High school juniors should decide what colleges they are applying to fall of senior year and weigh their options carefully. Some will decide that only colleges close to home will suit them. Others are open to a change of scenery. But above all, the decision should be based on what matters most: getting the best education you can afford.
By spring of junior year, students should have their top five universities laid out, preferably in order of preference. Still, many students make the faulty conclusion that a school deserves to sit atop their lists because of the strength of their football team or an edgy mascot (or odd mascot like the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs). Instead schools should be ranked according to the following criteria: rate of admission, strength of curriculum, and its relevance.
When researching a college’s admissions data, one has to consider how their grades match the average student’s who was admitted to the university. Most schools offer admission data, though beware that much of it is edited to make the university sound inviting for all applicants. Read the figures carefully. You do not want to donate to the school’s coffers unless you are confident you have a modest at least chance of getting in. Taking risks is a good thing since you cannot get in if you don’t apply, but if your chances are very slim then you want to limit your applications to these schools, called “reach schools,” to only the ones that you would sell an organ to attend if you were admitted. That, or if Grandma Bea left you all that money she forgot she stashed in her mattress during the Depression, have a blast applying to schools just for fun. “Hey Harvard! Take me and my 2.5gpa!”
Another resource is College Board (www.collegeboard.org) where you can complete an online college matchmaker (watch out for stalkers!) and review the breakdown of last year’s admits. What data matters most? Pay less attention to percent of applicants admitted if your grade point average is above 3.75 and more attention to the percent of admits of their actual students. Why? Students who apply don’t necessarily go there. Some schools are flooded with hopefuls who are dying to go there. But many apply to local “safety schools” so they have a Plan B. See who actually attends the school. They will be your peers.
In San Diego, many have long considered San Diego State a “safety school” but now they accept only about a third of all applications for freshman enrollment. Most students earned a 3.5gpa or higher so the student body of SDSU is less Animal House, more Revenge of the Nerds. Okay, not exactly. But gone are the days when a senior drove to campus, told admissions they wanted in, they checked for a pulse and the ability to fog a mirror, and told the student “congratulations.”
It isn’t so easy to determine if your target school’s curriculum is superior to the others on your list. For that, one could search for online forums to find current students or even head down to campus (if you live close enough or like a good roadtrip) and casually talk to students in the building where the classes you’ll be taking for your major are. Since they are paying good money for the education, they will likely give you their true feedback and not a commercial unless they really love it. Or you could go to the university’s academic department and skim through bios to see where faculty got their degrees and note profs who specialize in interesting topics to you. Then Google them and see if published books, papers, presentations, quotations in news articles, or other interesting artifacts tell you about the accomplishments of the professors. Avoid reading Ratemyprofessors.com reviews as the solitary means of evaluating faculty. Do you bother to call the manager of a restaurant when you get exceptionally good service? Many people on these sites are bitter. The toughest professors will teach you the most.
And you want to know if they are teaching you what matters in your field. This is the hardest of all. It takes a lot of work so give yourself time to learn as much as you can. If your major requires technological competency, you should know how recent their materials and computer programs are, or if they are planning an update soon. Current students can tell you this or a friendly professional in your field who has experience hiring and working with alumni will tell you how prepared they tend to be.
Arguably the most important detail is whether or not your major is impacted at the campus. If so, it means more crowded classes, waitlists, more competitive admissions, and often longer graduation times. If all else is equal, choose the campus with the major that is not impacted.
In the end, wearing the t-shirt with the tough-looking panther might feel more awesome, but prospective employers only care about how prepared you are to begin your job with as little hand-holding as possible.