When it comes to helping your child pick the right college, there are many factors to consider. Will the school challenge your child academically? Does the school have the majors, minors and programs that will set your child up for a successful career in their chosen field? Does the school have a strong reputation?
But beyond the academic factors, you’ll want to help your child find a school culture that fits with their personality and desires. A place they will fit in, find like-minded individuals, thrive, and have a damn good time while becoming capable adults. And while every campus has building and classrooms and professors, the feeling of each campus is very different.
So today, I’d like to offer 12 factors for you to chat about with your child, which will help them to identify the non-academic factors that they are looking for in a school. Ultimately, this will help you and your child narrow down which schools to apply to.
So let’s jump in…
1. Size of the school
This factor was incredibly important for me when I began my college search. I went to a very small high school, and knew I wanted to attend a large college (more than 10,000 students…at a minimum) because I loved the energy and the ability to expose myself to new people all the time. My very best friend from high school, on the other hand, chose to attend a college with only 1,200 people. We both absolutely loved our college experiences. So the moral of this story? Visit a few schools with your child, and see if he or she is drawn to small schools (<5,000 students), medium size schools (5,000-10,000 students) or large schools (10,000+). You’ll find that these three types of schools each have a unique feel, and usually your child will have a gut feeling as to which they prefer.
2. Urban vs. rural
Does your child want to live right in the heart of a bustling city during their college years? Or does he or she mind if the college is the only main feature of the town? Or do they want something in between? Let’s compare three different schools for a moment to explain what I mean. Columbia University has somewhat of a campus nestled into the metropolis of New York City. Cornell University feels quite isolated in located in Ithaca, NY – about a four hour drive from New York City. And Northwestern offers a campus feel in a suburb just a quick drive to the heart of Chicago. All three options are great schools, but each has a very different culture and different vibes, based on their proximity to a city.
3. Type of campus
This relates a bit back to the city vs. small town college campus. Likely, a college or university that is located in a more rural setting will have a more traditional campus feel. But even within major cities or large towns, some schools inherently have more of a “campus bubble” than schools nearby. For instance, Georgia Tech and Emory University are both located in Atlanta, GA. But while Emory has a very distinct campus located in a quiet neighborhood, Georgia Tech’s “campus” and housing melts right into the downtown area. Meanwhile, The University of Georgia is located 1.5 hours from Atlanta, and the entire town revolves around that school. Does your child want a traditional campus in a total college town? Or a campus within a city? Or no campus feel at all? Visit different types of schools to see which he or she is more drawn to.
4. School spirit & sports programs
In addition to the size of the school, school spirit and great sports programs were incredibly important to me. My high school didn’t even have a football team, and I wanted to attend a college where I walked on campus and could find the majority of students wearing the school colors and rallying together at a sporting event. Is this important to everyone? Certainly not. Do some people crave this? Absolutely. If your child isn’t sure which he or she prefers, visit two opposing schools in this category and see which they are naturally drawn to.
5. Social scene
Within every college, you’ll find a variety of different types of students. Some students will party often while others choose to stick to the books (no matter what school your child attends). But certainly, different colleges and universities have varying degrees of a party scene. What kind of environment does your child want? Do they want a school where the majority of students belong to a fraternity or sorority? Is it important to have bars nearby to campus? Social life is important to take into consideration when choosing a school.
6. Walking vs. driving campus
At The University of Michigan, where I attended college, just about everyone I knew lived within walking distance to classes. And within walking distance of one another. I absolutely loved this. My friends at The University of Arizona, on the other hand, had to drive to their classes once they moved out of the dorms after their Freshman year. And they often had to drive to visit their friends who lived in different neighborhoods. This was never a factor I thought about when choosing a college, but has such a huge impact on the way that your child will interact with friends, the ease of attending classes, and the amount of time they’ll hang out on campus. As your child thinks about which college he or she will attend, find out which areas students live on or near campus, and whether or not they usually walk or drive to class.
7. Distance from home
When considering the location of a college, keep these questions in mind. Does your child want to be able to drive from school to your home within an hour or two? Or would 4-5 hours be okay? What if the only option was to fly? If they must fly, is there a major airport nearby to the campus? Does your child have a preference between the East Coast, West Coast, Midwest or Southern parts of the country? I grew up in the South, and absolutely loved experiencing the ways of the Midwest culture during my college years. As parents, you’d probably love if your kid went to college just 15 minutes away so you could see them every weekend. Am I right? But talk it out with your child to see what area of the country is calling their name…college is a great time to experience a new way of living. They can always return home later 😉
My brother can wear shorts all winter long. I thrive in 90 degree weather. But somehow we both ended up at schools with tons of snow. Neither of us thought enough about the weather when we chose our colleges, but it’s an important factor. Does your child want to live in a warm climate? A cold climate? A rainy climate? A state that has all four seasons? This is something to consider.
9. Natural environment
In my adult years, my natural environment and exploring nature has become more important to me. But this wasn’t something I thought to consider when choosing a college. Does your child love the mountains? Or does he or she absolutely love snowboarding? Perhaps they’d enjoy attending a school in Colorado or Northern California. Do they love the beach? Maybe Florida or the Carolinas would be a good fit. This may not be the driving decision in which school your child chooses to attend, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.
10. Proximity to internship opportunities
Many college students return home for the summer and find a local internship. Or they find local internships throughout the school year at small business nearby to their college town. However, if your child is interested in a very specific career path, it may be worth thinking about the types of internships that are available to them during the school year. Is your child interested in a career in politics? They might strongly consider attending school in Washington D.C. Or is your child interested in a career in fashion or acting? They may want to attend a school in New York City or Los Angeles. This may not be relevant for your child, but it is important for a smaller percentage of students who have very specific career ambitions.
11. Religious affiliations
Some students may seek out schools with religious affiliations, while other students may run away from this. For example, did you know that Boston College is affiliated with the Catholic Church? Keep this factor in mind as you research various schools.
12. The people
We often think of a college or university in terms of the location, the buildings, the classrooms and the professors. But the students are what bring the campus to life. As your child considers different colleges, they should ask themselves, “are my people here?”. This may seem like a silly question, but they’ll know just what I mean. Visit campuses. Sit on the quad. Watch students as they walk to and from class. Watch how the kids interact with one another. Are the students active? Are they nerdy? Are they wearing sweatpants or are they dressed up? Does your child inherently feel like they will fit in? You’ll be amazed how you can pick up on the vibes of each school just by watching students walk around.
There are so many factors to consider when choosing a college. Your child may not find that a school that checks every single one of their boxes, but I do recommend sitting down and having a conversation with them about each of the 12 factors above. Which factors are most important to them? And which are they most willing to compromise on? This will help you narrow down the list of schools to apply to.