The Decision: An Admissions Expert’s Guide to Choosing a College
When trying to decide on a college, the options can be overwhelming, and the statistics can be hard to navigate. Parents can be tempted to reduce the whole discussion down to which school is the most prestigious or has the lowest tuition, while students might just want to go wherever their friends are going. But choosing a school based on brand, tuition or social circles alone leaves the most important factors off the table. For the best value and the best four-year experience possible, you’ll need to choose a school that’s uniquely right for you, whether small or large, urban or rural, private or public. To help with that all-important decision, Karen A. Pellegrino, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Saint Joseph’s University, offers her tips on determining if a school will be a perfect fit.
Think About Your Strengths
“So many people start the conversation thinking that there is a really small group of schools they should be considering,” says Pellegrino. “Much of the conversation focuses on 25 or so schools that have outrageous selectivity.” Schools like these may be prestigious, but they don’t necessarily offer the best education in a student’s area of interest or strength, and the hyper-competitive nature of the admissions process can often pressure students to conform to a profile that doesn’t reflect their best qualities.
“They try to fit themselves into what that school is looking for, as opposed to saying, this is who I am, these are the things that are important to me, these are my academic interests, these are the activities I like to be involved in.” Students who take this route might not only be missing out on a great program—their generic application could get lost in the crowd.
“Every year you read horror stories about a student who was denied admission by every school they applied to,” says Pellegrino. “I think that often happens because they applied only to those extremely selective colleges.”
Instead, look for a college with a strong interest in your favorite subject area, and include that focus in your essay and your extracurriculars. If you haven’t settled on exactly what you want to do, look for a college with a strong general education program.
“Whether that’s a core curriculum or a general education program, they need something that is going to help them structure their exploration as they’re starting, so they’re not just opening a catalogue and being told, ‘Here are a thousand classes, pick five,’” Pellegrino says.
Location Location Location
While you’re at the college, note how the surrounding environment strikes you. Academics may be the impetus for attending college, but location can also make a big difference in how worthwhile your experience is, especially regarding how you spend your time outside of class. Pellegrino points out two main factors to consider.
“There are advantages to both rural and urban schools,” says Pellegrino. “The connections you make might be stronger, or at least come more easily, in a rural setting, as long as the school draws students nationally or internationally who don’t head home on the weekends.”
If your focus is on setting the stage for a career, you might want to consider an urban environment. “If you have a location that’s more like Saint Joseph’s, where we border the city, students are going to have opportunities for internships and co-op experiences.”
Look Before You Leap
People who live in Philly and the surrounding region have a unique advantage in the admissions process, Pellegrino says.
“Looking at the Philadelphia area, Boston might have the highest concentration of students, but I believe we have the highest concentration of colleges in the country. There is such a great diversity of schools here, from public institutions to Ivy League schools to religiously affiliated schools, that a student could visit every different kind of school within a two-hour drive of their home,” says Pellegrino.
That’s a big advantage because, although statistics like retention, four-year graduation rate and job placement rate are helpful, they don’t paint a full portrait of a school. A visit will get you a sense of whether you can handle a large school, or would feel more comfortable with a small school. It will also give you a sense of whether the school is growing and will give you a good return on your investment—if you see more buildings going up and hear about new programs and majors being started, that’s a good sign.
In order to get the best picture of whether the school fits you, start by asking the tour guide about their experience, but don’t stop there.
“I often encourage students to go sit in the cafeteria and talk to some random students and get their perspective. Ask them if they have classes where they’re not in a big lecture hall, or does the faculty member get to know them and are they available outside of class,” says Pellegrino. “Those are the kinds of questions that your future fellow students are best at answering.”
Ready to start your decision process? Talk with an admission counselor, and click here to schedule a tour at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.This is a paid partnership between Saint Joseph's University and Philadelphia Magazine's City/Studio