A friend asked for my advice as her daughter begins the college search process. Maybe this advice can help you or someone you know as you embark on this milestone.

This is what I recommend:

  1. Visit campus when school is in session and do an individual visit at anyplace that you are serious about. Visit programs are fine to get an overview, but I would visit 1:1 to the schools on the short list.
  2. While there, watch how staff interacts with each other and with faculty/students. Do they call students by name when passing in the hall? Greet each other? Treat faculty and staff the same? I think you can tell a lot about the climate from informal interactions. Is it a “we” place or a “they” place — you want to go somewhere where the staff genuinely likes each other because they will work together better and be more likely to resolve problems for your student.
  3. Don’t pick a school based on a major, faculty member or coach. Yes, the institution should have the major that the student thinks they want initially, but chances are they will change majors and/or the individual person could leave. I used to tell students that they were looking for a fit in three areas: academically, socially (all out-of-classroom including athletics, involvement, the city, etc.) and financially. Consider it as a whole. The place with great academics may not be the best choice overall.
  4. See your final financial aid package before deciding. The “too expensive” school may become affordable and the lesser-cost one may actually require more personal investment. Know the numbers before you choose.
  5. Ask about freshmen retention: what are the numbers, what are the reasons students leave, what are they doing to help students stay. It will also tell you a lot about the climate and whether there is a culture of students-are-on-their-own or whether the institution invests resources toward student success.

The college search is a great paradox where on one hand it influences so much, but on the other hand, there are few wrong choices. I believe much of college is what a student makes of it. The same student can have a great experience and learn a lot almost anywhere if they put their mind to it. So don’t stress too much about it — go where the fit in the three dimensions feels best and enjoy!

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