For high school juniors, college might seem like a long way off. Yet with early admissions programs continuing to report record applications (with due dates as early as November 1st of senior year), the timeline for students to begin evaluating colleges is creeping earlier into junior year. While students can visit colleges in the summer, it is not an ideal time as there are few students on campus and classes are not always in session, making it difficult to get an accurate feel for the campus. That leaves school vacations in February, March and April as priority times for visiting. And before families can schedule visits, they need a plan. That is why January is the best time for students to develop an initial college list.
The College List: A Prerequisite to College Visits While there are many factors to consider in creating a college list, here are five points to contemplate so you can establish criteria for your college search:
1. Academic Environment: Students should think about how they learn best. One way to get at this is to think about favorite teachers and what it is about their style that worked particularly well for you. Students can make a list of their most important academic experiences during high school, including their favorite assignments, projects, courses and units of study to identify clues. This can include learning experiences outside of school.
2. Social and Cultural Environment: What do you enjoy about your high school and the community in which you live? What would you change if you could? By reflecting on current experiences, including extracurricular activities, peer groups and the importance of factors such as religious life and diversity, students can determine what kind of campus identity and culture they are seeking.
Jocie, a senior at Newton North High School, gave a lot of thought both to what she enjoyed and didn’t like about her high school experience. In high school she was actively involved with social justice and sustainability initiatives. “It was important to me to find colleges where students cared about current events, social justice issues and politics.”
3. Academic Offerings: If students have begun to think about careers and college majors, they should learn more by visiting career websites and identifying colleges that offer related programs. A good place to begin is the government site for the Bureau and Labor Statistics which offers a link to the Occupational Outlook Handbook with descriptions of a wide range of careers.
4. Paying for College: Before creating a college list, student should talk with their parents about how the family plans to pay for college and if there are financial limitations. Families can estimate if they are eligible for financial aid by using an online calculator such as the one found at www.finAid.org, a site with a myriad of information about financial aid, scholarships and other resources.
5. Admissions Selectivity: What does your transcript look like and how are you expecting to do on the SAT or ACT? Your grades, course selections and test scores factor into which colleges end up on your list. Please don’t confuse selectivity with quality. Colleges can be hard to get into, but easy to stay in, or not very hard to get into, but challenging and rewarding once on campus. Just because a college is popular among your classmates doesn’t mean it’s right for you. And remember that if you don’t fare well on standardized tests, there are many colleges with test optional policies.
High school seniors who have recently been through the process caution against being too much of a stickler about the criteria for your college search because you might end up eliminating some really great options. “Think about the factors that you need in your college, but don’t treat them as a checklist,” said Joe, a senior from Brookline. “When you learn about a college that is potentially interesting, think about all its characteristics in context. You don’t want to say, it has to be in the city and it has to be larger than 2,000 students or I won’t consider it.”