We are in the throes of making the final decision about which college to attend, and I’m wondering if you have any suggestions or could point me to some good resources. My daughter is a talented singer and focused on several liberal arts colleges with strong music programs or music conservatories, but doesn’t want to major in music. She is now grappling with the question of whether it’s better to be a “big fish in a little pond” at a school with a music department and opportunities, but not known for music, versus one of the schools known for music. (Her top choices are Lawrence, St. Olaf, Denison, and Knox) If you have any advice or could point me to some good resources to help her as she decides, I would really appreciate it.
First, congratulations! You and your daughter are in the enviable position of having to choose from a number of great options. Making that final decision is more of an art than a science, but I’ll share what I tell my clients.
No Bad Choices
It may help to start out by recognizing that there are no bad or wrong choices. I understand many families feel as if they have to make “the right choice” and that belief only makes the process more stressful.
Your family did a lot of hard work in the past year as you limited the college list to a group of schools all included because they are good choices. Yes, different schools will provide different college experiences, but it is a lot like trying to decide whether to go to Hawaii or London for your next vacation. They are different, but both would be excellent experiences.
Honestly, Lawrence, St. Olaf, Denison, and Knox are all great schools. I can’t say one is better than the rest because it really depends on what you and your daughter are looking for. So there really is no bad school in this bunch.
Chart Key Data
I’ll admit I’m a right-brained spreadsheet nerd; I’ll do this step in Excel. Whether you create an electronic spreadsheet or a colorful chart on construction paper with stickers, you need to put key information in one place so you can accurately compare and contrast options.
I like to start with the numbers. Some of these facts may be more significant to your decision than others. Here’s my starter list:
- School name, location
- Type of location (college town, small town, big city) & any key location benefits (access to internships, arts scene, etc.)
- Miles from home
- How you plan to get to/from college on breaks & estimated cost of a round-trip
- Approximate time (door to door) from home to campus or vice versa
- Total students on campus & total undergraduates on campus
- Intended major & minor (if applicable)
- Plan for freshman year housing
- Your best guess for housing after first year (on campus, off campus—be specific)
Then I encourage everyone to chart the financial aspect. Unless the cost of college is chump change, list it out. Make the cost of college part of your decision just as you would consider cost when purchasing a car, house, or vacation. You can use your financial statement from the college or the net price calculator from each school’s website.
- Room & board
- Travel to school (minimum of twice a year)
- Other expected expenses
- TOTAL of all the above
- Scholarships (first year, one time awards)
- Scholarships & grants (these will be awarded all four years)
- Work study
- Loans (you can separate into student and parent)
- Estimated payment per year
Pros & Cons of Each
Next we get into the details of each school. You may want to pull out notes made on your campus visit(s) because your on-site reactions to the campus and people are valuable.
Start by listing all the benefits of a particular school. (Just focus on benefits at this stage. DO NOT give in to the temptation to pencil in corresponding weaknesses at other schools as you go along.)
- Include academic benefits: particular majors or classes, unique courses, specific professors or programs, capstone options, J-term possibilities, and any reactions you had visiting with students or professors on campus.
In this case, what will your daughter major in if she doesn’t want music? Would she want to double major or minor in music if that’s a realistic possibility? What parts of the academic music program does she want to experience? Are there other classes, programs, courses of study, or general academic approaches she likes at this school?
- Include extracurricular or co-curricular benefits: teams or companies (include level of participation and your expected roll as a freshman), possible clubs or organizations of interest, required internships and other internship possibilities. The key here is to picture yourself on campus and describe in as much detail as possible your role in activities outside the classroom. You may have to dig to find answers.
Does your daughter hope to use her musical talent in an extracurricular activity? How likely is she to be able to get a part / position as a freshman? As a non-music major? Will a majority of music opportunities outside the classroom be reserved for music majors? Will it be harder for her to participate as a non-major? What about other activities or clubs not related to music?
- Include campus-living and social benefits: living-learning communities, off-campus fun, social organizations, campus recreation options, special dorms or campus housing perks. Here is where you list all benefits that are not academic or extracurricular. Some of these benefits might relate to the people and “feel” you got when on campus; that’s ok. You want a college where other students share your ideas of fun and will encourage and help you reach your goals.
