Notice that the title of this post isn’t how to make your college choice stress-free. Since choosing where to pursue post-secondary education is one of the more important decisions you’ll make in life, there should be a certain healthy dose of stress. “Healthy stress?” you say? It’s a real thing, believe it or not, and it’s called eustress. Think of that feeling you have after working hard on a difficult task and accomplishing your goal. In this case, your goal is to pick a college that fits best with what you’re looking for and you’re going to need to do some work to make that happen.
Before starting this endeavor, take time to pray about your college search. A bit of a Sunday School answer? Maybe. But here’s an important word of caution about prayer: don’t use it as an excuse to get away with not putting effort into your college search.
The book of Nehemiah recounts the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. There’s a passage in particular where Nehemiah prays and asks God to protect His people from their enemies. Right after he finishes his prayer, they get back to work building the wall. In other words, Nehemiah places his trust in God and understands that this doesn’t mean he can sit back and do nothing. So, in our case: pray and then get to work on your college search.
Open (and read) your mail (and email)
I might suggest investing in a quality letter-opener first. The stack of materials you receive can quickly become unmanageable if you choose the “ignore it as long as possible” approach. Take a few moments each day to go through the mail. This practice will help you form criteria for what you like (and don’t like) about various institutions.
But don’t just focus on the literature that looks the best or has the best pictures. Take time to read the language schools use to describe themselves. In particular, find their mission statement and think about how well it reflects what you’re looking for in an institution.
A practical way to organize your college literature might be to create three piles: “yes”, “maybe,” and “no.” Your “yes” pile will include colleges that you plan to look into further and maybe even visit. Your “maybe” pile would be institutions that you’re curious about but not sure if you’d be interested in visiting. And your “no” pile is schools that you have little interest in. Periodically, it would be a good idea to go through each pile and see if any re-categorizing is in order.
Finally, email. So often the temptation is to delete email without reading it. Using similar strategies above (including email folders), you can organize your email accordingly.
Talk to people and ask questions
Sometimes your family and friends know you better than you know yourself. We often form ideas regarding what kind of school we’d like to attend or what kind of major we’d like to pursue based on snippets of information we’ve received through the media (Community, anyone?) and word of mouth. In my case, my cousin went to school for engineering. He had a nice truck. Therefore, I wanted to go to school for engineering.
If you’re thinking about pursuing a particular career, talk to people in that line of work. Maybe even ask to shadow them. If you have friends in college, ask them about their experiences and what they would recommend as far as looking for colleges. Talk to your parents and other adults in your community regarding what they see in you.
You might be surprised what you hear and it will help you narrow down the kind of schools you are looking into.
Visit a variety of institutions
Some students will apply to ten plus institutions and then, based on where they are admitted, will decide which ones to visit. This is kind of a backwards approach. I still might recommend starting with a list of ten (after you’ve read college literature and have talked to people, of course) and seeing how many of these you can visit.
The first step would be to try to visit three very different kinds of schools. For example, here are common criteria students list as important to their college choice: far from/close to home, small/big school, urban/suburban/rural setting and so on. As you visit different institutions, you’re forming an opinion not just about that school but about schools like the school you’re visiting. For instance, if you visit a small, liberal arts college far from home and like that it is small but not that it is far from home, you’ve narrowed your criteria down to smaller schools. Think of it like a game of “Guess Who?”
Oh, and when I say visit, I mean actually visit. Don’t just drive through a school’s campus on a Saturday during a school holiday. Go on a campus tour. Sit in on some classes. Talk to current students.
At the end of this process of praying, reading, talking and visiting, you should hopefully be left with a decent list of schools you are interested in applying for admission to. As a disclaimer, this isn’t meant to be a cure-all for everyone’s college-search process. You might have a system that works best for you. I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below and we can see what we can learn from each other.