“What’s a good college?”
“What’s the best college for chemistry? For biology? For engineering? The best college in California?”
As a college counselor, these are some of the most common questions I receive. Students and parents often expect straightforward answers and are surprised when I respond with an emphatic, “Well, it really depends.”
“In particular,” I go on to say, “it depends on your own specific goals, learning and social preferences, where you want to be geographically, etc.” Overall, I encourage students to get away from thinking in terms of what’s the objectively best college and rather think of things in terms of what’s the best college for them, given their own specific goals, interests, strengths, preferences, etc.
With all of that being said, I think of college research as a two-part process:
Step 1: Figure out what’s important to you in a college
You could, of course, simply close your eyes and try to construct your ideal college environment. But that can be hard.
Thankfully, there are great resources out there. Here’s a great one from Dr. Steven Antonoff. Your college counselor will give you more exercises designed to get you thinking about what’s important to you.
Note that this is the hardest part of the college research process. Take your time with this and don’t feel like you have to figure everything out immediately.
Step 2: Figuring out which colleges have what you want
- Use a website like College Express where you input your own criteria (see Step 1 of the process) and then get matches based on your inputs.
- Purchase the Fiske Guide to Colleges or some similar book that gives you nice overviews of a variety of campuses. Read a few profiles each week and write down what you like and dislike about each school.
- Read student reviews on websites like Unigo.com
- Take as many college tours as possible (either virtual or in-person)
At bottom, the “best” colleges are the ones that are well-suited for you – colleges that will enable you to thrive academically, socially, culturally, and in every other way that matters to you. Some people thrive best in small communities, away from big cities, and in an academic environment where they get lots of individualized attention from their professors. For others, the most important things might be pre-med opportunities, athletic offerings, and a thriving student newspaper that they can really devote themselves to.
Figuring out your own criteria is the hard part. Once you have it in place, it’s fairly easy to find schools that have what you want. Remember to start small. If, today, the only thing I know is that I want to be in a smaller environment, that’s a perfectly fine starting point. Start researching smaller schools. When you do, make notes about everything you like and dislike. The more you do this, the more you’ll notice patterns and the more you’ll start to identify all of those things, both small and big, that will make a college right for you.