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    Where Should I Go?
    Christopher Hooker-Haring
  Dean of Admissions
  Muhlenberg College

College is a great investment! If there ever was any doubt about that, recent studies, which show that the average four year college graduate will earn over $500,000 more over the course of his/her career than a non-graduate, have erased these doubts.

One of the strengths of the American system of higher education is its variety and diversity. There are over 3,000 colleges and universities from which to choose! The range of options is virtually limitless, from local, inexpensive public colleges to private, ultra-selective universities.

What should I want? Where should I go? Is there some "best" college out there for me? And how am I going to pay for this? These are the questions that admissions officers and transfer counselors hear over and over each fall as students try to make sense of the array of options available to them.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that colleges are becoming increasingly sophisticated and aggressive  about  marketing themselves. So a student who ranks high at his/her two year college is almost certain to have a box full of colorful brochures before graduation.

    Start With You!  

One of the most common mistakes students make as they begin their search is to start with the external. They look outward at the vast array of college options and get lost in trying to make some sense of it all. A better place to start is with yourself, looking inward at who you are, what you know about yourself at this point in your life, and what your goals and values are at this particular point of your development. The search and selection process is, first of all, a great growth opportunity, and a great chance to clarify some things about who you are and who you want to be.

That looking inward process should begin to suggest some things to you. For example, are you the kind of person who loves the excitement and energy of a city environment, or do you prefer the natural beauty and outdoors that a more rural setting might provide? Do you want the diversity and range of options that a large school can provide, or do you value the potential for personalization and community that a smaller college environment offers?

An important word to the wise here! Do not allow cost to drive your search process in the beginning! Many of the very expensive private colleges are awarding literally millions of dollars in financial aid each year - in some cases, making them less expensive to attend than a state supported institution. At the beginning of your search, it's important to allow yourself to identify and consider the options you genuinely feel are best for you. At the end of the search, after you have been admitted at a number of places and have an opportunity to consider their financial aid packages, is the best time to decide what you can afford.

    Making The Rounds  

After you have made some basic decisions, such as "little" vs. "big", "urban" vs. "suburban", etc., it's time to write or call for information. Get on the mailing lists at a number of colleges in which you have some interest. See how they choose to portray themselves to prospective students. What are they saying about themselves? How are they able to support the claims they are making? How are you reacting to what they show you via both words and pictures?

Colleges are getting more and more sophisticated about how they market themselves. The brochures seem to get a bit glossier and more colorful every year. But if you read carefully, and look hard, at least some of each college's "personality" will begin to show through. And that can be helpful as you narrow your list and begin the process of deciding where to apply.

An important part of the college shopping process is "making the rounds", that is, visiting a number of campuses for a first-hand look at the college. If the campus offers an interview, have one. It's a chance to find out more about them and help them find out more about you. If they offer student-guided tours, take one. It can offer a helpful student's eye view of the experience on that campus. Consider as well a return visit to sit in on classes, meet with faculty or coaches, eat the food in the dining hall, and perhaps stay overnight in a residence hall.

What you will find in your visits is that while many colleges share certain characteristics in common, each institution will have its own unique "personality." Some places will feel immediately warm and welcoming almost from the moment you step on campus. Others may seem a bit more aloof or distant. At some, there may be an atmosphere of intellectual rigor, while others may appear to be more laid back in terms of academic challenge.

In the final analysis, after you have read all the guidebooks, looked at dozens of catalogs, and talked with students, admissions officers, transfer counselors, family and friends, it is that particular personality of a place that will ultimately distinguish one college from another.

Aside from the broad-focus questions of size, location, and institutional personality, there is a tighter focus to be answered as well. That is, "Are they good at what I want?"

The Admissions Office is one place to start. Ask if they can provide statistical data about the recent placement records of your departments of interest. Can the graduates get into graduate school? Do they get jobs? What kind of assistance does the college provide with all of this? Don't settle for verbal generalities or platitudes on this score - push for hard statistics and something in print. If colleges don't or won't provide this kind of information, they should! After all, they are asking you to commit four years of your life and thousands of dollars to their institution.

Try to meet students in your area of major interest while you are on campus. Are faculty members accessible? Is the teaching done by faculty or graduate students? Are the classes of a reasonable size or huge lectures? Does anyone care about what happens to you after graduation? These are all very important questions to have answered as you investigate the quality of programs in your specific areas of interest. How do you feel about the "chemistry" between you and the people you are meeting or the teaching methods you are observing.

While the search and selection process can seem confusing and complicated, remember that it is a process. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It's also an opportunity for a great adventure if you approach it with the right energy and spirit. Take it one step at a time, see the effort you are expending as an investment in yourself and your future - and happy hunting!


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