Certainly, there is more to college than going to classes. But getting an education is your top priority. So how can you sort out what you want in a college, academically speaking?
Maybe you know what you want to study. Or maybe you don't. Either way, you have decisions to make about the kind of academic experience you want to have at college.
What Are You Going to Study?
There's a big difference between choosing a college because it is strong in your major and choosing a college to help you figure out your major.
If you know what you want to study, you might look for a college that lets you dive right into your studies, offers strong faculty in your field, and has a history of placing graduates in jobs and graduate schools. If you don't know your direction yet, consider a school that gives you a wide range of majors to explore and offers programs to help you experience and evaluate different fields.
What Style of Instruction Appeals to You?
At many colleges, you are likely to start out taking large classes in lecture halls, perhaps accompanied by smaller discussion groups led by teaching assistants. At other colleges, your classes may be small, offering more personal contact with professors and more interactive and collaborative methods of learning. One way to discover the instructional style you prefer is to sit in on various types of college classes, even at colleges where you don't plan to apply.
How Much Academic Rigor Do You Want?
If you plan to attend a highly selective college, you can count on a highly challenging and fast-paced level of instruction. You can also count on being surrounded by bright, competitive students. If this academic pressure cooker is your idea of a stimulating learning environment, these colleges may be right for you. On the other hand, if you prefer less rigor, less stress, and more nurturing, there are hundreds of other colleges for you to consider. You can still get a fantastic education at these colleges without feeling in over your head.
What Academic Opportunities Are You Counting On?
If you want to work with well-known instructors, participate in groundbreaking research projects, or delve into well-stocked libraries, investigate how much access undergraduates have to these resources. Some students head off to famous colleges thinking they will be taking classes from famous professors. While this may happen, it's more likely that these professors are teaching graduate students and conducting research. Other academic resources you may want to consider include nearby sister colleges (where you can take courses), online instruction, and alumni networks. Speaking with faculty in your area of interest, current students, and the admissions office can help you gauge how much any of these resources might be available to you.
What Instructional Alternatives Sound Interesting?
Colleges today offer many non-traditional opportunities to earn college credit, such as internships, cooperative education, or volunteering. At some colleges, you can study abroad for a semester or two, pursue a combined degree (earning two bachelor's degrees or a master's and a bachelor's degree at once), or conduct your own research project as an undergraduate. If any of these options sound intriguing, look on the college website or contact an admissions officer to find out if the school offers these types of opportunities.
What Kind of Study Support Will You Need?
Be honest with yourself about how ready you are to handle the new rigors of college instruction. No matter how well you did in high school, the intensity and freedom of the college academic environment is likely to be challenging. Colleges can help by providing tutoring, study circles, support for students with disabilities, and other avenues.
Get Your Academic Requirements in Order
Once you can picture your ideal academic environment, write down the qualities of that environment and decide which ones are most important to you. Then keep these qualities in mind as you visit colleges and talk to current students and alumni. Ask yourself if they continue to appeal to you. Be open to discovering new aspects of the academic experience that you had not considered before.
Understanding what sort of academic experience will work for you is very important. Of course, you should evaluate colleges based on all your "must-haves"—academic and non-academic. But your educational requirements should come first. Once you determine that a college will meet your educational needs, you can turn your attention to other qualities that may be important to you, such as location or campus life.
You can supplement your research using CollegeData's College Match to look up some academic qualities at specific colleges, such as majors offered and number of full-time vs. part-time faculty.