How to Pick a College for the First (or Second) Time: Advice on Selecting a School for First-Time Applicants or Transfers

college admissions

college admissions-2Well-meaning parents and older friends will probably tell you that college will be “the time of your life.” “You will find your people,” they might say. As a rising high school senior, I found this exciting and disconcerting: Would my peak be in college? And, how would I find my people anyway? I remember feeling both thrilled to graduate high school and overwhelmed by the college application process. I could not wait to meet new and interesting people and take fascinating courses in English and history, and my expectations for college could not have been higher. But, by the end of my first semester of college, I knew I wanted to transfer.

This blog post will examine how and why you should pick a school (whether as a first-time applicant or transfer) and what makes a school a good fit.

1. Picking a college is an exercise in knowing yourself (and so is transferring)

Before you apply to college, you should ask yourself two different questions: Why is this school the right fit for me? And, why am I the right for this school? The answers to these questions may be based on the academic, extracurricular, and/or social aspects of a school.

Think about the subjects you enjoy and the work you excel at:

Even if you do not yet know what you want to study (and plenty of students change their majors and minors), it pays to think about the subjects you enjoy and the work you excel at. With your academic interests in mind, research both the courses offered and the professors who teach at relevant departments. Two colleges may have well-ranked Hispanic studies departments, but the professors in each department may focus on entirely different time periods or regions. It will be easier to choose a school that fits your academic interest the more you know and understand those interests.

Consider the school's extracurricular offerings:

In terms of extracurricular activities, I would highly recommend reaching out to current students. They can tell you how seriously students take their club activities (whether they are pre-professional or sports related) and the breadth and depth of activities offered. The selection of clubs offered will also indicate to you the interests of the student body and you can observe how well they match onto your own. In this sense, the extracurricular offerings at a school may also reflect the social scene.

Ask current students about the social scene and culture:

You should (again, I highly recommend) ask current students about the social scene and culture at a particular school. Some schools are known for being laid back, others are known for stress cultures. Some schools have excellent arts and music scenes, some schools have a large presence of fraternities and sororities. Ultimately, you will need to think about what you enjoy doing outside of class and homework to decide if you will be happy at school.

2. Great expectations and the realities of transferring

Managing your own expectations around college is crucial to feeling happy. I remember tour guides painting an idyllic picture of campuses I visited. I would walk through quads full of sophisticated, smiling students as the sun filtered through lush green trees, and I felt completely in awe. What the tours won’t show you is the libraries during finals, fights between the student body and the administration, and what college is like on a typical weekend (talk with current students or stay a weekend at a college to find this out). When you arrive at school, be prepared that your tour and the glossy pictures of students on the university website may not reflect daily reality. Instead, focus on taking courses you enjoy, throwing yourself into extracurriculars you might find interesting, and talking to people that support your dreams and make you feel at home.

When to consider transferring:

If you find that your school is not a great fit, and that your expectations of student life were not met, it may be time to consider transferring. Ask yourself all the questions you (hopefully) already asked when you were applying to college the first time. Make sure to talk to other students at the colleges you are interested in and do your research on what the new schools will be like. Do not pick a school based on reputation or what you think you might like. Pick a school based on facts that you know about yourself and facts you know about that school. And, this may sound counterintuitive, continue to actively participate in activities at your current school even if you are also applying to transfer. Just because a school is not the right fit does not mean that you can’t enjoy your time there. You will also signal to the college you are applying to that you will be an active member of the student body and that you made earnest attempts to make your experience at your first school worthwhile.

The process of transferring:

Transferring is not an easy process – you will be forced to reflect and understand your academic interests, social preferences, and future ambitions – but these difficult questions yield the most rewarding answers. Whether or not you are accepted into the school or schools you apply to, the answers to these questions will help you understand how to fit in better at your college and manage expectations of college and working life. So, when you open the Common Application for a second time, do not view the essays and letters of recommendation as daunting obstacles, but rather an opportunity to get to know yourself better and make yourself a home at whatever school you attend.

Are you applying to college for the first time or considering transferring? Make the college application process less of a bear. Enlist the help of a college application coach during any part of your process, whether it’s academic and extracurricular advising, school selection, managing deadlines, or essay writing.

Match Me with a College Coach Now!

Want to read more about college admissions? Take a look at some of our previous blog posts here:

Cracking the College Admissions Process, Part I: The Search and the Setup

What should I write about? 3 rules to follow when coming up with a college essay topic

Where Else Could you Go to College? Your Top Four Choices Beyond the Ivies