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What Makes Colleges Different?

college students at a game

Researching -- or even visiting -- a few colleges can leave you feeling that they are more alike than different. But once you start to view colleges from these four important perspectives, you'll see how different they really are.

Great school spirit, famous faculty, or a classically beautiful campus can be qualities that help set colleges apart from each other in your mind. But a college can stand out from the crowd in other important ways. Here are are four factors to consider as you build your college list.

1. Academics 

A college can be wonderful in every other way, but if the academic opportunities don't serve your goals, you should keep looking. Think about:

  • Major considerations. A college's strength in your major discipline will be key. If you have no clear academic direction, look for colleges that encourage academic exploration.
  • Level of challenge. College instruction comes at different levels of rigor. You should be stimulated and excited but not overwhelmed by your studies.
  • Style of instruction. How much interaction with students and professors do you want? Are small classes for you, or stimulating lectures in grand halls?

2. College Setting and Personality

Although the iconic image of a college is an expansive quad surrounded by ivy-covered buildings, colleges come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and settings. Consider: 

  • Location and setting. Where do you want to be and what does it look like? Some campuses feel like parks, others like modern cities, and some like small and cozy villages. And the weather ranges from snowy winters to year-round balmy temperatures.
  • Size. Large campuses can feel full of opportunities, with impressive libraries and many academic and recreational options. Or they can feel overwhelming. Smaller campuses can feel friendly, like it will be easy to get to know almost everyone. Or they can feel too limited.
  • Housing on and off campus. College housing varies from posh to spartan. Off-campus housing can be convenient to campus or far enough to require a car. So consider transportation options, as well as security and the condition of grounds and buildings.

3. Social Life

Of course, college is not only about studying. Who you spend time with and what you are able to do socially has a big impact on your day-to-day experience on campus. Be sure to find out about these factors:

  • Social scene. Some campuses are teeming with students and offer lots of activities and events. Others are more like a small town where everybody knows everybody and activities are informal.
  • Who's on campus. Some colleges attract similar types of people while others are known for diversity. Some enroll mostly local students while others attract students worldwide. Some attract serious-minded scholars while others appeal to students who like to be busy outside class.
  • Clubs and activities. Colleges offer any combination of competitive and recreational sports, clubs, musical and theatrical groups, sororities and fraternities, sporting events, volunteer opportunities, spiritual communities, and student-run media. How easy is it to join these groups or get involved?

4. Results After Graduation

Some colleges will be more able than others to help you get the results you want, from keeping college debt manageable to launching your career. Look at student outcomes, including:

  • Affordable cost. Colleges vary in their "financial friendliness." Friendlier colleges offer more grants and scholarships, meet more financial need, and keep the average debt of graduates low.
  • Retention rates. The number of students who return from year to year can indicate how happy students are with the campus. Four-year graduation rates signal how easy it is for students to get into the classes they need — and avoid the expense of extra years to graduate.
  • Career assistance. Most colleges provide statistics showing how many graduates go on to graduate school or a job in their chosen field. Other signs to look for include programs that support internships, service learning, and co-op assignments.

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