7 Smart Questions to Help You Discover Your Dream College

Thursday, September 02, 2021
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It’s fair to say that for years you’ve been working towards this moment: Finding a college that matches your ambitions and passions and allows you to set the stage for a successful future career. No tall order, right?


Some students are “lucky”: They know exactly which one of the nearly 4,000 higher education institutions in the United States that they plan to attend. But, considering the many factors that go into where you’re going to spend your college years (and let’s face it, your tuition dollars), it’s not unusual to explore your options.


So where to begin?

Here are 7 questions to get you started on your search.


  1. Where will you study?

Like many questions you will consider, the answers are not one-size-fits-all and the location of your dream school is definitely one of them. Maybe you want a change of scenery, swapping the suburbs for the big city or vice versa. Maybe you are looking for a “college town” and are looking to be surrounded by people of the same age and the same forward-thinking, inquisitive mindset. Whatever you are after, plan a visit to tour campus to see if the setting matches your expectations. An admissions representative or student will likely show you around, and you can get individualized information to help you in your search. (With that in mind, here are 5 questions to ask your admissions rep.)

If you can’t make it to campus, find out if the school you’re interested in offers virtual tours. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, more colleges than ever began offering online options to explore campus, according to the New York Times. Regardless of your visit plans, a virtual tour could be a great place to start getting a feel for where you may one day call home.


  1. What’s the student body like?

College is a time for meeting new people and trying new things, so it’s natural to wonder who you’ll be learning with on-campus and what opportunities are available. You may want to find out:

  • Where are the students from? State schools are likely to draw students from nearby, while other institutions might attract students from across the country or across the globe. You might also be curious about diversity and campus culture — does your top school seem to have a welcoming environment for all? Find out.
  • How many clubs and student organizations are on campus? If you were active in a particular club in high school and want to continue at the college level, this will be a top question for you. Or maybe you want to try something totally new!
  • Are there athletic teams? If sports are your thing, this will be an important question for you to ask. You might be looking to attend a school that packs stadiums with cheering fans, or you might desire a smaller school that would allow you to join a team and get in on the action.


  1. Do I have to live on campus?

Many institutions require that first-year students live on campus, while some have more flexible policies. Dorm life has tons of benefits (close proximity to your early morning classes, for one!) but also comes with added expense. Knowing whether or not you can commute could be a crucial question in discovering your total college costs.


  1. How big are the classes?

Maybe larger lecture hall-type settings don’t bother you. But if you’re the type of student who craves more individual attention and wants your professor to know your name, you’re going to want to find out the student-to-faculty ratio, especially in your major courses.


  1. Do they have my major? (And what if I’m undecided?)

Speaking of majors, what you pick will help you focus your studies and develop the skills employers in your field are hiring for. Prior to college, you may have participated in clubs or even taken college-level courses, but now you get a chance to dive into your area of interest. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the most popular degrees conferred in the last reported year (2016-17) were in the areas of business, health, social sciences and history, psychology, biological and biomedical sciences, engineering, communication, and visual and performing arts. Most universities will offer degrees in these fields, but it’s a good idea to find out their reputation in your chosen industry.

But what if you don’t know quite yet what you’d like to study? Or what if your interests are varied and you’d like to explore them all? Be sure to find out how different colleges on your list support students who enter college as “undecided”—you may be pleasantly surprised that you can customize a degree that’s personalized to your goals.


  1. Will I get a job when I graduate?

The data around the payoff of a college degree are clear: The higher the degree you earn, the higher your earnings and the lower your risk of unemployment. But how does each institution stack up with placing its graduates into jobs? Ask about the Career Outcomes Rate, which indicates employment, additional education, fellowship/internship, or military service six months after graduation. According to the 2019 report by the National Association of College and Employers (NACE), 86% is the average nationwide rate.


  1. Can I afford it?

NCES reported the average cost of college in 2018-19 as $24,623, with public institutions coming in at $18,383 and private at $44,306. It’s inevitable that tuition costs will be a big part of your conversation around choosing a college, but be sure to explore all financial aid opportunities, scholarships, and grants before making your final decision. College is an investment, but it can be one that pays off for the rest of your life!


Now that you know what to ask, how do you keep track of what you discover? A College Decision Worksheet like this one from Johnson & Wales University allows you to rank your choices and what’s important to you. Above all, enjoy this exciting time in your life!


Since 2002, NSHSS has supported young academics on their journey to college and beyond as they prepare to become the leaders of tomorrow. The mission behind NSHSS is to recognize academic excellence and honor high-achieving students, providing them with the resources and network to excel in college, career, and community. In doing so, NSHSS connects members with global events, scholarships, college fairs, internships, career and leadership programs, partner discounts, and more. Discover what makes NSHSS worth it to student members and how you can get involved.

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