avoid spending way too much time filling out unnecessary college applications.
But with over 5,000 colleges to consider—everything from community colleges to large public research universities—narrowing down a list of prospective schools takes work. There are no blueprints to follow when choosing the right college, but there are certain aspects of the college experience that students should keep top of mind when making this decision.
College admissions experts share their best advice to help guide your search for the perfect college.
1. Narrow down your college search in your junior year of high school.
Target specific schools that you feel are serious candidates for your college experience well before you start your college applications. Getting serious about your search during your junior year will give you time to explore campuses before and during your senior year, says Todd Boyd, director of enrollment management at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
For the young overachiever who knows the field she wants to pursue, try perusing college websites during your freshman and sophomore year of high school. “It’s always best to begin with the end in mind, and so a great time to start the college search is near the beginning of your high school career,” says Michael Mitchell, director of admissions at Oklahoma Christian University. He adds that “the earlier you start the process, the more time you have to research schools, visit campuses, and find the college that’s the best fit for you.”
2. Use your intended major to guide your college search.
According to Mitchell, the “availability of a major a student wants to study along with a school’s alumni success in that area are probably the two most important factors to consider” when choosing the right college. He says students should ask themselves: “does attending this school get me closer to reaching the goals I’ve set for myself and my life?”
If career success is something you’re thinking about, consider talking with the career center at the university to learn about similar occupations and internships that others like you have taken.
3. Think about which extracurricular activities your dream school should offer.
Once you’ve identified campuses that offer your desired degree program, look into how the college’s extracurriculars align with your interests. Tom Speakman, director of undergraduate admissions at Central Michigan University, says students “should look for a place where they can see themselves getting involved, not only academically, but also socially; a place where they see themselves developing meaningful friendships and lifelong connections.”
Most importantly, Speakman encourages students to “seek a school that makes them passionate about wanting to pursue their educational goals and dreams without changing who they are.”
4. Consider your ideal class size and learning style.
Everyone learns differently. Larger colleges are often a better fit for students with flexible learning styles, whereas smaller institutions are better suited for students seeking an intimate classroom experience. Cathy Davenport, dean of admissions at Dickinson College, says students “really need to think about how they prefer to learn so they can choose an academic environment to match their current skills with acquiring new [ones].”
5. Reach out to alumni from your top choice schools.
Though the Internet is a great resource for learning about colleges, make sure you spend time doing your research offline as well. “Talk with graduates from the school you are interested in applying to,” advises Anthony Rivera, associate director of admissions at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Alumni can give you a unique perspective on life at their college, including how they used their degree to start a career. Talking with graduates could help you determine what you’re looking for in a college experience.
» MORE: Is college worth it?
6. Visit the colleges that are most appealing.
Wrap up your search by “scheduling [visits] if your research warrants a closer look,” Davenport advises. “Make sure what you learned about the institution online is true in person.” Boyd adds that a campus visit is the only way you can really “make sure you fit and feel comfortable on the campus.”
Take advantage of all the opportunities available to you during your college visits, Mitchell says. “This is about more than just a campus tour, too. Students can set up appointments with and meet professors from their major, sit in on a class, eat lunch in the campus dining hall, check out the dorms, meet and talk to current students, and get a real sense of what a day in the life of a student from that school is like.”
Ultimately, Speakman adds, “be yourself and don’t try to please others with your college choice.”
Todd Boyd has worked in the admissions area Southwestern Oklahoma State University for 28 years. Currently, he is the Director of Enrollment Management and teaches the President’s Leadership Classes for the university.
Cathy Davenport was recently named dean of admissions at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. and has worked in education and college admissions for more than 25 years. She earned her bachelor of arts from Dickinson College in 1987 and her Ms.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992.
Michael Mitchell is the director of admissions at Oklahoma Christian University. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma Christian University and a master’s degree in higher education leadership from the University of Oklahoma.
Anthony Rivera serves as the associate director of admissions at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He holds the Master of Theology (Th.M.), and the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister/teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.).
Tom Speakman is the director of undergraduate admissions at Central Michigan University. He has 24 years of enrollment and admissions experience and has an Ed.D. in higher education leadership from Widener University.
Student image courtesy of Shutterstock.