8 Tips for Taking the College Plunge

It’s decision time for high school seniors who typically have until May 1 to decide where they’re going to attend college in the fall.

Recognizing it’s crunch time, someone at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA, sent me a list of eight tips that Suzanne Holland, an ethics and religion professor at the liberal arts college, compiled.

Most of the tips are aimed at students leaning towards a liberal arts college, but much of her advice is applicable for all students heading to college.

Here are Holland’s great tips:

1. Evaluate State University vs. Liberal Arts College.

Think carefully about your choice between a liberal arts college and a large state university. For some people, a state university may be right. For myself—I didn’t know that the college where I now teach, University of Puget Sound, existed when I finished high school. But if I had known then what I know now, I’d never have chosen a large state university. Thirty-eight thousand students versus 2,600 students?  No contest.

I went to my alma mater sight unseen because they gave me the most money, and I was miserable my freshman year. I felt like a number and was completely lost; I just wanted somebody to know me. At liberal arts colleges, faculty know who you are, and they try hard not to let you fall through the cracks. If money is an issue—ask, don’t assume. You may be surprised at the packages available.

2. Realize there isn’t a perfect college.

If you go the liberal arts route, don’t stress too much over your choice. All aim to provide a personalized education and to make you a first-rate critical thinker. So choose the college that makes you feel good about being there. That means that in addition to what courses they offer and how good their faculty are, you should also pay attention to geography. Where do you feel energized and creative? Where do you sense you will succeed?

3. Don’t fixate on college rankings.

Don’t pay much attention to U.S. News & World Report’s overrated college rankings, or any other ranking system for that matter. They’re all part of a larger culture that’s impressed with measuring, with data collection and polling, and with certification.

4. Find school where focus is on teaching.

You can get a good education most places, but a great education depends on how the faculty members regard their jobs as teachers, and on the access you have to your teachers. And it depends on what you put into it. If you go where the focus is on teaching, you will get to know your teachers, and they will get to know you.

Your papers will be graded by professors, not by graduate teaching assistants. This, in turn, means that your professors will be able to write you the kind of letters of recommendation that matter for getting into the graduate program or job you want; this is because they will know you, not a generic student like you.

5. Don’t stress about your major.

Don’t worry about what you’re going to major in. This is a waste of time and psychic energy. Most universities will give you the latitude to find your feet, and any liberal arts college worth its salt will see to it that you take a wide array of “core courses,” so that you might find what it is that excites you. If you enter college with your major already decided, you’ll close off options you might want later when you do fall in love with a subject.

I’ve had several students tell me in their junior or senior years that they majored in subjects their parents wanted them to—always something “practical”—and that they wished they could switch to religion or philosophy or sociology, but it was too late.

Do what you love, follow where your heart is. The money will follow—yes, even in this economy—because employers want someone who can think broadly and critically, and someone who’s risked doing something for the sheer love of it.

6. Explore.

As you scroll through the college bulletin, think of it as wandering among jars of colored candies, imagining what everything might taste like. A college education is an amazing cornucopia and you should sample as much of it as you can in your first two years. As the Italians like to say, “Mangia, mangia!” “Eat, eat!”

7. Find your voice.

College is a time to find your voice and this might be especially true if you are a female. Practice talking in class. Ask good questions and don’t worry if you don’t know the answers. Your professors don’t expect you to have all the answers. We expect you to have read enough so that you will know what questions to ask.

8. Don’t hold back.

Pick your favorite college, show up next fall, and give it your very best shot. Wherever you go, invest yourself heart, mind, and soul.  If you can do that, I doubt you’ll ever regret it.

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2 Responses to 8 Tips for Taking the College Plunge

  1. A Digital Dreamer April 18, 2011 at 1:44 am #

    That’s a very well rounded article. Students often freak out over some of these things and it paralyzes them a bit into making a move. No one school will be perfect. I’ve also frequently seen students stressing SO much about their major even in the last year of high school. I’ve seen SO many students change their focus as they take some classes and get a feel for what they actually are enjoying.

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