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I am so very excited for you, just beginning your college career! My undergraduate years were some of the best years of my life. I am actually a tiny bit jealous that you are just now embarking on this incredible adventure. I hope this massive blog post is a useful tool during this exciting, confusing, and perhaps stressful journey.
Click below for a copy of this blog post you can download and read offline.
For now, grab yourself a snack or your favorite drink, because it’s going to be a looooong post today. We’re going to start with academic criteria.
Look for a High Graduation Rate
It may seem pretty obvious, but one of the top criteria you want to look at when searching for a college or university is their graduation rate. You want an institution that will challenge you, but not so much that nobody ever completes their degree. A low graduation rate (or an average degree time of 6 or more years) suggests that the university does not have sufficient tools in place to help their students be successful. Two exceptions to this, are universities with high commuter rates, and universities with high percentages of first generation or international students.
Universities with higher rates of commuters typically have higher rates of nontraditional students, meaning older students with full-time jobs or even families that depend on them. These other responsibilities mean that it may take them longer than the typical 4 years to finish their degree, regardless of how well equipped the university may be to offer assistance.
Universities with high percentages of first-generation or international students also struggle with a lower graduation rate but for different reasons. First-generation students may not have:
- the financial backing to be able to attend school full-time,
- the home structure required to fully focus on academics, or
- the family support needed to successfully complete a degree.
This is not to say that first-generation students are less dedicated to higher education. The cultural norms or family finances simply may not be able to support the years of added education.
My undergraduate degree was obtained at a university with significantly higher commuter rates in a statistically Hispanic area, and sure enough, the typical student took 5 years to earn a degree when I was attending. The majority of my peers had full or part-time jobs to pay for classes since the family could not afford tuition, and sure enough, nearly everyone was either the first- or second-generation in their family to obtain a higher education. This did not mean that the university was subpar, simply that the students had other responsibilities in life they had to balance along with getting an education.
Look for a Low Student: Faculty Ratio
You want to search for a college or university with a low student to faculty ratio. Depending on your degree, your class sizes will be large regardless of the school’s overall ratio, but this ratio goes beyond class sizes. A low ratio ensures that there will be enough administrative positions to ensure that students have access to academic advisors, club advisors, career services, academic tutoring, and so much more.
My classes ranged from a class size of 300 to some as low as 20 depending on the subject. However, I was always able to make appointments to see my advisors and get the support I felt I needed.
Financial aid prospects
Even though most students will get the bulk of their financial aid from state and federal funding, University-wide scholarships can make a significant dent in the debt you’re left with after graduation. Some scholarships will have particular criteria, such as being only for a specific degree, some will be for a single semester, or a single year. Some however, will be the highly desirable four-year scholarships.
Personally, the University-wide four year scholarship I earned at the time of my admission (aside from federal aid and Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship) made the difference between having to pay out of pocket and actually receiving several thousand dollars per semester for miscellaneous student expenses. I was essentially being paid to be a student! Isn’t that just a dream come true for any 18-year-old going to college?
Academic support services
A college or university with a solid system for academic support can not only mean top notch help when your grades need a little pick-me-up, but also an opportunity to develop your own skills through tutoring or even gain some experience if you’re an Education major. Some services offered can be essay review, math tutoring, small courses on proper research offered by the library, and Teaching Assistant (TA) office hours or lab hours beyond those offered by the professor.
I remember taking full advantage of these when I was in my undergraduate program. I went to a note-taking seminar that gave me extra credit for biology and got feedback on my scholarship and graduate school application essays countless times. Enzo was my go-to graduate student tutor for writing revisions, and I still remember the odd contrast of his white hair, earring, and skateboard.
Now I’m older, in my second graduate program, and completing it long-distance but that hasn’t stopped me from taking advantage of the academic support offered by my courses. I attended weekly TA lessons for my photography course last semester as well as my computer science course this semester. They’ve even taken it one step further by offering TA sessions split up for students “more comfortable” or “less comfortable” with computer science. Resources like these are not offered at every university or even through every course, but it’s key to take advantage of them when they are available.
Beyond academic support, be sure to also look out for career services on your campus.
Career services are similar to the Academic Support services listed above, but geared towards your success post-graduation. Some services offered by the Career Services Office may be resume-building courses, resume review and formatting, as well as opportunities to undergo mock interviews and do’s and don’ts regarding what to wear to an interview. They may offer career fairs on campus and even have connections at local companies for internships and even positions post-graduation.
Admittedly, I did not take much advantage of this resource, though in all fairness, I finished my Bachelor’s and went straight into graduate school, so it would not have made much of a difference for me.
The one resource I did use, however, was the mock interviews. Believe it or not, I have dreadful stage fright and get incredibly nervous when networking or meeting new people, so mock interviews were a must to my personal and professional success.
Opportunities for advancement
This is a big one to look out for! After all, we don’t go to school for the fun of it (even though I definitely enjoy being a student), we do it to set ourselves up for promising careers. Opportunities for advancement come in many different flavors.
