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How to choose the right college or university

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College applications have been filled out, transcripts submitted, and campus tours scheduled. Only one problem: there are so many colleges to choose from! Considering you are going to spend the next four years there (or five, or six… it happens), this isn’t a decision you can take lightly. And even worse, obsessing over making the “correct” decision could wear you out easily, and could even cause you to delay the decision (I’ve had many friends to whom this happened). However, choosing the right college or university does not have to be a stressful task. The key to choosing the right college or university is to come up with a structured plan. The first step of that plan is to decide what you value most in a college. Everyone has different priorities, so you shouldn’t make your college decision just because that’s where your friend or significant other is going.

To find out what you value most in college, take a look at the below primary and secondary college traits many of my students have looked at in the past. Rank your top five primary traits and focus on those. Once you find a few colleges that meet your top five requirements, take a look at the rest of the traits to pick the one that best fits your needs.

Type of college

A good starting point would be to decide the type of college you want to go to. You’ll be surprised to find that there are many types of colleges, some that you may have never even heard of. Do you want to go to a large state university with a well-known football team? A private liberal arts college in a small college town? A two-year community college in a big city? Take a look at my earlier post on the different types of colleges for more information on which type of college would best fit your needs.

Focus of the college

The focus of the college is often related to the type of college, but not always. The focus of the college relates to who they are targeting, as well as what they consider to be most important. The easiest way to do this is through a quick perusal of their website. Go to the college’s home page and take a look at the design. What do you see? The bright university colors with their mascot and logo in the background? A more conservative, business-like background with a listing of academic programs? A welcome from the university president to showcase the close-knit campus community?

Now browse through the website. See what they emphasize. Commuter-friendly colleges will highlight their evening classes and flexible schedules, while state universities will highlight their expansive campuses and list of amenities. Many private universities will list their high rankings and awards, while large, online colleges will focus on their large, established networks of graduates and alumni.

Geographical location

If you live on the east coast, do you think you can stand going to a university located in the dry plains of Arizona? Maybe that’s exactly what you want, experiencing something new in a location you’ve never been to. Geographic location can play a big part in your college experience. It can affect many parts of your life, with factors such as weather, culture, and even landscaping playing a big role.

This was a big deal for me, since I experienced culture shock going from New Jersey to Florida for my undergraduate degree, and then from Florida to Oklahoma for my graduate degree. But they were both amazing experiences I would never take back. It opened my mind in ways that no other experience in my life could compare. Don’t underestimate the power of a college’s location.

Distance from home

I’ll be honest, when I was college hunting, this was on my top three list of priorities. Hispanic families are typically very close, and mine was no exception. I wanted to make sure that I was never too far away from my family, wanting to be at the very least within driving distance from them. Perhaps you are the same way. Or perhaps, you want to get as far away from your family as possible. That’s fine, I won’t judge.

In any case, keep in mind that the distance your college is from your home will affect how often you can go home, as well as how expensive. If you get homesick easily and don’t think you can stay away from the fam, perhaps it’s not the best idea to travel across the country. It’ll cost you your future first born and both your legs for a plane ticket, and you’ll only get to see them twice a year (three if you decide to go home for spring break instead of joining your friends to that road trip across Europe).

Cost of college

Like many things in life, it all comes down to the money. This is typically the first thing your parents will look at before they agree to write you a check or co-sign your student loan for you. There’s not much to say about cost that you don’t already know. The idea here is to find the cheapest college that meets all your needs. However, cost isn’t as important a factor when you consider the next factor:

Financial Aid

Let’s be real here, unless your parents work for a university or can print money, you won’t be able to afford college. Fortunately, there are several sources of financial aid such as grants, loans, scholarships, and work study. Grants, such as the federal Pell Grant, are need-based scholarships that aid you based on your (and your parents’) income. Loans are just that: borrowed money. It is fairly easy to qualify for student loans. Just make sure you aim for the subsidized loans instead of unsubsidized. Subsidized loans do not accrue interest while you’re in college; unsubsidized loans do. Scholarships vary widely, depending on who offers them. They can be offered by university alumni, wealthy individuals, corporations, or non-profit organizations. Some may be need-based, but a lot are based on other factors, such as grade point average, volunteer hours, leadership experience, and essay construction. If you are eligible for work study, you can get an on-campus job to help you pay for books, groceries, and other incidentals.

Different colleges have different amounts and types of aid. Be sure to ask about what is offered at your prospective colleges either by calling their financial aid office or during your campus tour. You can also search online for various independent scholarships.

Academic Program

No university has every possible academic program. And just because a university offers a particular program, it doesn’t mean it’s any good. If the quality of the academic program is high on your priority list, then it would be in your best interest to find out as much as you can about it. How many full time faculty does that program have in a particular college? How many students apply and how many do they accept? What are their entrance requirements? How many of their students graduate and how many are employed afterwards in their desired field? Does the program make any national rankings? Is it well-known nationwide?

Secondary Traits

Once you’ve narrowed down your colleges to the top two or three, you may find that it can be particularly difficult to choose between them. If you’ve looked at all the primary traits above and still can’t make a decision, be sure to consider these secondary traits. While not as important, they could make enough of a difference for a tie-breaker.

