Despite what many have heard about the downsides of American college-level education, it is a necessity. In the distant past, high school degrees were the standard academic credential obtained by Americans, but through various practices, marketing strategies and the baseline increase in the number of highly skilled workers needed in industry, the undergraduate bachelor's degree has taken its place.
Given this fact, along with the huge investment in time and money that college entails, it is important to have an idea of what matters and what doesn't when it comes to choosing the college that's right for you. My advice is from the perspective of someone who has been to several colleges and thoroughly investigated what all of them have to offer.
What doesn't matter when choosing a college
When I was finishing high school, the first piece of advice given me by my guidance counselor was this: "Visit the places you've applied to and get a feel for what types of lounges, food, dining halls and hang-out areas they have. The look and feel of the place is probably the most important thing."
Looking back, this is just about the worst advice anyone can get! If someone says this, just politely ignore it. There are many other bad ideas that are prevalent in the college media frenzy:
- Choose the college with the prettiest dorms
- Find the university with the best Greek Life
- Don't worry about the cost (we'll come back to this!)
- Go to the school that has the best girl/guy ratio
Famous college review books like The Princeton Review may cite stats that make people think these facets of college life are really important, but when it comes down to it, they matter very little.
What does matter
There are three key aspects of the college education that decide whether a person gets a good return on investment--that is, whether or not the time and money spent obtaining a bachelor's degree.
- Avoiding massive student loan debt
The last thing anyone should ever have to struggle with is paying back student loans that were totally unnecessary. There are a lot of people who spend their whole lives recovering from student loan debt. Everyone should make sure that the school they decide to attend is within financial means. Choosing differently can affect someone's chances of having a family, buying a house,
One of the most important features of the undergraduate experience comes by way of doing internships. Colleges that are in or near big cities present their students with opportunities to take part in tons of activities outside of the classroom that will help them build work experience. When I started going to a big college in NYC, I found an endless list of things to do, from teaching health workshops in inner-city schools to doing student-based research programs in large hospitals.
Surprisingly, many soon-to-be undergrads forget about this entirely. The classes that a university or smaller school offer will determine the career options of their students upon graduation. If someone wants to pursue a degree in science and eventually work in research, choosing a pretty liberal arts college that doesn't offer extensive student research experience will be harmful rather than helpful.
Before the fateful freshman year (and preferable during the last months of high school), doing extensive reading on possible careers is the best college preparation anyone can do. Competitive professions such as medicine and engineering have very distinct requirements.
For example, someone who wants to be a doctor must complete certain basic science courses, among other things, in order to prepare for the MCAT. If this person doesn't plan accordingly, a failure to look to the future before signing up for classes the first two semesters can delay applying to medical school for a year or more.
Make sure to decide on a career as soon as possible and tailor your education around it. College is not a place to discover yourself; it's a place to invest time and energy in your future, so do it, and do it well!