Research opportunities are important if you are considering graduate school and even though it’s typically associated with the sciences, important research is being conducted in nearly every field. Participating in research is also a great way to learn about what is going on in the advancement and practical application of your field of interest. Search for a university that is actively publishing research and look closely at the research being conducted in the area you wish to major in. Reach out to those professors and ask if they generally take on undergraduates for their research projects.
Doing research will not only help you build connections with your professors for recommendation letters down the road, but it will also ensure you graduate with more than a degree on your resume. Many more people are getting college degrees than before and as such, you need to take full advantage of your college years so that you stand out to potential recruiters upon graduation. Conducting research during your undergraduate years is a fantastic way to do just that.
Credit for internship positions
Universities that offer credit for time you spend at an internship give you a unique advantage because you essentially get to “double-dip” your time. Each hour you spend at your internship will not only count as class-time, but you’ll also be gaining real-world experience in the field. And even more importantly, you’ll be developing work relationships that can potentially turn into either an actual job offer at the same company, or a recommendation letter for a job down the road.
Course credit for study abroad
Study abroad is an incredible opportunity for those that can take advantage of it. Depending on the university program, your financial aid may even transfer to that other institution, meaning that your out of pocket cost would be significantly reduced. Study abroad allows you to experience other cultures and come back with new friends and experiences. If you don’t want to study internationally however, you can still do some traveling by participating in a campus exchange program.
When I was in college, I met an amazingly sweet guy, Jose. He was doing a semester-long exchange to Miami from Los Angeles. He became very close with my sorority and even came along to our end of year formal dance. Needless to say, I reached out to him the moment I knew I was moving to Los Angeles! Experiences and friendships like these, whether across the country or across the world, will stay with you and give you many fond memories to look back on.
Teaching Assistant (TA) opportunities
Teaching Assistant (TA) opportunities are great if you want to pursue teaching, whether in the K-12 system or in higher education. TA experience will show that you are confident in the material you’ve learned, comfortable in front of a crowd, and responsible balancing student and TA responsibilities.
During my undergraduate years, I took advantage of research opportunities through the biology department and through the Honors College, though I will always regret not studying abroad.
The range in their academic offerings
Last but not least, even though it goes without saying that the range in academic offerings is critical in choosing a college or university, the reasoning may not be so obvious. It may not seem very important if you already know what you want to study, but the reality is that choosing one with many other options protects you in case you switch career paths.
Personal story time!
I had loved genetics since middle school (yes… I know, I was an oddball) and fell madly in love with surgery when I was invited to enter the operating room for observation my senior year of high school. The entire application process (and the next four years) was completed as a biology major on the pre-med track. I decided to switch majors in my fourth year. Had I chosen a university based only on my plans for biology and medicine, I may have been in a serious problem at that moment.
Fortunately, I was able to switch to psychology and it only added one year to my undergraduate career. Had I needed to switch universities, it might have added as little as one semester due to the application process, but more likely, it would have taken me much more than one extra year to graduate, since it’s very rare that all your credits successfully transfer to the new school.
I know this post has a lot of material to digest, so click below for a printable copy!
Look at their Campus Size
Do you crave a small-town feel where you can know professors and peers more closely?
Or do you crave hustle and bustle?
I enjoyed the busy-ness of my large campus, always seeing new faces and meeting new people. Our total population count was nearing 50,000 when I was a student, and aside from the parking situation, I loved it. Give this topic some serious thought, because you wouldn’t want to end up on a campus where you feel like you have zero anonymity due to the small size. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to choose a campus where you end up feeling invisible in a huge sea of people, either.
Keep in mind that you can still get closeness and intimacy at a big University. This is accomplished through clubs and your involvement on campus which gets us to criteria #2…
Look at their Campus Life
This was, by far, my favorite aspect of my experience at my Alma Mater. From my second semester on campus, I joined many clubs and organizations, and all played their part in forming the person I am today. Don’t limit yourself to the possibilities of sports teams and the typical clubs, but also consider Greek life and even volunteering organizations.
If you are interested in sports, many campuses have not only official sports teams but also intramural sports clubs. These clubs are a way to engage in sports on campus without the pressure of being on an official school team.
Thanks to movies like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and The House Bunny, Greek Life has a less-than-stellar reputation. However, sororities and fraternities have much to offer a member, including but definitely not limited to:
- a sense of belonging and family for those who have never been away from home
- the support and confidence to run for highly visible positions on campus
- a push to keep grades up, since most organizations have a minimum GPA to avoid being kicked you out.
- opportunities to further your leadership experience within the organization
- acting as a liaison between the greek organization and other organizations on campus.
- opportunities to make friendships not only within the organization but with members of other partner organizations on campus as well.
