1. Where do I want to live?
Close to home? As far away as humanly possible? In an urban, suburban, or rural area? Your college experience will vary vastly depending on whether you attend a university that is in a college town or whether your university is part of a larger metropolitan area. Location might be very important to you, as it was for me, or irrelevant. Either way, remember to factor in the costs of transportation, especially airfare, since it is typically not included in college ‘sticker’ prices.
Climate is another consideration that factors into location. Californians used to a hefty dose of Vitamin D might not appreciate Washington’s near-constant drizzle. Floridians might be frozen by the prospect of living through New England snowstorms. If studying in the shade of a palm tree is how you want to study, plan accordingly.
2. How big do I want my school to be?
Again, the size of your university can have a huge impact on your overall experience, and for some students, their ability to succeed. Some students thrive at massive institutions; others need lectures capped at twenty-five. State schools are usually huge—for instance, the University of Washington boasts 44,786 students as of 2014, with 29,468 undergraduates. However, not all state schools are equally large. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is 29,135 students strong, with 18,350 undergraduates. For students seeking small schools, private is the way to go. The University of Portland, for example, has only 4,123 students enrolled (3,654 undergraduates).
3. What are some majors I’m considering?
Not all universities offer the same degrees, and if you are looking to study something extremely specialized, there may only be a handful of schools that offer your program. The University of Oregon, for example, does not offer any engineering degrees—the closest thing they have is computer science. If your dream is to study mechanical engineering and be a Duck, you might want to think again.
4. How will I be paying for it?
College is excruciatingly expensive. Private schools and out-of-state schools often cost twice as much as in-state public universities. Your chances of getting a full-ride scholarship are probably not as high as you would like them to be, and the FAFSA isn’t extremely middle-class friendly (a Forbes article I recently read is boldly entitled “2016-2017 College Financial Aid Formula Penalized Middle Class $8,000”). If your goal is to graduate completely debt-free, or to minimize costs, then seeking out more budget-friendly colleges is a must.
5. Am I considering grad school/medical school?
First of all, there is no such thing as a “pre-med” major. All majors are acceptable for medical school, as long as you have completely the necessary science and mathematics requirements (Berkeley Office of Undergraduate Admissions). Your best bet, if being a doctor is your dream, is to check the requirements of the medical schools you are considering and to ensure that whatever you major in, those requirements are completed.
Majoring in something other than biology might actually help you get into medical school because you have cultivated other, non-natural-science-related skills. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 51% of students who enrolled in medical school in 2012 majored in biological science (“Choose the Right Undergraduate Major for Medical School,” US News & World Report).
Similarly, an undergraduate degree in X may not be required to complete an advanced degree in X. At the University of Washington, prospective econ PhD students need not have a bachelor’s degree in economics—certain econ and math courses, however, are a must (University of Washington Department of Economics).
This being said, the best policy is to do your research and find out what potential graduate programs and medical schools require in order to figure out what major(s) will help you reach your goals. Thinking forward can help you find schools that have strong programs for the majors you are considering.
6. What do I want to do?
In college, that is. While it is always good to think ahead, it is important not to get too far ahead of yourself and meticulously plan every year of your future life. Universities are not created equal when it comes to the sort of extracurricular or experiential learning opportunities offered to undergraduates. Internships might be hard to come by if you attend a university in the middle of the Midwest, with no other towns around for hours.
Research positions can be competitive to get at certain universities, especially those that restrict the number of undergraduates allowed in the labs. The variety of study abroad programs might not be as robust at certain schools compared to others, especially when it comes to travelling to less mainstream countries (like France or England).
7. What about my AP/IB credit?
AP and IB credit is not treated equally between all universities. Some schools won’t accept it for credit, but will let you place out of introductory classes. At Brown, “Advanced Placement exam scores are not eligible for course credit […] but students may use certain AP scores to enroll in higher-level courses, to satisfy concentration requirements, or to advance their semester standing” (Brown University). At other schools, AP and IB credit can be used to fulfill some graduation requirements, but not others. At yet other schools, AP/IB credit will get you credit and fulfill graduation requirements, such as the University of Washington.
Being able to utilize AP and IB credit to fulfill graduation requirements might not be important to you, especially if the prospect of graduating a year early doesn’t mesh with your desire to have a four-year experience. But if AP and IB credit is a deal-breaker for you, it is imperative to research school policies.