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Two years ago, I had a high-performing student who came to her first junior meeting with a list of the country’s most competitive schools.  She was sure that those were the schools she wanted, and when I looked at her list, I saw that the schools varied widely in size, location, and atmosphere. So I asked her why she had picked those schools, and she said it was because they had the highest rankings. The truth was, other than a quick Google search, she really had not done any detailed research on the universities. More importantly, she had no idea how to research colleges.

There are more than 3,000 universities in the United States, and I’ve found that most students have no idea where to begin in their college research.  It is no wonder they often rely on rankings and name recognition to develop a list of schools.  However, a recent study* from Stanford University shows that U.S. News and other rankings are based on factors that do not reflect what students want in college.  The reality is that just because a student attends a highly-ranked school does not mean he or she will be happy and successful there.

Here are some factors we think students should consider as they look for schools that best fit their needs:

Academics

It is important for students to apply to universities that have several majors that pique their interests. The college’s website is a great first stop for this information. After looking at the list of majors and minors offered at the school, students can see the course requirements for their majors.  The university’s catalog provides the graduation requirement for each major, as well as course descriptions.  In addition, students can always contact the department to which they are interested in applying with specific questions about classes and research opportunities.

Campus Setting and Culture

A school’s location significantly impacts a student’s experience. A large city tends to have more internship opportunities at close proximity for students who want to buff up their resume while in college.  A rural campus will naturally provide more access to the outdoors for students who enjoy skiing, biking, hiking, etc.

The best way to experience a campus is to visit.  Students can set up an official campus tour with the university’s admissions office, during which they can walk around the campus, speak to an admissions representative, and meet with some current students.  We also recommend students eat at the school café, hang out at the student center, and attend chapel (if it’s a Christian university) in order to get a sense of the campus atmosphere.

If college visits are not feasible, students can usually go on virtual tours on the school’s website.  They can also call the school’s admissions office to connect with current students who can speak about their experiences at the university.

Financial Aid

The sticker prices on university websites are often shocking and intimidating.  However, most students do not pay the full price.  By federal law, every university is required to have a Net Price Calculator under the financial aid section of their website.  The calculator allows families to enter their family financial information, and it helps them calculate a more realistic price, the one they will be more likely to pay.  We suggest students look at the affordability of their schools during the application process so they are not surprised when college acceptances come in.


The student I mentioned earlier? After doing some more research, she ended up changing her list by adding schools that were a better fit for her.  In fact, some of the schools were just as highly-ranked, but most were unknown to her before she began the process. She ultimately decided to attend a small private school in the Midwest instead of one of the competitive and large UC’s, and she is now in her second year as biology major; she’s on the Pre-Med track and is already doing research as a underclassman, something she probably wouldn’t have been able to do at a larger school! Ultimately, her thoughtful, well-researched choice of college opened up unique opportunities that she would not have had somewhere else.

At Linfield we are committed to helping students find post-secondary options that best fit their academic, social, and spiritual goals.  We encourage our students to think introspectively about what they are looking for in a college experience and to look beyond the name to find a university that will allow them to grow and thrive.

If you have any further questions about this, we’d love to talk to you more and help you through the process! You can contact the College Counseling Office at 951-676-8111 ext. 1354 or e-mail us at collegecounseling@linfield.com.

Erica Shen
Director of College Counseling

*To find more information on the study, please visit: https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2018/10/15/stanford-study-says-rankings-do-not-point-students-best-college-fit