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To start, let’s consider this story…

Stephen, a student who grew up watching his mother work as a nurse, had known his whole life that he wants to be a doctor.

A hardworking student who made up for what he lacked in natural ability through hard work and diligence, he was delighted to find that he had been accepted to Johns Hopkins University: an institution particularly well-known for its medical school.
Stephen and his mother felt that his future was now assured. The hard part, they thought, was over and done with. However, once at Hopkins, Stephen found himself surrounded by hundreds of students who were just as motivated as him. To make matters worse, many of these students had more native aptitude or were better trained for the rigors of the tough pre-medical curriculum.

For the first time in his life, hard work just wasn’t enough to help Stephen excel. In an environment that mercilessly distinguishes the best from the rest, where grading on a curve is a norm, Stephen found himself losing ground. His undergraduate grades suffered. And by the time he was applying to medical school, he was severely disadvantaged by his mediocre undergraduate transcript.

Furthermore, having sacrificed plum research opportunities in his efforts to keep up his grades, Stephen found himself with an noncompetitive résumé. And he was not accepted into any top-tier medical school.

Why am I telling Stephen’s story?

Every spring, anxious high school seniors across the U.S. receive both good and bad news from the colleges they have applied to. For many of these students—and their parents—this feels like the end of a long hard journey. Everyone has worked overtime, sacrificing time and resources to make sure these students end up with the best possible college options at the end of their high school career.

Students who get into their dream school feel their future is assured; students who are left only with “safeties” feel that their lives “are over.”

It is true that the choice of college is hugely significant, potentially life-changing. This is why it’s so important to make sure that a student find the right-fit college.

But students and their families must not lose sight of the fact that in the U.S., an individual’s career only begins with the choice of college.

An undergraduate institution is only a jumping-off point: pretty much every career goal still remains a real possibility for all those students who fail to get into their dream school. Everything depends on what students do once they arrive on campus.

Lots of students at Harvard would, like Stephen, have been better served in their long-term goals if they hadn’t gotten into their dream schools.

How important is school “name” and “brand” in the U.S.?

Now the same isn’t necessarily true in many other countries. In fact, most immigrant parents will be speaking from experience when they emphasize the importance of name brand. In many other countries—and at different times in this country—students who failed to get into the right college could be significantly disadvantaged for years to come.

Unsurprisingly, then, what most immigrant families do when college responses arrive is pick the school with the most prestigious name or the highest ranking. While this is certainly an efficient way to come to a decision, it is not always in the student’s best interests.

For a student such as Stephen, for example, Johns Hopkins was quite obviously the wrong fit. Attending this institution ended up hurting rather than facilitating Stephen’s ability to achieve his long-term goals.

Had Stephen done more research into the school before turning in his acceptance, he might have realized that the highly charged and ultra-competitive nature of the student body would not have been the best academic environment for a student with his particular learning style. In fact, if Stephen had attended a different school, he would most likely have received higher grades, stood out from among his peers, and earned acceptance into some of the very same medical schools that ultimately rejected him.

Five important factors students should consider when choosing a college

Of course, many students don’t have as specific a picture of their future as Stephen did. But there are several things all students should consider in identifying right-fit colleges:

  1. Degrees and majors offered
  2. Location and setting
  3. School size and demographics
  4. Public vs. private schools
  5. Financial considerations

Factor #1: Degrees and majors offered

Some majors are not offered at every school. For example, not many schools offer a degree in journalism. And only two Ivy League schools—Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania —offer degrees in business. In fact, most liberal arts colleges won’t offer options in business or engineering. Therefore, students should make sure that the majors they are seriously considering are offered in the schools they apply to.

Factor #2: Location and setting

Does a student need the quiet of a rural environment or the bustle of an big city? Is it in a student’s best interest to stay closer to home, or is it time for him or her to develop some independence?

The issue of location and setting is not just a matter of personal preference (though for lots of students, it’s mainly that). Although almost all college will have institutional connections with the nearest major urban center—Cornell, for example, though “in the middle of nowhere,” offers lots of summer opportunities in New York City—it still remains true that the NYU student, for example, will have opportunities that the Dartmouth student won’t.

Studying in a major urban center allows students to undertake internships or part-time jobs at the same time as their studies (and not just during summers or exchange terms). This consideration is more important for some majors and some students than others.

Factor #3: School size and demographics

Like the issue of location, the size and demographic makeup of a school is largely a matter of personal taste. But it can have a profound impact on a student’s college experience.

Students who tend to be shy or who thrive only when provided with a lot of personal attention should consider private colleges, perhaps even small liberal arts colleges. Public schools can be overwhelming for such students because of the sheer size of the student body, which necessarily results in very large classes and limited access to professors and administrative support.

Factor #4: Public versus private

For many students, the choice between public and private school is largely governed by financial considerations. But parents should not assume that private colleges aren’t affordable. Many private schools, especially the more selective schools, have surprisingly generous financial aid policies and will do what it takes to attract a highly qualified student.

Also, parents should factor in the graduation rates of a particular institution when calculating expected costs. A “cheaper” school where students take an average of six years to graduate because of limited seats in core classes might end up costing as much as a private school where students generally graduate in four years.

Factor #5: Other Financial Considerations

Of course, there are lots of other factors that can affect the overall cost of attending a college. Given the centrality of financial considerations for a lot of families, I’ll devote a separate blog post specifically to this topic, explaining in depth the three most important things to remember when navigating the finances involved in choosing a college.

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