April 24, 2015

Advice from a College Freshman: Choosing a College

My family was panicking.

It was the day before May 1st of my senior year, and I'd just discovered that the college I had finally chosen didn't offer online commitment. 

My mom rushed to call the admissions office, I rushed to call my current student contact, and my dad carefully studied the paper deposit form.

Luckily, the office allowed me to postmark my deposit on universal decision day. 

Moral of the story: don't wait until the last minute to formalize big choices. Or, at the very least, don't wait until the day before May 1st to find out your college doesn't have online commitment.

As someone who's usually organized and punctual, I was embarrassed to submit on the last day. I had finally reached a decision a few days earlier, but I'd held off on depositing, just in case anything changed.

Choosing a college was beyond agonizing for me: my mind told me to go to Amherst, but I felt some inexplicable draw to Vanderbilt. So if you're a senior still stuck in limbo, here are my tips to reach a confident decision more quickly:

1. Seek advice everywhere
At some point in the process, I actually began polling people, from my friends to teachers to coaches. I wanted to hear different takes on my situation, particularly from people who had already experienced college. One of the most helpful conversations I had was with a teacher who'd gone to Northwestern, a school very similar to Vanderbilt, but wished she'd chosen a smaller school. She told me that it'd been difficult to take piano lessons since music students took priority, and that she hadn't had many opportunities to get to know her professors. On the flip side, I spoke to a librarian, who had attended a small school and loved it--sometimes, professors would even invite their students over for dinner. 

I also took to College Confidential. My mom stumbled upon a post in her research where a student had been in my exact same situation: torn between Amherst and Vandy. I messaged the poster, asking what he/she had settled on and if she/he could offer me any insight. I received prompt and thorough replies and began to feel more at ease with my concerns of weather, location, and personality of the student body.

To keep things fair, I also remained in contact with my Vanderbilt friend. She was able to give me a more realistic picture of several aspects, from merit scholarship availability to typical makeup of the orchestra. Website and overviews are definitely more airbrushed, so I recommend speaking with real students. I also emailed my Vanderbilt admissions officer, who I'd met at their diversity weekend, to explain my situation and seek more information. She never replied, which was not the most welcoming gesture.

You may get conflicting opinions. That's okay--you'll find yourself agreeing more with some people than others, and that indicates that you already have an idea of what you want.

2. Make a pros/cons list
Here, I broke out the gag gift I had stumbled upon in the clearance shelves of Target a few months prior. Engineered for the indecisive, it was a notepad specifically for making pros/cons lists: the left column was for pros, the right for cons, and the top for degree of urgency and issue. 

I made one for each school, and one each one I listed the food situation (buffet-style or limited? number of options?), whether they accepted AP credit and how much, curriculum requirements, location, weather, activities, class size, special majors, etc in their respective columns.

From this, it was clear that while Amherst had more cons, it also had many more pros. It also made me consider how much each factor meant to me, since some are more negotiable than others.

3. Follow your heart and mind
It's important for a school to feel right, but it's also important to be realistic. Please consider finances and quality of academics while weighing your options. I wanted to go to Vanderbilt, but I also knew that it wouldn't be the best choice: I'd be paying more to go to a school where I might have less attention in the classroom. I also wanted to go to grad school in some form, and knew I'd better save as much as possible on undergrad without sacrificing academic quality.

It gets more dicey when prestige is another factor. Again, my advice is to do what feels most right and makes most sense. I have a friend who turned down Harvard to go to MIT--she wanted to study math, and had really disliked the attitude of some of her prospective classmates at Harvard. Contrary to popular belief, she wasn't giving anything up: she was simply selecting the best fit.

4. If your schools are rigorous, worry less about location
I was convinced that I'd be living with cows in the middle of nowhere if I went to Amherst. I was really wrong--yes, the city is more rural than my hometown, but there's still plenty to do and places to go to replenish my snack stock (hello Whole Foods and Trader Joe's). 

