How to Identify—and Graduate from—Your Dream College

Earlier this year I listened to a webinar entitled How to Snag—and Keep—Your Dream Job presented by Laura Klein & Jill Miller Perrin of Business Talent Group. Laura and Jill described how current careers are no longer defined by moving up the corporate ladder, but rather assembling a “bundle of experiences” and applying those to positions that matter to you at any given moment in your career and life. They outlined five key areas to think about when deciding where to work: culture, professional development, compensation, control and impact.

I thought about how these same ideas also apply to selecting a college. Below are some thoughts on how to use this framework to identify your “dream” college.

Portrait of business colleagues holding each other and laughing

Culture trumps everything else, so if the culture is not right it won’t matter how strong the other factors are. For example, if you get an amazing merit scholarship from school A, but you do not fit in with the culture and personality of the student body, it won’t be a good fit. You are in the driver’s seat, so don’t be afraid to ask questions when you (re)visit campus for admitted student day.

  • Do you envision yourself on campus? What excites you about being there?
  • What are the students like? Do you think you’ll make friends easily?
  • What is the social life like? How active is Greek life? City life? Sports life?
  • Is it a spring, fall or sophomore year rush for fraternities and sororities? What happens socially if you don’t get in? How many students rush again the following year successfully?
  • Do kids seem happy? Stressed? Smart? Motivated? Interesting? Whatever adjective appeals to you.
  • Do you feel comfortable on campus? How easy is it to do the things you like to do outside of academics? How inclusive a community is it?
  • Where does most of the social life happen? Football games? Greek life? City life? Other?

Professional Development In the work world this applies to how much you are growing professionally and learning on the job. From a college standpoint, you want to understand if this environment will give you the academic/intellectual or pre-professional opportunities that match your goals. Some questions to consider are:

  • How much interaction will you have with professors? Does this match your interests?
  • Do they have the major that you want and how strong a program is it? How much flexibility is there to change majors if/when you decide it is not for you?
  • When you look through the course catalog are there courses that excite you?
  • What sort of academic advising is available and at what stages and by whom?
  • If you need accommodations for a learning difference, what type of support is available? What documentation do you need? How friendly and accessible is the office? Do you feel comfortable there and think you will go for support?
  • How easy is it to do research as an undergraduate? How many students participate in research and does it cut across disciplines, e.g can you do research as easily as a psychology or economics major versus as a science major?
  • How easy is it to go abroad and what are the programs available through the school or through school-approved programs?
  • What sort of career or graduate school advising is available and how early on do they start mentoring students?

Compensation. For college you want to think of compensation as the affordability of a given school vis-a-vis your family’s budget. Some things to think about:

  • Did you get any need based aid or merit based aid? What will be your net cost to attend? How does this compare across schools? What % of your financial aid is made up of grants vs. loans?need blind admission
  • What sort of summer stipends do they offer for students who get unpaid internships or research positions?
  • What % of students graduate within four years? What does the school do to assist in assuring a four year graduation?
  • Are there any additional fees not included in the tuition, but necessary for a program such as the cost of producing a
    film or joining a club or studying abroad?
  • What percentage of students are employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation?
  • What is the average debt of graduating students?

Control. In the work world, this applies to how much flexibility you have over your work schedule. With regard to college, it’s more about how much control do you have over your curriculum choices and areas of study. Some areas to understand:

  • How stringent are the academic requirements?
  • What is the process and how easy is it to get AP credits? If applicable, can you graduate early?
  • How many credits do you need to take to be considered a full-time student? (Most schools consider 12 credits full-time). What is the typical course load? Can you handle that many classes? Will they be flexible if you need to take it slower (this may be a good idea for certain students, particularly those with learning differences)
  • What happens if you decide to transfer after a semester? Will there be a financial penalty?
  • How well do they manage students who have a hiccup once in school academic, personal or other? What is the policy for leaves of absence, withdrawing, etc.?

Impact measures how easy it will be to make difference and leave a mark on campus.  This can vary greatly by campus so it’s helpful to understand just how easy it will be to do the things you want to do at a given school.

  • What activities or clubs on campus seem interesting to you? How easy is it to get involved? How competitive are various activities?
  • Where do you see yourself contributing? Have you visited or spoken with the club/organization members?
  • Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?
  • How easy is it to get internships or research opportunities?

Figure out which of the five areas are most important to you right now and recognize that they will change over time as your needs change.

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