Maggie Stamets is a writer for BUILT BY GIRLS, which prepares the next generation of female and non-binary leaders to step into their power and break into their careers. WAVE is the backbone of BUILT BY GIRLS: it’s a 1:1 matching program that connects high school and college students with top tech professionals across the country. For more information and to sign up check out builtbygirls.com.
Choosing which colleges to apply for and eventually attend is a big decision. Finishing high school can at times feel like you’re being sent off into the wild with no map, and it can feel overwhelming or even impossible to choose which direction to take. But by thinking over a few criteria, the choice goes from one massive decision to a bunch of small judgment calls.
The first step is to figure out where you’d be happiest. Outside of financial restrictions, what your parents may want, or any other factors that will ultimately affect your choice — you want to have a strong sense of what’s important to you before potentially getting swayed by friends or family.
The college experience is really about four main things: social activity and self-discovery, academics, professional development, and location. Begin by identifying which of these aspects are the most important to you. Of course, it’s important to consider the external factors like money, family, and friends, but we will get to that later in our college series.
Think over your ideal college experience and try to prioritize these four key aspects. Are you dead-set on a major? That may mean picking a college with a great program in that area may be the deciding factor. Are you hoping to get internship experience? Being close to a city or your desired industry’s hub may be crucial. Maybe you’re hoping to find and build your community, in that case, social life will be important. Or possibly you’re looking to network and build a great foundation for your career.
It’s likely that a combination of these things is important to you, but it can be helpful to investigate what’s the most important and work from there.
Social activity and self-discovery
The social scene on campus will greatly affect your college experience and yet it’s often left out of the conversation when selecting a college. I’m not just talking about parties, social clubs, or Greek life, although those are good to keep in mind when looking at schools.
College is a unique time for you to get involved with social causes, try hobbies, or develop new skills in a safe and exploratory environment. Once you graduate, it’s more difficult to discover and pursue hobbies outside of your job.
For example, when I was in college I wrote for and performed in my college’s monthly sketch comedy show. It was such a formative and fun experience even though TV writing and comedy has nothing to do with my career now. As you’re looking at schools, think about what clubs or organizations you may want to join. There are feminist groups, LGBTQIA alliances, photography clubs, dance teams — you name it, a school has it.
Once you have an idea of what type of social vibe you’re looking for, reach out to students at your prospective colleges and ask them about their experiences. Most schools have students working in the admissions office to field these questions.
Obviously, you’re going to college to further your education. You’re shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to earn a degree and build the toolset to help you enter your desired career. Choosing a school that has a program related to what you want to do is important — even if it’s not your top priority.
You may not have any idea what you want to major in, but you know your interests and talents. If you’re thinking of entering a career in STEAM, be sure to look at schools with a wide range of science and engineering majors. Maybe you’re more interested in a creative field and a liberal arts college could be a fit. If you aren’t sure what to study, meet with your guidance counselor. They’ll be able to walk you through how to make the best choice for you.
Once you have an idea of the type of major you want, do your research. Search the best-ranked schools for your desired program. Be sure you’re using impartial and trusted sources like US News & World Report, Forbes, or Princeton Review.
Collegiate-level professional development often happens in chapters of professional clubs. This will look different depending on your desired field.
Look into which colleges have organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Marketing Association, and the Association for Women in Science, and more. Search what organizations exist for your major or desired program. These will be very helpful in networking, exposing you to guest speakers in your future industry, and more.
For practical career development, there are likely opportunities like an on-campus radio station, engineering organization, college newspaper, student government, and more that will help you build your career skills and look great on a resume when you’re applying for internships and jobs.
Last, but definitely not least, is location. It’s very common for people to stay in the city or area where they attended college. A lot of times they’ve built a network there and had internships turn into jobs, or are just familiar with it and want to stay. This means your school’s location is important and may affect where you live long term.
For some people, location is an afterthought, but if you’re very interested in living in a particular city, I strongly recommend focusing on schools there. Spending four years somewhere is a great way to see if you like it long term. On the flip side, if being close to home or family is important, keep that in mind. At the end of the day, you’re moving somewhere for several years. It’s great to be excited about where you’re moving.
Once you’ve thought through these factors, list schools that align with your priorities. From there, you can dive into which schools you can afford, the opinions of your family and friends, where you’re likely to be admitted, and how to achieve that.
Read more information and tips in our College section