Range of Programs

About 80 percent of college students change their major in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A lot of times it’s a major in a completely different field. If you are undecided on your major or aren’t 100 percent on the one you’ve chosen, you may want to consider a college with a wide range of program options, just in case you decide to switch. That way, you’ll have a good range to choose from. If you go to ITT Tech and then decide to become a Philosophy major, you’ll be out of luck. And changing universities is a lot tougher than changing majors.

The community around the college

Every now and then, you just want to get out of the college environment to get your mind off of things. If you live in a college town, good luck finding that escape. You’ll find students, faculty, and staff everywhere. If you want an out, you’ll have to drive to the city, which could be quite a while away. And outside of a few bars and yogurt shops, there won’t be much in the way of entertainment.

Colleges located in the city have more access to more things. You don’t have to drive far to find just about anything you need. But you do have to deal with the extra traffic and the higher crime rates that are typical for larger cities.

Dining options

If you’re planning to live on campus, you may want to see what types of dining options they offer. After all, that’s where you will be eating the majority of the year. A quick stop at their dining hall during your campus tour should give you a pretty good preview of what to expect.

Social Climate

This one is really hard to measure. However, you can just feel it in your gut. When you visit a college, be sure to see the students that go there. What’s the campus culture like? Do you see yourself fitting into that world? Would it be too much of a culture shock? I’ve attended two universities and worked at two, and it is amazing just how different the social climates were for all of them.

Ratemyprofessors.com- A Student’s Best Friend?

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It’s here. The enrollment period has begun. Now, after all the honor students, athletes, and seniors got their pick of courses, it has opened up to the general college populace. As you sit there in front of your computer (or paper and pencil if you go to one of those colleges), you have many decisions to make. Deciding what class to take? Psha! That’s child’s play. Half the time your classes are decided for you by your course catalog.

No, there are much more important questions to ponder when you’re enrolling in a class. Should I take the dreaded 8 o’clock class and get it over with? Stick with an afternoon schedule to sleep in? Take Differential Equations and Thermodynamics in the same semester back-to-back? All fair questions.

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But the real question you want to know is what professor to take. Who teaches that class, and what does everyone say about him? Is he a strict grader? Does she take attendance? Does she ramble off topic? That’s when you turn over to ratemyprofessors.com and look him up, hoping to your preferred higher power that it’s a good rating because his class is the only one still open. But can that website lead you astray?

Ratemyprofessors.com started in 1999 under the name TeacherRatings.com. It is the largest online destination for professor ratings. So it is safe to assume that you’ll find a rating for most professors on there. But what about its accuracy? A study conducted at the University of Maine attempted to find an answer to that question. Using data from 426 instructors at the university, they compared their ratemyprofessors.com ratings with the ratings found in course evaluations students complete in class towards the end of the semester.

The results were interesting to look at, as it showed that the ratings on the website weren’t too far off from the ratings on the course evaluations. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the website ratings are accurate. For all we know, both sources give an inaccurate depiction of a particular college professor’s ranking. Plus, there was enough variance (basically unanswered questions and other stuff the researchers couldn’t predict) that kept the findings from being fully conclusive.

Still, this gives us some insight into the usefulness of ratemyprofessors.com. My verdict? I think it is a useful tool if you are using it for the right reason. Let me repeat that for emphasis. For the right reason. The biggest mistake I see students make with that website is they look at the score for a group of professors, then take the one with the highest score. Others, it scares me to admit, pick their professor based on their hotness score! “But Roland,” you might tell me. “Who are you to judge my decision process for choosing a professor? What if I want some eye candy to keep me focused?” Well that’s fine and dandy, my hypothetical friend, but it is those same students who come complaining to me at the end of the semester about their professor and write bad evaluations because they didn’t do the proper research beforehand.

“I got an F? I don’t understand. He was hot!”

When I was in college, the most useful part of ratemyprofessors.com was the written reviews by the students. I didn’t even bother with the scores. The review gave me a much better idea of what I could expect. And a rule of thumb was to avoid a review that was only one or two short sentences long. I read reviews that gave details to support their arguments. Perhaps their reason for disliking a professor was a great reason for me to like them. I prefer, for example, no-nonsense professors who stick by the syllabus and lay everything out at the beginning. Someone who prefers a care-free professor who changes things up throughout the year might review such a professor poorly. In that sense, I believe the website is worth your time.

My biggest criticism of the website, as I’m sure is the case for many others, has been that students not liking a professor are more likely to publicly display their opinions online, therefore negatively skewing the results for a professor. Some quick research into this, however, says this is not the case. The website itself claims that over half the ratings are positive. And to look at a less biased source, the study I referenced above suggests that the ratings aren’t too far off from course evaluation ratings. So unless students submitting course evaluations tend to make it a habit to slam their professors, I don’t think the website is doing too bad of a job on that.

So long story short, ratemyprofessors.com is a fine website to utilize when trying to decide on a professor to take. It may not be as helpful if you’re just looking at the score, or if it’s the only professor offering that particular course. Looking at their feedback then would give you an unfavorable bias before starting the class, and you don’t want to start a class with bad mojo. Sometimes it’s just best to go into a class blind and hope for the best.

“Alright, World Thought 101, let’s do this.”

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