There are over four thousand colleges and universities in the United States, and thousands more across the globe. You’ve heard about some of them from your teachers, school counselors, family members, and friends. You may have read through ranking lists, and perhaps you’re planning to apply to the most highly ranked schools that are in range for you. The tricky thing about that strategy is that the “best” schools may not be the best schools for you. College is a time to explore your academic interests and develop your career path, as well as develop as a human being and create your own social community. Although you may only be on campus for four years, your alma mater is yours for life, and with that comes friends, professional connections, and countless opportunities. So before you dive into the Best College guidebook, take a step back and spend some time considering what you value most in your life so your values can inform your college list.
WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES?
People are happiest and most fulfilled when they live in ways that are consistent with their values, so it’s important that you identify what matters most to you before you decide on a place to spend a significant portion of your early adulthood. Try this values exercise from Carnegie Mellon University to explore your core values as a start.
When you have a better understanding of what matters most to you, start connecting your list of values to major characteristics of colleges and universities.
Where on this planet will you feel most connected to your values? Say you value creativity. Where do you feel most creative? Perhaps a bustling city gives you ideas and energy. Or maybe you do your best thinking in more quiet spaces surrounded by natural beauty. Consider climate as well. Are you inspired by striking seasonal changes, or do you prefer stability in temperature and weather? How about proximity to your hometown? Those who value freedom may opt for a new city a plane ride away, whereas students who value security may prefer to stay local. Be sure to judge in person rather than on paper as we’ve had many students swear they wanted to be in a city until they fell in love with a rural campus.
School size can have a significant impact on your college experience. If you value independence, you may prefer a large school with many different paths. For example, at the University of Virginia, which has a total undergraduate enrollment of 16,655, students can participate in a whole host of impressive research opportunities while being active members of the vibrant UVA arts community. On the other hand, a small school may give you the flexibility to design your own education. Amherst College, for example, with a total undergraduate enrollment of 1,836, offers students the opportunity to design their own programs of study based on their interests. First-year students take interdisciplinary seminars to explore a variety of fields. Do you value your current relationships with the adults in your life? You may have a better chance of getting face-to-face time with your professors at a small school such as Swarthmore versus a large school where graduate student teaching assistants teach large classes. Consider what your values mean to you personally, and think about how the size of your school will impact your experience.
Does your dream school have a core curriculum or more flexible distributive requirements? Does a liberal arts education resonate with you or do you prefer a pre-professional track? Whitman College prides itself on its liberal arts perspective so much that it offers a two-semester introduction to the liberal arts called Encounters. Babson, on the other hand, is career focused and offers an accelerated undergraduate path towards the workforce, as well as several business-focused tracks like entrepreneurship and strategic management. Columbia University is well-known for its core curriculum, whereas schools like Wesleyan allow students to take an active role in constructing their own academic programs while encouraging them to pursue a broad-based liberal arts education.
Also consider your next steps after college. If you are certain you want to go to graduate school, do some research to find out what kind of undergraduate program will prepare you best for your next chapter. Check with schools of interest to see how many Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships were awarded in the prior few graduating classes, and look at alumni magazines and websites for information on most common career paths. Medical school in your future? Duke boasts an 85% medical school acceptance rate (more than twice the national average), and Duke undergraduates have access to personalized advising and research opportunities. Likewise, Williams’ “three-year acceptance rate averages from 85-90%. In the 2017-18 admissions cycle, 38 of 44 (86% acceptance rate) matriculated to MD or DO programs; 3 (100%) to MD/PhD programs; and 3 (100%) to veterinary schools.” If you can visualize your dream job, find out what kind of coursework will put you in the best position to get there. If you are still uncertain about your career aspirations, choose a college that supports exploration across many topics and allows for academic breadth.
PROGRAMS AND RESOURCES
You can use your values to prioritize the programs and resources you want in your school. If you value adventure, you may want to apply to schools that offer a wide variety of study abroad programs. If you value collaboration and teamwork, look for a school that is known for group projects and interdisciplinary opportunities. If fun is at the top of your values list, look at lists of clubs and extracurricular activities that will keep you active when you need a study break.
THE SCHOOL’S CORE VALUES
Many colleges and universities have their core values listed online. For example, Cornell lists purposeful discovery, free and open inquiry and expression, a community of belonging,exploration across boundaries, changing lives through engagement, and respect for the natural environment. Bates College stands for the ideals of academic rigor, intellectual curiosity, egalitarianism, social justice, and freedom. You may also want to consider different domains of diversity as you make your college list. Information about student body characteristics is readily available online. U.S. News, for instance, calculated a diversity index for national, liberal arts, and regional schools based on racial and ethnic information. Browse the websites and brochures of colleges that interest you to find out how well your values align with theirs. Check out our blog post on choosing the right school for you, and visit as many campuses as you can. Take advantage of schools that offer overnight visits to high school students to get a real feel for student life.
When you’ve narrowed down your list of schools based on how they fit with your values, your task will be to communicate to admissions officers how you will meaningfully contribute to their campus communities. Read our blog post about how to bring your values to life on your applications through recommendations, extracurricular activities, and essays. We are happy to help!