searching for cars or colleges: look under the hood
Are you saving up for your first car, or can you remember the last time you purchased a car? How do you decide which car will be best for you? You might read Consumer Reports, look at the Kelly Blue Book values, or talk to friends and family members about cars you’re considering. Or maybe you've been test-driving a handful of cars to determine if they have what you want. What are your top priorities: leg capacity, responsive steering, gas mileage? And what tools are you using to assess the value of each?
car shopping vs. college searching
If you're starting your college search, finding best-fit colleges is no different than looking for the right car. Using a variety of resources will help you figure out if a school meets your key priorities. When deciding which websites, resources, newsletters, and search tools to incorporate into your search, it is also critical to know the source and context of the data. While it may be interesting to look at rankings that employ uniform criteria (such as endowment size and peer review) to develop a composite rank, the ranking number may not translate to student support, focus, or success. Rankings, popularity, and national reputation may contain information that is good to know, but you'll want to look past the ranking numbers to understand what's being evaluated. Just like considering car design, or how fast a car goes from 0–60 mph when investing in a car, you want to look under the hood when starting your college search.
Related: How to Navigate the College Search, Step–by–Step
majors and academics
Look closely at majors to identify the main academic features at each school.
Does the major have a lockstep curriculum?
Are there required courses that lead to declaring a major?
Does the major have a direct admit or pathway to apply at the end of sophomore year?
Instead of majors, is there an open curriculum where you design your academic focus?
Do you take courses for your major one block at a time?
Take the time to learn the difference between programs at different schools, as no one size fits all. Smith College, Colorado School of Mines, and Columbia University are excellent examples of how Engineering programs can vary significantly. While Engineering is offered at each school, how the degree is accomplished is unique and tied to their educational missions.
If the size of the school is essential to you, look more closely at the numbers to learn how they define the campus community.
Is the number of enrolled students composed primarily of undergraduates or a combination of undergrad and graduate students?
What do the demographics (gender makeup, out-of-state vs. in-state students, etc.) tell you?
Do students live on campus?
Does the school primarily support commuter students, and if so, how does that impact the campus community and culture?
Are activities like sporting events, concerts, or movie nights offered?
Do students seek out the surrounding community for local events?
While many schools have a similar number of undergraduates, do those similar schools provide the same number of majors or focus on particular areas of study such as a polytechnic or art school? Even when looking at what appears to be similar schools like large public universities, the range of majors offered and their focus can vary. Looking beyond reputation or rankings and digging into details is a step that will reveal if a school has what you want.
Related: What Kind of College Is Right for You?
return on investment
If you're concerned about costs and looking for a great return on investment (ROI), you may want to look for hands-on experiences like internships, access to career fair opportunities, or alumni networking to jump-start job opportunities after graduation. While many schools offer internship opportunities, the range of how they are offered and whether they are optional, folded into the curriculum, or are a graduation requirement can vary. Finding out if a school provides internship opportunities, whether it’s incumbent on the student to secure one, or if an internship is part of a senior capstone project or during a specific semester/quarter or summer are all parts of the sleuthing you should do when researching colleges.
tools to build your college list
Utilizing websites like College Scorecard and CollegeXpress is an excellent first step, and college.u has curated a host of resources for DIY students and families, but you’ll also want to go straight to the source. Dive deep into each college’s website. Explore majors offered, graduation requirements, clubs, athletics, and any other quality you want in your college experience. This will help you see if what a college offers aligns with your goals and provide insights into what each school values.
Related: The Best College Search Websites, Books, and Apps
Purchasing a car takes time and is not something you pick up on the way home from work or order online—and building a college list is no different. Whether you’re exploring colleges or cars, taking the time to look under the hood is essential and something you’ll want to do before making your down payment.
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