Deciding where to go to college can be overwhelming. There are more than 4,000 schools in the United States alone, and your task is to narrow down the search to the ones that will give you the best education for your future goals.
Sound like mission impossible? Not if you have the help of an expert guide. Katherine Cohen, LinkedIn higher education expert and founder and CEO of IvyWise, a leading independent education counseling service, says students should start broadly.
“We advise clients to apply to 12 to 15 institutions that are a good fit academically, socially and financially,” Cohen said. “We’re seeing students apply to more schools because the applicant pool has swollen and the competition can be stiff. Even being academically qualified doesn’t mean you’ll get in.”
The list should include reach schools, on-target schools and some safe choices where you’re almost sure of acceptance. If you complete thorough research and figure out what you want to study at each school, you should have a dozen options that would be a good fit.
Cohen offers the following best practices and tips.
Start online searches early.
Ninth or 10th-graders can begin exploring college websites. Juniors and seniors should go deeper to look at each school’s programs, study abroad opportunities, traditions and the surrounding community, Cohen said.
“Read campus newspapers and blogs to see what’s happening and what issues concern students,” she said.
Gain inside information on LinkedIn.
“LinkedIn recently lowered its age limit to 14, and has launched University Pages where students can engage with faculty, staff, alumni and students to gain more insight about a school’s culture and strengths,” Cohen said.
Find out where alumni in your intended field work and talk to them about their career paths. You might discover a better job focus for your major and could even begin building a career support network, she said.
Learning more about a career from those who work in it is especially valuable for nontraditional students aiming for a new field.
Take advantage of college fairs or visits from college representatives to your high school.
This is a chance to ask questions face-to-face and to contrast and compare schools. MBA fairs allow prospective students to see the various programs available for degree candidates.
Visit colleges early on.
“Attend the official information session and tour because many schools will track your 'IQ’ or interest quotient,” Cohen said.
A campus visit could be a positive factor when it comes to admission selection, but the best reason is to get a first-hand look at a school, its setting and the students.
Communicate with admission officers.
“Engage the person giving the information session and find out who reads applications from your area. Contact that person by e-mail to express your interest and get additional information,” Cohen said.
Talk to the student who leads the tour. You’ll learn more reasons why you might want to attend the school, which will help with writing application essays later. Follow your interests and request meeting with coaches or faculty in relevant departments. Follow up with thank-you notes.
Ask your high school counselor for the names of former graduates who attend your prospective colleges.
Talking to someone who comes from your high school or community can bring valuable insight into a college. You might even make a friend and be able to visit him or her on campus.
Older students returning to school or changing careers can benefit from talking to career counselors, college counselors and other professionals.
Consult those experts on the types of degrees that lead to in-demand jobs, as well as job outlook, average salaries and program requirements. LinkedIn and professional associations are good resources.
“Knowing what you want to do and refining your career path can help you decide if you need a degree and what kind, or if you could upgrade your skills with a certificate or professional education. There are so many ways to learn,” Cohen said.
Do ROI research.
With rising tuition costs and a tough job market, questions about your return on investment should be part of every college search. Check with a school’s career services office and LinkedIn University
Pages to find out where alums work, what they do, how much they earn and what majors got them there. Ask about internships and other opportunities to expand your education.
Take time with applications.
Try to give admissions staff as much information as possible in your list of activities and essays.
“If using the common application, give special attention to the supplements required by individual schools. Forgetting to fill them out or rushing through them could be a deal breaker,” Cohen said.
Use early-decision plans to improve your chance of acceptance.