Unfortunately, rumors and tall tales are often based on a shred of truth, and sororities and fraternities are no exception. There are, however, some organizations that do personify those rowdy, alcohol-fueled bullies in the movies. Therefore, it is important to do your research before joining a Greek organization.
Clubs are another great option within campus life. Most campuses with have options with many different focuses such as academic, political, religious, community service, and social aims. I have no doubt you’ll find one that speaks to you. And if you don’t, campuses with better student:faculty ratios will offer you the ability to create your own club.
Philanthropic organizations such as Relay for Life and Dance Marathon are a great way to get involved on your campus and in your local community making unforgettable memories. Beyond that, you’ll also have the opportunity to raise funds for incredible causes making a difference in our communities. Some of my best memories from my undergraduate years took place in the early hours of the night for Relay for Life, when I was most exhausted but also felt most supported by my friends.
And if you don’t want to join any organizations, don’t worry about it. If you keep on the lookout for public events hosted by the organizations or by the campus itself, you can still get a great sense of belonging and community on your campus.
My Alma Mater hosted Greek BBQ each Fall, a massive pool party each summer, and movie nights every Friday night. And let’s not forget football season’s games and day-long tailgates!
Look at the Proximity to Necessary Locations
Some universities don’t allow freshman to have cars or live off-campus. Therefore, having local entertainment, a pharmacy, and grocery store on campus or nearby will go a long way towards comfort on campus. My college isn’t doing so well in these criteria. Since I was commuting, however, this was not a crucial factor for me.
I did a summer program at the University of Pennsylvania during high school and to this day I remember how useful it was that there was a grocery store and a movie theater within walking distance from campus.
Look at their Health and Wellness Facilities
While campus life was my favorite part of college, the Health and Wellness resources got me through safe and healthy. Health and wellness resources can include:
- Exercise classes
- Counseling & Psychological Services
- Healthy meal options at the cafeteria
- Medical appointments and services
- Nature walks
I spent quite some time at the campus gym. I used the machines and weights but also attending yoga and cycling classes. The fall and winter months saw me walking the nature trails and I got healthy meals at Salad Creations on the north end of campus. The counseling and psychological services on campus came in useful too, though that story is best left for another day.
Needless to say, this category is very important for you to look at. Especially if you’re going to be living on campus and it’s your first time away from home. You wouldn’t want to gain the Freshman 15!
Look at their Leadership Opportunities
Developing your leadership skills will be crucial during these years. The best way to do it is through your involvement on campus. Of course, there is some overlap here with campus life, since sports teams and Greek life can offer you priceless leadership opportunities. However, there are other organizations on campus geared more specifically towards leadership experience.
Student Government provides an invaluable experience not only for those wanting to go into law and politics but also those that want to actively work to improve their campus and academic experience. And while campaigning can be terrifying and daunting, don’t let it put you off. It can have an unbelievably positive effect on your self-esteem and public speaking skills. If you’re absolutely unwilling to campaign however, Student Government also has an Executive Branch with positions you can apply to without campaigning.
Other organizations on a college or university campus will set up mentor-like roles between current students and incoming freshman before and during the application process. If you are interested in this type of organization, you’ll get to benefit from it twice! Not only by reaping the benefits of having someone who has “been there, done that” guide you through the ins and outs of the campus, but also by developing those leadership skills as a member.
Benefits of leadership experience
At my first job after graduation, the CEO pulled me into his office and asked me about my experience in the Finance Committee of Student Government. He thought it so interesting that he asked me to work with him on creating an organization within our field. We worked for months to organize the structure of the organization’s senate and board, and the criteria for how other companies would apply for admission into our organization. A few months later was the annual conference. When he presented on what we had created, I was incredibly proud to be among the founders and board members.
However, I was even more proud of what my college involvement had given me. The skills not only to be chosen for the role but also to execute it successfully.
Look at their Campus Safety
Last but certainly not least, be sure to do your research on campus safety. Most campuses take care to have well-lit garages and campus police patrolling the campus. Most will also send out emails when there is an emergency on or near campus. Some campuses, however, are taking advantage of modern technology and are even send out text alerts to students that opt-in. From natural disaster to crime alerts, these will keep you safe and allow you to focus on your studies and extracurricular activities.
These phone alerts were always a relief for me. I was often on campus late due to long study sessions as well as club and sorority meetings. A year after I graduated, I received an alert that there was a male student bike-riding through campus grabbing female students’ behinds. While many students found this funny, thankfully the school took the sexual assault seriously. I was relieved to receive a second alert a week or two later stating that the aggressor had been caught. It’s services like these and all the other ones I’ve discussed that make for safe, happy campuses conducive to study.
Needless to say…
Good luck on your search for a college or university that is a good match for you. I would love to hear from you if you have any questions or concerns during your search. And of course, reach out to me on my website, Twitter, or Instagram. I would love it if you let me know whether this guide was helpful to you during your application process. And I would definitely want to know what school you ended up choosing!
I wish you all the best.