A college student announced to his mother, "I've decided that I want to be a political science major and help clean-up the mess in the world!" "That's very nice," answered his mother. "Maybe you can go upstairs and start with your bedroom."

The truth is there are quite a lot of 'housekeeping' matters to take care of before your college experience can begin and foremost among these is picking the right college: make sure you're a good fit for the college and make sure the college is a good fit for you. If a great match is made, nearly everything else will fall into place.

So much value is placed on going to the 'right college', but the term 'right' is often misunderstood. The right college isn't necessarily the most famous, the one with the most notable alumni, or the place everyone says you should attend. The right college is most likely not even a single institution; it may be any of several. A colleague of mine, who works in the admissions office of a well-known college, insists that it's not really the college that matters, so much as what a student takes away from the college experience in the end. So let's take a look at some of the important factors in choosing a college.

Before considering what college to attend a student should carefully consider Socrates' admonition to 'know thyself'. College bound students are at a stage in their lives filled with great change.


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The typical seventeen or eighteen year old is nearly an adult in the legal, emotional and intellectual sense. On the other hand, he or she is still largely under the guidance and restrictions of their parents, teachers, coaches and school administrators. Students of this age are still told who and what they are, more often than they can decide these things for themselves. Therefore, it's important in the early stages of the admissions process for students to carefully consider what they believe in and what they hope for. It's equally important for parents and other adults involved with the student to encourage such ruminations and to genuinely respect the sometimes-surprising conclusions that arise.

Some of my clients end up making fairly major course adjustments in their college searches. I recently had a student who was certain she wanted a rural, idyllic campus, 'far from the madding crowd'. I encouraged her to make a list of how she spent her non-academic time. It quickly became obvious she was much more suited to life in a big city and thus ended up at NYU.

Most students don't have clearly fixed notions of what they want in college or beyond. This is actually fine, as young people should be flexible and willing to taste a wide sampling from the smorgasbord of life. However, open mindedness and a sense of adventure, while great qualities for success in college, doesn't change the fact that there are some important considerations that still must be made in order to choose an appropriate school.

I use the acronym "WART" to help my advisees navigate the admissions process:

-What do you want?

-Are you ready to go?

-Research carefully and with enthusiasm.

-Travel to see the schools.

What you want? Obviously if you plan to be an engineer, you need to go to a college with a department of engineering. Are you feeling inclined towards the small close-knit community commonly found in schools of two thousand undergraduates, or does a large public university sound like fun? Have you considered what part of America, or even the world, you might want to live in while you study? What about sports offerings, clubs and extracurriculars? Do you have political or religious affiliations that might affect your choice? What about costs and financial aid, which vary from school to school? It's really critical to create a list of what you want from college educationally, socially, emotionally and economically and use this list to help you choose among the many wonderful schools out there. 

Are you ready to go to college? College is a big commitment academically, emotionally and financially, so it makes sense to carefully think about such a big step. Ask yourself about your academic preparedness, maturity, desire, financial wherewithal and focus. Perhaps a four-year college is not the best choice at the moment? Consider other options such as community college, night school, or perhaps taking some time off between high school and further education

Research colleges that might be a good fit for you. There is a chicken and egg aspect to college research: you should research schools that you may already know and like, but the research should also help uncover some other schools that attract you. To get started assemble a list of your credentials such as grade point average, standardized test scores (SAT, ACT), high school courses taken, special interests or activities, and talents. Use the Internet to begin your research. Each college has its own website and there are many sites that can help you find colleges that might be good for you and your credentials. There is a terrific free tool offered by Princeton Review called "Counselor-0-Matic" which can be found at www.princetonreview.com. This easy to use program asks a series of questions and then generates a list of likely colleges to consider. Also, don't forget to visit your high school's college placement office, as this is a good source of help and information. You can also discuss colleges with peers and informed adults you know, but don't just accept what you're told verbatim. Do your own research to really learn about the colleges you are interested in.

Finally once you have a working list of perhaps eight to ten colleges, plan on visiting each one of them, if at all possible. This serves the dual purpose of better informing you about the colleges and in many cases affords an opportunity to be interviewed by the admissions departments. In the same way that you want to know more about a college before possible matriculation, the college wants to know more about you before extending an offer of admission.

In spite of the WARTs, the college admissions process should be fun. You are embarking on an important and wonderful adventure in higher education and personal growth. Keep focused on the all that lies ahead for you in college and don't let the obligations of the application process weigh you down. If you plan and execute each step along the way, you'll be there in no time.

Michael Wilner is the founder and principal of Wilner Education, an international educational planning practice, based in Putney, specializing in secondary school and college placement. You can contact Wilner with questions on this or any other college or secondary school admission topic at www.wilnereducation.com.