What else did your daughter like about each school? Will living arrangements offer special opportunities? How does she picture herself spending her free time? Don’t overlook little things like good weather because small things experienced on a daily basis can be big. (Ask anyone who had to give up his or her regular coffee if little things matter!)
- Include feelings, prestige, and gut reactions. This is where its fine to say you just like the vibe on campus or that everyone else will be impressed with your choice. You can also say you feel safe being close to home (or that you are so glad to be far away!). Maybe you feel this school will do more to help you set up internships or engage in hands-on research. It might be that it is simply easier to talk to an actual person if you have a question.
Don’t discount your gut reaction.
How will your daughter feel at this particular school? How much will the school’s reputation for music matter if it is not her major? Does she feel confident at the idea of pursuing options at this school?
- Include practical considerations: cost, distance from home, ability to use AP, IB, or dual credit hours.
Once you have all the benefits listed, go back and list the weaknesses for each college. It has been my experience that the list of shortcomings is smaller if you do this as a separate step. Thinking of one school at a time, what do you wish this school had? What are the potential flaws? Are any of these problems enough to take a school off your list?
Narrow Your List
With all the information written down, you can begin eliminating schools from the list. Remember, these aren’t bad choices. Often these schools just don’t have as many benefits as some of the others on the list.
I like to approach this step by asking the student to eliminate his or her “lowest” option then asking everyone how it feels. If mom and dad can live with it, we take the choice off the list and continue. I like to give the student a lot of decision-making ability at this point, but I also allow for a parent “save” so mom and dad can keep their best option in the mix.
Ask Big Questions
When you are down to the top two or three choices, it may be time to pause and ask some big questions. If you haven’t visited all of the remaining schools, I’d strongly encourage you to do so. Then spend some time as a family discussing these issues and any other questions you think need to be addressed.
- Is there a significant financial difference among these schools? If yes, spend some time with related questions. Is College X really worth $80,000 in loans? Or College Z costs $13,000 per year less; could we use that to get some experiences you think College Z lacks (for example take a year abroad with the money saved might make up for some other shortcomings.)
- Where will you feel most happy and encouraged to do your best work? Don’t overlook the intimidation that students often feel in highly competitive programs and don’t underestimate the value of feeling as if you belong academically and socially.
- Where do you want to be in five years? How will each school help you reach your goals? If you are planning to attend medical, law, or graduate school, will the cost of your undergraduate degree limit your ability to pay for future studies? If you haven’t asked, check on the post-graduation employment rate or graduate program admission rates.
- Which school will best serve the real you?
I usually explain this by admitting my own secret dream of being a modern day Martha Stewart where I grown my own organic vegetables, make beautiful floral arrangements, and have an eye for home décor. The reality is that I hate getting my hands dirty and working in the yard in the heat of the summer is my idea of torture. Add to that my complete lack of style and the real me has no business pursuing those Martha Stewart dreams.
Sometimes we approach college with the same disconnect from reality. Think about how you, with your personality, interests, and style of learning, will do at this particular institution.
Yes, College Y has a lot of opportunities, but are you the type of student who will seek them out and make them happen? Or would you be better off at College X where a lot of these opportunities are either built into class requirements (internships, research) or are so much of the school’s culture that everyone else will be doing them too. Sure, it sounds great to take the train into the city to see shows on the weekend, but if you are a stay-around-the-house type of person, then this benefit may not apply to you.
Make The Choice
After all your analysis and discussion, make a choice.
Then sit on that information for two or three days. (Which means your decision has to be made before the notification deadline.)
How do you feel? Hopefully, you can start to relax and settle into the good news. If after a couple days no one feels intense regret, congratulations, you have made your choice.
Keep in mind, there are only good choices, but if your initial choice doesn’t work out as planned, you always have options. Students can and do transfer schools. I left The George Washington University after my sophomore year and transferred to Rice University. If you find your initial college isn’t a good fit, you can change.