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How to choose the right college

By Rahul Kalita

Tips for picking the right college for your child, with your AND his/her input:

1. Understand what his/her strengths in the classroom are

Think about what classes your son or daughter has enjoyed over the last three years. Is your son particularly strong in writing? Does your daughter have a knack for mathematics? Determining the classes your child might take in college is a step in the right direction when thinking about what schools to apply to. Some universities are known for their creative writing programs, while others are known for their specialized math courses. One particular 12th grader was interested in pursuing mathematics in college and found a program at Northwestern University called “Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences.” Such programs are unique to institutions, and doing a little research with your child could go a long way in finding the best fit for him/her.

If your child is interested in being a doctor, a lawyer, or going into business, it would be wise to look at accelerated programs some schools offer. For instance, Penn State has a 6-year medical program, where students go to Penn State for 2 years and then go to Thomas Jefferson for medical school. Other schools offer 7 or 8-year medical programs, and there are also opportunities to get an MBA directly after undergrad. Again, doing some research will help determine if these programs are right for your child. I would recommend, however, that your child should only apply to these programs if s/he is certain that s/he wants to be a doctor/lawyer/business man/etc.

2. Understand what s/he likes to do outside the classroom

Extra-curricular activities are an important part of high school and they continue to be so in college. If your child was on the debate team in high school and he really enjoyed it, it’s worth seeing if the school list you both have come up with has some schools with debate teams. The same applies to students who enjoyed being a part of a student newspaper, or those who were in the a capella group or on a bhangra team. These clubs could make a world of difference in your child’s experience in college, so it’s important that you check the availability of such opportunities at the schools your child has selected to apply to.

3. Have your child reach out to current students or recent graduates and visit schools if you have time

The best perspectives on student life come from current students. One suggestion is to reach out to the admissions office and see if you can speak with a current student. Typically the admissions office will connect your child and s/he can ask whatever questions they want. Current students will provide the best information for you and your child to determine whether the culture of the school is a fit for your son/daughter. Some suggested questions could be:

• What do you like about your school?

• What don’t you like?

• Where do most people live? On campus or off campus?

• What do people do for fun?

• What do students do during the summer?

• What do you do on a usual day?

All these questions will help your child determine if she is looking at the right schools for her. Further, if you have the time and distance is not an issue, you and your child should make an on-campus visit. These visits usually last one to two hours; there, a student tour guide will take you around campus and you can get a good feel for the school. On these tours, you can ask the same types of questions and you will also get a sense of the types of other students in your class.

4. Have your child talk to a guidance counselor to assess how competitive his/her application will be

SAT scores are not the only piece of the admissions puzzle. It’s important to look at your child’s GPA, SAT scores, course load, and extracurricular activities. Your child’s guidance counselor will be a useful resource in understanding what types of schools students of his/her caliber have gone to. The guidance counselor will be able to suggest how strong of an applicant s/he is and how many schools s/he might want to apply to. In general, it is important to have some “safety” schools, some “fit” schools, and some “reach” schools.

Safety Schools – Schools that your child has a very likely chance of getting into

Fit Schools – Schools that your child has a pretty good chance, although less so than a safety school

Reach Schools – Schools that your child is not as likely to get into

5. Above all, make sure that you are involved in your child’s process of choosing schools

With the right parental support, your child will be able to select the right schools for him/her. For both child and parent, the key is communication. Talking to your child and getting his/her opinions will show him/her that their input is just as important as your own. Further, providing him/her with suggestions, but not a required list of schools will put less pressure on your child. If there is transparency from both sides, coming up with a list of schools will be a relatively painless process.

6. Online resources to use

A Note on Rankings:

Please keep in mind that rankings aren’t everything. What’s most important is that your child enjoys his/her experience on campus: ultimately, a happy child will be able to find the right opportunities after college and s/he will then choose the right personal career choices. There are countless stories of students who have gone to the best schools and not benefitted optimally from those experiences. In hindsight, going to a lower ranked, but better fit school for their interests could have been best for them. Rankings will inevitably influence how you measure a school, but it is by no means a perfect system. So please, do not put extra emphasis on the ranking of schools.

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