Choosing A College: What Really Matters

Students should consider a college that supports the development of writing and speaking skills.

Our world is shrinking. Cell phones and Internet access in Sub-Saharan Africa have revolutionized that part of the world, expanding development opportunities and education. American corporations continue to open branches all over the globe. Outsourcing is no longer reserved for call centers; it’s increasingly common for professional functions from engineering to marketing. Such shifts make it very unlikely that today’s college students will work in one place from college graduation through retirement. Chances are they will be called upon to reinvent themselves—repeatedly—during their careers. First-year college students ignore the implications of these changes at their peril. How then, should high school seniors evaluate their college acceptances, going beyond the practical evaluations typically involved when choosing a college. While there are many factors that contribute to a strong undergraduate education, here are five outcomes that your college of choice should emphasize:  

1. Writing Well. Look for colleges that offer first-year writing seminars in small classes of less than 20 students, ideally taught by full-time professors. Students typically choose the seminar topic from a long list of interesting options. Recent seminars at various colleges range from a cognitive science seminar called “The Science and Fiction of the Mind” to a politically-focused one called “Making Sense of Opinion Makers and Making Up Your Own Mind.” The seminar should be the beginning of a four-year engagement with writing. Writing in college should be viewed as a substantive action that is required across all your academic courses. It’s not a series of steps, but a way for you to communicate your thinking in a clear and effective manner. Look for writing centers, preferably staffed by professionals instead of peer tutors.  

2. Effective Speaking Skills. In addition to being able to write clearly, you also need to be able to present your ideas orally. A 2009 Association of American Colleges and Universities survey found that 89% of employers want more emphasis on the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing. Some colleges, such as U. Penn, are beginning to designate academic courses that offer opportunities for significant speaking. If speaking makes you fearful, look for colleges that provide support for speaking advising and assist with rehearsals for course presentations.  

Choose a college that helps students build creative and analytical perspectives.

3. Thinking from a Creative, Analytical and Practical Perspective. An educated person should be able to understand the nuances in texts as well as the underlying concepts and have the ability to apply learning to new situations. Ask your prospective colleges how their curricula and philosophy support the development of these kinds of critical thinking skills. One feature to look for is if the college offers the opportunity to complete an honors thesis or independent research. The College of Wooster requires an independent project from all seniors with recent projects on topics such as One Hundred Years at the National Museum: A Cross-Time Comparison of the Smithsonian Institution; The Effect of Prenatal Lead Exposure on Alcohol Preference in Rats; and Cognition in Foreign Policy Crisis Decision-making Computer Analysis of Public Statements by John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush.  

4. Mastery of a Foreign Language and Knowledge of Cultures. There is a very good chance that you will have a job that takes you overseas or, at the very least, has you interacting with those based in other countries. For this reason, look for a college that encourages mastering a language, which will help you stand out in the work world and be an asset if you plan to apply to graduate school. Many colleges offer residential houses that focus on language learning. Further, your college of choice should put an emphasis on international and cultural understanding through course work and study abroad offerings. Look at the college mission statement to see how they emphasize global understanding the way Goucher College does in this excerpt from their statement: “An international outlook extending liberal arts education beyond Western cultures to encompass the perspectives and achievements of other members of the world community.”  

5. Building Ethical Thinking. College should be a time when students build maturity and shift from thinking primarily of themselves and their own achievements to directing their knowledge toward a common good. Colleges can help students balance their own interests and needs and aspire to lead ethical professional lives through strong mentoring programs, course work connected to service such as the way Tulane University has supported the rebuilding of New Orleans, a commitment to diversity of all kinds on campus, and setting an example of ethical behavior from the President’s office and the athletic coaches on down.

When evaluating your college options, by all means check out the athletic facilities, the quality of the food, and whether they have strong offerings in your majors of interest, but don’t forget to look at the quality of the overall educational offerings—and how they will prepare you for a new world.

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