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Picking the Right College for You, Part 1

July 28, 2008 By: Category: Choosing a College

School selection can be an overwhelming task for college-bound high school juniors. There are literally thousands of colleges and universities to choose from.

Although every educational institution is unique, it is possible to place most colleges and universities into one of several broad categories. A helpful first step in school selection is to understand what these types of institution are and whether they fit your personal preferences and learning style. So let’s take a look at the types of colleges and universities and the pros and cons of each.

Liberal Arts Colleges – Liberal arts colleges are 4-year institutions committed to providing a broad undergraduate education. Students are required to take a range of courses in the arts, humanities, and sciences outside of their major. Liberal arts colleges tend to be small, with total enrollment of 1,500 to 8,000. A close community is a key element of their educational model and they will cut back on enrollment if they feel the campus population is getting too large. In addition, many liberal arts colleges are located in rural areas, small towns, or suburbs. Carleton, Hamilton, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Amherst, Haverford, Mount Holyoke, Claremont McKenna, Swarthmore, Williams, Smith, Bowdoin, Bates, Reed, Colby, and Middlebury are just a few of the many excellent liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

Pros: Excellent teaching standards. Close contact with faculty who can serve as mentors and/or recommenders for graduate study. Small, close-knit communities.

Cons: Location may be remote. Limited range of classes and/or majors. Libraries and other resources may be limited, as well as dining and residence choices. Can be expensive.

The Ivy League – Believe it or not, this term is said to have originally been coined to designate a college sports league. Since then, of course, it has passed into popular use as shorthand for a group of some of the oldest and most prestigious educational institutions in the U.S. The eight Ivy League member schools are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia University and Cornell.

Each of the Ivy League schools is a unique institution with its own institutional culture and distinctive educational experience. Prospective applicants should take care to research each school separately.

Pluses: Excellent education. Prestige. Outstanding facilities and educational support.

Minuses: Highly competitive admissions. Expensive, though lower- and middle-income families will find new financial aid rules in place that inspires affordability.

Residential Colleges – A residential college is much more than just a university with campus housing. It’s a college where students’ day-to-day living is part of their educational experience. The colleges where students reside, organize lectures and other learning experiences in addition to social events. This style of living is meant to provide students with a strong sense of community, a chance to interact with a wide range of other students, and the opportunity to develop close relationships with faculty. Only a small number of U.S. colleges offer a true residential option. They include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Middlebury, the University of Virginia, Rice University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University.

Pluses: A close community that leads to life-long friendships. A stimulating and  integrated learning and living environment.

Minuses: Communities may be too close-knit for some tastes. Limited living, dining, and entertainment choices. May be expensive.

Honors Programs – Many large colleges and universities give high-achieving students the option of enrolling in an honors program. Honors students take small,  seminar-style classes that are more challenging than regular classes and offer close contact with faculty. Honors students may be asked to complete a senior thesis or project. At some schools, honors students live in designated housing and have access to special scholarships and internships.

Pluses: Excellent academics. Close contact with professors who can serve as mentors and/or recommenders for graduate study. A chance to produce a thesis or other capstone project. Honors programs at public universities often represent an excellent value for in-state residents.

Minuses: Not really a substitute for a liberal arts college experience, if that’s what you have your heart set on.

Research Universities – These are comprehensive universities where faculty and graduate students focus on original research. The top U.S. research universities draw talent from across the country and around the world. A partial list of top U.S. research universities includes Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, MIT, Johns Hopkins, the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign, Pennsylvania State University, UCLA, UC - Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and the University of Michigan.

Pluses: Excellent academics. Entrée to top graduate programs. Exposure to cutting-edge research. Outstanding libraries, laboratories, and other facilities.

Minuses: Highly competitive admissions. Undergraduates may have more contact with teaching assistants than they do with faculty.

We’ll stop here for now - there’s still quite a bit to cover. Next time, we’ll look at flagship universities, land grant schools, music and art schools, career and community colleges.

If you’re unsure about where you want to go or you’re looking for some solid advice on choosing a school, give our office a call at 703.242.5885 or drop us an email. Our consultants have years of admissions experience and have helped thousands of students just like you find the best university or program that fit them.

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