Back when I was making my choices about college, I knew very little about the way the admissions and financial aid process works.
Like many students, I was the first in my family to go to college. So, while my parents supported me immensely, they didn’t know any more about the process than I did. It was mostly up to me to figure out how to navigate the waters.
In the end, I managed to make my way through the whole thing. I went to a college that I loved–and I had a great time.
I wouldn’t say that I regret my decision at all, but, as with most decisions, hindsight can be quite revealing. In my case, it was definitely so. While I’m not sure that I would choose a different college if I had to do it again, there are a number of things that I wish I knew then to help me through the process. Here are 5 things to know before applying to college:
1. Private colleges are not usually as expensive as they seem
One of the things to know before applying to college is cost. For me, the cost of college was a huge factor in my decision. I knew that my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my education, so it was up to me to take on loans or pay my own way.
In Iowa, there are a number of great, private liberal arts colleges that may have been a good fit for me. But, like many students, I was scared away by looking at the cost. $45,000 a year? How could I possibly justify spending what appears to be three times as much on a college education? It just didn’t seem reasonable.
Because of this, I rejected the idea of even considering a private college.
Little did I know, that the “sticker price” and my net price at a college are often two very different things. And, in fact, I could have probably gone to many of the private colleges near me for about the same or even less than I paid at a state university.
2. Follow your gut about what you want, but give other options a chance
One of the things to know before applying to college is also being open. When I was deciding where to go to college, I had convinced myself that I wanted to go to a big university. Like many kids, I grew up watching TV and movies about “college life” that showed a huge Greek community and classes full of hundreds of students. It seemed like the only “real” college experience.
But, after having spent time visiting friends at other college campuses, I came to realize that there were definite benefits of smaller colleges as well. Aside from the obvious–smaller class sizes–colleges with smaller populations always felt more like a community. It was almost like a little neighborhood where everyone knew each other; people seemed to make friends quickly as they had smaller classes with more of the same people.
This, too, has its downsides–small colleges can be “cliquey” or feel like another 4 years of high school, I came to find out–but, the point is that I pretty much entirely ruled out small colleges without even giving them a chance.
3. Seriously, start planning early
I know. You’ve been told a million times that you should start looking at colleges and planning early in high school. It seems cliche. Plus, the idea of having to figure out your future when it seems like you just started high school yesterday can be terrifying.
But, the truth is: The college search process takes the same amount of work whether you start it your freshman year or your senior year. The only difference is how much time you have to do all of that work.
Would you rather spread out everything over 4 years and take your time, or rush to get it all done in the first few months of your last year–when you’re basking in the glory that is being the upperclassman? If you think about it logically, I think that it’s obvious that starting early is the better choice.
4. Figure out what you’re good at and enjoy, then find a college that can help you turn that passion into an education and a career
This is one of those times that I just happened to get extremely lucky. I had no idea what I was going to major in when I got to college. In fact, I don’t think that I really discovered my passion until some time into my sophomore year.
It just so happened that my university offered an excellent Journalism and Mass Communication program and my talents pulled me toward writing. In the end, it was a great match. But, not every student gets so lucky.
Keep in mind that almost every college has a “speciality”, or a program that it hangs its hat on being better at than other colleges. Even elite schools are better for some majors and worse for others. I would encourage you to narrow down your major as much as possible–even if that just means deciding between a B.A. and a B.S.–and let that guide your college search.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Of all things, I guess this would probably be the best piece of advice I can offer. As a legal adult about to graduate from high school, I know it can be difficult to want to take direction from someone else. But, remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
Although your school counselor may not have enough hours in the day to help every single student, I guarantee that they want nothing more than to help you as much as they can. Reach out to them and other resources at your school to help answer the hard questions and help you find your path forward.
If that fails, don’t be afraid to reach out to family or friends for their advice, especially if they’ve gone through the college process.
You’ll be amazed at how much wisdom someone can provide, even if just from their own experience. Hopefully these 5 things to know before applying to college will help your application process!