Dear 100 Hour Board,
My sister is a senior in high school who is planning on applying to colleges this fall. It's been a long time (twelve years?!) since I initially applied to college myself, so I suspect I'm a little out of the loop - and what's more, I remember not really having any idea how to go about choosing which college I wanted. Every school looked kind of the same on paper: some had strengths in particular fields, but I didn't even know at that point what I wanted to major in. I had never lived alone or been an adult, and it was hard for me to know what unmeasurable aspects of college life would be important to me.
So maybe you can help me help my sister pick a college. I'm interested in any thoughts you have on this subject, but here are some possible guiding questions:
- What things were important to you when you picked a college?
- When you arrived, what things ended up being more important or less important than you thought they would be?
- What factors didn't you consider that you wish you had?
- Have you ever regretted your choice of college, and if so, why?
- For things that aren't easily measurable, like what the social life is like, how challenging classes are, or how much career counseling students have access to, what resources would you recommend we look at?
She needs to start applications soon, so no pressure, but I'd rather have a few answers within a couple of weeks than a lot of answers three months from now, when it's too late. Thank you!
I mostly considered value/cost and culture. I picked BYU because it afforded a decent education for an extremely low price, and getting out of college without debt was important to me. I was also aware that the cultural experience at BYU is fairly unique, and I wanted a chance to be in this sort of environment before I went out into the real world. That's about all I considered. I'm lucky that it worked out. I love BYU, and my experience here has been very fulfilling in many ways. Still, if I had to choose another school, I would probably do a few things differently. Here are the things that have ended up being a bigger deal than I expected in my experience here:
- Culture. BYU is... an experience. I happen to be bisexual, which means that I wrestle with the organization and its policies and culture maybe a little more than I would if I was straight. If your sister is in any minority groups and considering attending BYU, she should be aware that it isn't going to be an easy time. That doesn't mean that it won't end up being a net positive experience, but it will be hard. I haven't experienced and can't really speak to the culture at other universities, but I think if I was re-doing my university selection process, I would spend a little more time looking for information on what resources and student associations are available to minority groups. As far as other cultural elements, I'd also recommend looking at how competitive/rigorous the academics are, whether each school is a commuter or a residential school, how social each school is, what Greek life looks like at each school (if that's a factor), etc.
- Proximity to family. I didn't mind that BYU was far from my family, and in a lot of ways, it's been really good for me. But I'm not going to lie; I'm definitely a little jealous of my friends who are able to visit their families more often than once or twice a semester. And weirdly, it's become a bigger deal to me the longer I've been in college. It's just something to consider.
- Housing situation. At the risk of sounding incredibly naive because I don't have experience with housing anywhere else in the country: BYU housing (off-campus, at least) is pretty atrocious. I've had some pretty negative experiences with management, a lot of apartments are very badly kept, and it's just generally a nightmare. That said, I don't really know how it compares to other universities. And to be fair, there are some pretty good housing options too - they're just more difficult to find, and unfortunately no one has ever given me the lowdown on how to find them.
- Mental health resources. BYU has a pretty good system in CAPS. It's a little understaffed, but they're doing their best to provide free, confidential, high-quality counseling and mental health resources to students. They do have a limit to the number of sessions you're allowed to take per semester, but they work with you to help you find other therapists that fit your insurance and concerns, if that's something you're interested in. CAPS has been a life saver while I've been at BYU. I don't know your sister's situation, but I personally wouldn't go to a college that doesn't have a roughly equivalent service.
- Major/interests. When I was applying to BYU, I paid little to no attention to the quality of the specific degree program I wanted to go through. I wouldn't recommend basing an entire college decision off of how good a specific program is, because there's always the chance that your sister ends up changing majors. Still, if I had to go back and do the whole thing over again, I would do a little more research into how good the programs are for each major that I have interest in, as well as maybe what research is being done, what the professors specialize in, and what subfield/jobs the program best prepares you for.