Also, I've found that I really don't have much time to leave campus. With a full schedule of classes, orchestra, violin lessons, music tutoring, and running, I'm lucky if I go grocery shopping twice a month and eat out in a local restaurant once a week. When I visited Boston and met up with MIT friends over fall break, one girl noted that I knew the city better than she did--I had only been there once before, and she'd been living there for almost two months!

So, if location is a concern, don't let it keep you from enrolling at the school you're leaning towards. 

5. Worry less in general
If you've done your search right and your colleges have selected well, all your options should be good fits. I don't regret going to Amherst. Yes, there are days I wonder what could've happened had I gone to Vandy--I might've chosen to major in strictly the humanities, I might've joined a sorority, I might've given up violin, I might've run into Taylor Swift on the streets of Nashville and become best friends with her--all these ponderings are simply part of life. We'll never know and will always wonder what would've happened had we chosen the other path at that fork in the road (Robert Frost, anyone?). I know it seems like a huge, life-changing decision--it is--but remember you're not bound to whatever path you choose. There's always the option of transferring, which people do pursue.

In the end, a college can't determine your future--only you can.

If you have and tips or experiences of your own that you'd like to share, feel free to drop a note. If you happen to be a high school senior still deciding and would like some insight, please don't hesitate to send me an email at [email protected] (especially if one of your options is Amherst!).

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Join the conversation!

  1. I went completely with "practical" when it came to choosing my college--I chose the one that offered me the best financial package. That was a key priority for me because I had no money for college so I had to choose the one that was free. I'm very glad with the choice I made, but yes, ideally, a little more thought than that would go into it.

  2. Right, I had to eliminate certain options immediately because of insufficient financial aid. It wasn't fun, but it made my decision a little easier. It's definitely a two-sided issue--it's great to have the freedom to chose, but also agonizing sometimes!

  3. Plenty of good advice here! I honestly haven't got much advice for anyone. I knew I had to stay in London because I didn't have enough money to pay for university accommodation, so I had to live at home and commute on the train to university in London so that limited choices for me to those one could reach from Essex, where I lived. I actually only ended up applying to City university, where I went to, because I randomly flicked open the UCAS guide to it and noticed it said you would have lessons at the Guildhall School of Music (very prestigious conservatoire of music), I just put it on my list as my 6th London choice and never read a prospectus or visited it, but they were the first to call me to interview. I really liked the building and enjoyed my interview and just got a good feeling. Still hadn't read a course guide. I went to another interview at the place I thought I wanted to go, disliked the place and was supremely irked that I was told I'd be useful as a viola player in the orchestra despite having just auditioned on the flute and been told I was a good player! I totally went on the feeling and despite the fact the course was really alternative, ended up loving it and having an amazing time and loads of opportunities.I had lessons at Guildhall which was amazing, became Principal flute of my uni orchestra despite being a first year and there being 20 other flutes (despite the fact they had a shortage of violas) and going to study gamelan in Indonesia.
    Oh and re A'levels. SO...at school from the age of 11-16, school is compulsory, When you are 14-16, you choose between 9-12 subjects you want to to take for GCSE exams (some like maths, double English and double science are compulsory.)

    You take exams when you are 16, at the end of the two years. Now, if you choose to carry on with school you usually take A levels (stands for Advanced Level). Generally, when I was at school, you chose 3 subjects, usually linked to what you wanted to do at University. You study for these for two years and these are your final school exams. Nowadays, you take 4 subjects in the first year, take AS level exams and then choose three of them to continue with for the second year (now called A2 exams). When I was at school, you just did A levels for the 2 years. Most people did 3 subjects but I did 6! I did History, German, Performing Arts, Theoretical music, Practical Music, and General Studies. When you apply to university, your teachers will submit predicted grades to your university application for these exams so the uni knows what you are likely to get. They then make a decision on whether to accept you or not. When you receive your final grades for the A levels in mid August, the university either accepts you, if you got the grades you needed or might still accept you if they liked you or they reject you and you go for your 'second choice'. OR if you didn't get the grades for the second choice, you go into 'Clearing' which is where you find out which universities still have places on their courses.
    Hope that is helpful!


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