Did you know that there are an estimated 4,599 colleges and universities in the United States? That’s a lot of options to research—especially if you’re the first person in your family to attend college and trying to figure out everything on your own.
Rankings are one way to help narrow down your list of choices for which school is the best fit for you—but they’re not the only way, or even necessarily the best way. How a college or university is ranked may not weigh the things that really matter to you.
Look beyond those arbitrary lists when comparing schools.
We’ve compiled a list of questions you should consider when looking at schools that go way beyond what a number can tell you. Consider this:
Do they offer the degree program for what you really want to do?
It may seem like an obvious question, but not every school offers every possible degree option. Some specialize—say, in science or engineering—while others offer a wide range of degree programs.
If the school does offer a degree in what you’re interested in, your next step should be to do a little research. You might look into:
- Does the university have a reputation for excelling in your major or area of study?
- What specific courses will you take to earn your degree?
- Do you have opportunities to customize your degree track, or add an emphasis or concentration to your major?
- Will you have opportunities for personalized mentoring with faculty?
- Does the university offer an Honors program to help you get the most out of your discipline? Will you qualify for such a program?
Your first step when considering a school should be to make sure they can help you get where you want to go.
Does it matter that professors know your name?
Some schools may be ranked higher than others based on the expertise or renown of their faculty—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have access to those “big name” professors. It’s important to find out if you’ll be able to take courses with experts in your field of study.
Smaller campuses—even those not ranked as highly—may provide better opportunities to develop a closer, ongoing professional relationship with your professors—which improves their ability to guide and mentor you. This can lead to professional and academic references (a huge deal if you go on to grad school), internships, conferences, employment opportunities, and more.
Are the professors any good?
Rankings can be misleading, and you can’t always trust faculty reviews from former students to be unbiased. While visiting, ask your tour guide or admission counselors about standout professors in your field of study who you could take classes with. You may even be able to sit in on a class and see for yourself!
How does the school help you get to graduation day?
Behind the scenes on college campuses across the country, you hear the word “retention” a lot—which basically means how many students actually make it to the Commencement stage. Did you know that less than half of 4-year degree students actually graduate in four years (if at all)? The national average suggests that most students actually finish their degree in six years.
Remember that a lot of factors can influence your path to graduation—for example, many nontraditional students may be balancing work, school, and family life, which can extend their target graduation date.
Whether or not you feel engaged with or connected to your campus makes a big difference in your chances of success in college. When comparing schools, we encourage you to investigate what resources they have to help you stay committed, focused, and feel supported—and how they’re going to help you finish what you started.
Some of the things you might look for include:
- Mentoring and tutoring resources to help you prepare for exams, write papers, and study smarter
- Academic support to help you choose a major, schedule your classes, and stay involved
- Social support matters too—look for resources to help you stay positive, stay involved, and stay healthy
- If you’re a returning adult student, investigate resources specifically geared toward balancing work, family, and school
Do they help you get real-world experience as a student?
We can’t emphasize this enough: to get the most out of your college experience, you should look for opportunities to learn outside the classroom, too.
Some examples of experiential opportunities too good to pass up might include:
- Internships, externships, and cooperative education—ranging from field work to lab techs to job shadowing (and some programs even require internships as part of your degree)
- Networking with local, regional, and national alumni who are now working in your field or discipline
- Career services that help you plan for the road ahead after graduation
- Work-study opportunities to help you earn some spending money with a job on campus
- Career fairs to get you connected to industry and community leaders
- Community outreach opportunities and volunteerism
Find out if the school has opportunities for you to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.
Can you make a real impact in your field there?
College is about more than soaking up all the information and knowledge you can—you’re about to become a scholar, and it’s time to create some knowledge of your own.
Does your school offer opportunities for you to leave your mark in your field of study? Will you be able to co-author papers with your professors, present at a regional conference, or conduct independent research?
Imagine walking into your first big job interview after graduation and letting the hiring board know that you’re not just an expert on a given subject—but that you published an article in an academic journal about it
Now ask yourself: does your university empower you to be a game changer?
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