Probably the best way to find out most of this information is to ask people who've recently gone to the universities your sister is considering. If she doesn't know anyone at a particular school that she's looking at, Reddit would probably be my next go-to.
Here's a list of factors I either considered, or realized were important to me after getting to college:
- Affordability/Financial Aid. Along with applying to the different universities, I'd heavily recommend that your sister applies for scholarships. It may be that a university that has higher tuition could be cheaper than other options for your sister if she gets a good scholarship for it.
- Closeness to Family. For me it was really nice to be at a college where I wasn't cut off from family support. BYU is about an hour and half away from my parents' house which meant I could occasionally go home for a family dinner, and it was easy to make it back for holidays.
- Culture. I genuinely enjoyed the active culture of learning and spiritualism I got at BYU. There's obviously a lot wrong with BYU culture, but the parts of it that are good were amazing for me.
- Academics. This was my primary reason for going to a university; getting an advanced math degree. I'm pretty atypical in that I already had an idea of what I wanted to major in as a junior in high school, but if your sister is leaning towards a certain field, she should look at the different programs available per university.
- Research Opportunities. I loved being able to do research as an undergrad. It was exciting, stimulating, and I was able to go to awesome research conferences that I consider to be some of the best parts of my BYU experience.
- Relationships with Professors. Especially as I progressed in my major, class sizes were small and I got to know my professors really well. This meant I was comfortable going to my professors with questions about course material, giving honest feedback, and just feeling really at ease in the classes since I knew my professors genuinely cared about me. It makes a big difference to know that your professors see you as a human, and not just a blank receptacle for their knowledge who has no other responsibilities outside of their class. This kind of experience is more common at smaller universities where class sizes aren't likely to be super huge.
I didn't ever consider this while in college, but if I was applying now, I would also heavily consider different universities' responses to the pandemic. Depending on your sister's views she may prefer a campus that has heavier restrictions on social gatherings, mask wearing, etc. Or she may think that COVID is unlikely to be a big danger to her and want to go somewhere that isn't as regulated.
Good luck to your sister!
Josefina and Anathema wrote great detailed answers that cover important factors for making a decision. The criteria they've listed are great and I wholeheartedly agree. I've got just a bit I'd like to add about learning about different colleges to determine which best fits the criteria you decide on.
One thing that I found very difficult when I was applying to colleges is that 99% of college websites sound the same. Every college is the greatest #1 college, or so it would seem. Talking to alumni didn't really help me when it came to judging academic opportunities because all my high school teachers just said their alma mater was the best. The opinions of close friends was helpful, but most peoplehad only attended 1 maybe 2 different colleges so that made comparison hard. The #1 best way to know if you like a college is to go the college.
So the best way to know if a college is for you is: go to the college (for 1-3 days)! Even if all you can do is take the generic college tour I 1000% percent recommend it. There's all sorts of things you can observe just by spending 2 hours at a college. For example, I took a tour of MIT and learned that it was full of opportunities, very quirky and creative, and I didn't see a single person smiling so I think classes must be hard. These type of tours are great for getting the general vibe or "culture" of a university. You can tell from posters what the social scene is like. You can tell by looking around how diverse the student body is. You get to see the quality of housing. I would say that taking a tour is an absolute must if at all possible for any college someone is considering.
If you can spend more time though, I highly recommend it. You might not be able to do this with every college, but once it gets narrowed down I would recommend spending a little more time. What could you do with 1-3 days? You could tour specific departments or programs. You could sit in on classes. You could go to a club meeting or attend a party. If you have a good friend attending you could shadow them and get a feel for what a typical day is like. There's so many things you can get with a day visit you can't find in a website. For example you could taste the cafeteria, you could sleep through a chemistry class, you could wander around like a complete idiot looking for a building just like you will your entire first semester. The possibilities are endless!
TLDR; Go for a campus tour or spend a day at any schools you are considering. It will give you the best picture of what it will be like to actually attend school there.
Hope this helps!