College Choice Time: How to Choose Well

Be true to your school (and yourself)!

Posted Apr 26, 2013

Tis’ the season for college-bound high school seniors to make the choice where they will likely spend the next four years. Will the college of their choice be public or private? Ivy or potted-Ivy? Liberal arts or comprehensive? Big State U or small college? Research intensive or teaching-focused? Heavy Greek (fraternity and sorority) culture or not? Household name (prestige conscious) or little known? Located in a city, a town, or a rural area? Focused on athletics or academics? I could go on—but you get the idea. The choice is really a combination of choices (and I didn’t even broach the issues of cost and financial aid!).

So, how best to choose if one is blessed with the luxury of choice?

I am reminded of a classic study on improving inductive inference conducted by Richard Nisbett and his colleagues back in the early 80s. The researchers gave students a scenario about a high school senior (David L.) who was admitted to his top choices—an Ivy League university and an equally prestigious small prestigious liberal arts college. David had friends just like himself attending both places. In some versions, David visited the Ivy and had a negative experience (but his friends there all reported loving it). He loved his visit to the liberal arts college (but his friends there had many complaints about it). (The other version reversed the positive and negative experiences.)

Without delving into too much statistical detail, David’s choice of the liberal arts college could be construed as problematic. Why? Well, due to sampling bias (David’s) and ignoring of base rates (his friends’ collective experiences at both schools): He visited once and saw one day (likely less) of the place and generalized from his positive experience. His friends at that college, however, had at least a year or more of repeated exposure—a larger, more diverse data sample from which to generalize. If we can assume that David is like his friends (and social psychology shows us that we tend to attract, like, and sustain relations with folks like ourselves) then he should trust their reports over his experience—in short, if they have issues with the place and counsel him that he might want to go elsewhere (i.e., to the Ivy where his other similar friends are enjoying their educational experience), then he should seriously consider their advice.

Let me be clear—I am not saying one should choose a college based on probabilities (although in a real sense that is the nature of the choice anyway). And I can imagine many readers saying “go with the Ivy League sheepskin no matter what!” or the small-is-beautiful argument (i.e., "small colleges give individualized attention, go with than one!"). What I am saying is that students about to make a choice should consider some key factors including how much faith to put in their visits (any Admissions officer--or parent—will tell you that a sunny day on a campus increases a prospective student’s ardor more than a rainy, cold day) and what peers already ensconced say.

So, here are some suggestions for things to consider:

Average class size. Does size matter to you? Will you be happy if you take classes with 500 other people or do would you prefer a smaller student to faculty ratio? Despite what schools will tell you, discussion is not easy in large lecture classes.

Who is in the front of the room? Will you be taught primarily by full-time professors, graduate students, or adjuncts? At some universities, undergraduates don’t encounter full time instructors until they are upperclassmen (juniors, seniors).

Will you get to know your professors and how well? I hope you will. We don’t bite (well, most of us don’t), but getting to know the people who are teaching you is important (unless you wish to remain anonymous for four years—some people do).

Do you need green space? Some people love urban settings, which are exciting and busy and full of things to do (even if most of your time is spent studying, you enjoy knowing that you could join the fray if you wanted to). Others want green spaces—trees, walks, a park-like campus that invites sitting outside or strolling along, for example.

Distance? Do you want to attend school close to home so you can return often (I hope not each and every weekend) or do you want to be hours away from home?

Comfort zone? Do you want to go to a school that will challenge your views and help you to rise to the occasion or do you want to attend a place that is safe—I don’t mean easy to get into, rather, I mean that is comfortable for you, one where you notions about the way the world works won’t be rattled by raw complexity and unfamiliarity.

Curriculum or curricula? Are you choosing a college because it has exactly what you want (although most students change their minds several times and relatively few graduate with their original intentions intact) or are picking a place that will give you what you (think you) want while broadening your intellectual horizons?

Do you want to go where you know lots of people? Some students go to schools where their high schools peers go—others intentionally choose places where they won’t know anyone initially (see “comfort zone” above).

What particular criterion matters to you most (one that I’ve not mentioned?)? Fill in this blank before you choose your final destination.

In the end of course, one’s choice is not often a bad fit (and if it is, transferring to another school is possible and a popular thing to do). I wish you well if you are choosing now (May 1 is just around the corner!) or will be choosing in the next year!

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