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How to Pick a College

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #85, 2008.

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Jeannette Webb


Selecting a college to attend ranks among the most important decisions that your children will face in young adulthood. While many parents want to control this decision, I encourage you to enter it jointly with your child. It is their life and they ultimately have to live with the consequences of that choice. My children both made very different selections than I would have made at their age, but then I raised them to be much more mature and self-sufficient than I was. As homeschoolers, their education was far superior to mine and therefore prepared them for much more challenging fields and equipped them to compete at top schools.

Understanding Yourself

While it is true that you can survive anything for four years and youth makes you very resilient, I still counsel students to think about who they are and what they like before any serious college search begins. Is your student a “city kid” or a “country kid?” I don’t mean where they were raised, but where their heart feels at home.

City kids thrill to the big city sounds of sirens, the throbbing pulse of the crowd, the excitement of countless museum exhibits. They might pick a campus in the heart of New York or Boston. All this noise and confusion will shut a country kid down. It feels threatening. Country kids need room to breath, green spaces, places of retreat. They might pick a campus that is either outside a city or is very spacious and private within a city.

Does weather affect your student? It certainly is a factor for some kids. One student, after visiting Boston, made the comment, “Everything was grey-the sky, the buildings, the people!” He needed sun and wisely chose southern California. He would have been miserable in Cambridge or Chicago. Some students choose to go somewhere very different from home just for experience and that’s great, as long as they realize what they have to deal with. Be aware that most college visits are made when the weather is great. The same campus in the throes of winter is a very different place.

Does your student want people or privacy? Extroverts with a host of friends might choose a large campus with thousands of incoming freshmen. There is always somebody new to meet and something exciting going on. There are countless clubs to join, but the chance of being taught by TA’s (and not professors) is much higher when class sizes number in the hundreds. Ironically, there is also the chance for anonymity on a large campus; no one knows your business unless you want them to.

If your student thrives on deep relationships with a few individuals and likes knowing everyone he meets on campus, a small school would be a better choice. Here administrators and professors know you by name and you get more personalized attention and opportunity for specialized projects. There will be fewer options for majors and a smaller selection of classes. The smallness is a cocoon for some and claustrophobic for others. You can’t hide here; everyone knows you.

Even more important than the logistical and environmental issues are the deeply embedded personalities of your students. Are they resilient? Can they bounce back from failure repeatedly? Are they flexible and able to live with (and love) people with very different values, morals, and beliefs than their own? Are your students tenacious? Can they hang on to their dreams despite opposition and obstacles? If your answer to any of these questions is “no,” they are not ready for the challenge of a cold, hard, intellectual campus experience. You must search hard for a truly Christian campus that will give them time to mature.

Check Your Field

It is easy to Google the top-ranked schools in your field of interest, to find which schools are considered powerhouses and command the attention of recruiters in particular fields. It gives us a place to begin our research.

While some students are fairly sure of their major, it is always wise to select a school that gives you room to move. It is also important to think about what else your student would like to pursue. For example, my daughter wanted an engineering major at a well-respected science school and wanted to continue her violin study with master teachers. As a safety net, she also needed a strong math and physics department should she decide to change majors. We had to find a school that offered all of the above (not an easy task).

As we began our search, we found some schools that offered a fabulous math department but a mediocre engineering department. For my student who could go either way, this was not a good choice. Some schools were engineering only, leaving no room to change majors. Some schools did not have engineering at all. Some schools that had great science, but had limited opportunities for music or did not have good financial aid. This sifting and sorting process was the first of many steps.

Be aware that if your students plan to go to graduate school at a top-ranked institution, chances are they will need to get a bachelors degree at a good mid-tier school or be an absolutely stellar, top-ranked student at a strong state school.

Once you’ve narrowed the schools to those who have what you want, you must then carefully scrutinize each school.

What to Read

If you are considering a top or mid-tier school, I recommend starting with Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth About America’s Top Schools from Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Updated annually, this huge book looks at America’s top 100 schools and gives you a perspective on campus life as well as statistics on admission, crime, cost, and student debt. They look at the outstanding professors on campus, core academic requirements and whether the school offers a true Western civics core component. While ISI does tend to focus more on the liberal arts rather than the quantitative subjects, it is invaluable to get a feel for each campus. They report on speech codes, coed bathrooms, sensitivity requirements, alcohol and drug use, etc.

ISI also publishes All American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith. This book has the same format, but lists ISI’s favorite schools-usually small, liberal arts schools that do a good job with the Western canon.

I also keep an eye of publications like World magazine, which frequently reports on the academic freedom of colleges, both Christian and secular.

Talk to Students & Grads

One of the most helpful things to do is to talk to alumni and students in your major, particularly upperclassmen and those recently graduated. There can be vast differences between departments on a single campus.

New students are still enraptured with their new-found freedom and are still very positive. Older alumni are loyal to their core and have forgotten many things. Schools can also change drastically through the years.

Upperclassmen and recent graduates can be bluntly honest about the good points and the shortcomings of their school. Questions to ask:

  • What is the best thing about this school?
  • What is the worst thing about this school?
  • Did it prepare you for your job?
  • Would you choose it again?
  • Are professors open-minded or do they have an agenda?

Ask your department of interest who is recruiting their graduates. What grad schools have accepted their students? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How do they compare to similar departments at the other schools you are looking at?

The Campus Visit

Are there safety issues at this school? What is the neighborhood like around the campus? How many assaults occur yearly on campus (available in the ISI Guide)? Is public transportation safe? We found that students were much more honest about this than the administration. Another part of the safety issue is whether campus housing is guaranteed for four years. For schools that are surrounded by bad neighborhoods, this info is vital. Safety is an issue for any student, but particularly for females. Several schools that were options for my 6’2” weight-lifting son were not options for my willowy 5’6” daughter.

Is there an anti-Christian feel on campus? How strong is the campus Christian group (Campus Crusade, Navigators, InterVarsity)? Are there solid churches within walking distance (for the student who does not have a car)?

What kind of posters are up on bulletin boards and public places? Be aware that campus newspapers always attract the far-left and the obnoxious, so don’t assume they represent the tone of the entire campus.

Are people pleasant? Are the dorms light and airy or filthy and oppressive? Are dorm suites or bathrooms coed? Are there many militant, combative activists around campus?

Don’t Stop at One

It is important that your student not set their heart on a single school, especially if it is a competitive school. Top schools can receive up to 30,000 applications for only 2,000 slots. For this reason, we must select a range of schools with which they can be comfortable: stretches, possibles, and safeties.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Top

My experience has proven that Christian kids who are grounded and mature thrive in a top college environment. Students who are not mature start sliding fast at any college, including Christian ones. Unfortunately, many “Christian” schools are Christian in name only. Because students feel “safe” going there, they find their faith undermined by professors they think they can trust.

Students should not make the critical college choice because of the name of the school (Harvard) or the label it has (Christian), but find the school that offers them the atmosphere and academics they want. It has to be the right fit for them. It doesn’t matter that it’s not the right fit for someone else. There are fine Christian schools and there are horrible elite schools. But the reverse is also true.

Jeannette Webb has worked with high school students for over 25 years. Jeannette teaches “Homeschooling Through High School” seminars and is a college coach dedicated to helping homeschool students matriculate to America’s top colleges. She can be reached through aiminghigherconsultants.com.


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