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Finding a College That Fits

Have you ever walked into a snooty boutique only to be ignored by the even snootier staff? Have you ever found yourself at a party where you don't know any of the guests? If so, then you know how uncomfortable it is to feel out of place. Unfortunately, this can also happen when choosing a college or university. No two schools are the same, and while one may make you feel at home, the other may make you feel like you just landed on an alien planet.

The key to picking the right school is to take the time to do some self-reflection. Many prospective students skip this step and jump ahead to picking a college based on the school's glossy brochure or website. But before you even look at schools, take a long, hard look at yourself and ask some serious questions about what you want. Not only will this greatly improve your odds of ending up at a school that's right for you, but it will also come in handy when you need to express these feelings in your applications and admission essays.

So let's take the first step to picking the perfect college by uncovering what you really want.

What Do You Want?

When you were in high school you may have taken a career assessment test. This was the exam in which you used a number two pencil to bubble in page after page of questions about what you enjoy, your strengths and desires for the future. Then, depending on how long ago you went to school you either used the answers to sort through a bunch of index cards or simply waited a few days to receive the results by computer. In either case what you ended up with was a list of careers that supposedly fit your personality and talents. Based on the results, you were declared fit to become an accountant, attorney or even long-haul truck driver.

While these tests sometimes produced interesting answers, the idea behind them is sound. It's important to analyze your strengths, weaknesses and goals to figure out what you want out of college before you start applying to a bunch of schools. As you've grown older (and immensely wiser) you've probably realized that life is complicated and there are few cut and dry answers. Otherwise, we would all have followed the results of those career assessment tests, and some of us would be driving tractor-trailers instead of writing about college.

Therefore, our test to help you find the right college is not multiple-choice. At the end of the test we won't give you the names of three perfect colleges. Life is just not that simple. However, we do promise that by taking our test you will discover what you are looking for in a college and what aspects of a school are important to you. With a clearer understanding of what you want, it will be much easier to pick a school that satisfies your needs. So sharpen that figurative number two pencil and take our test to help you figure out what you want. And you thought you only have to take tests after you get into college!

The "What I Want" Test

    Career goals:
  • By going back to school, do you hope to advance in your current career or to change careers all together?
  • If getting more education will help you advance your current career, what specific knowledge and/or degrees do you need to get the promotion you desire?
  • If you are planning to enter a new career, what are your motivations for doing so, and how much education do you need to realistically get a job in this new field?
  • How will going back to school help you achieve either of these career goals?
  • For your career field, how much does the academic reputation of the college or university count?
  • What specific classes or subject areas must you take for your career objectives?
  • In order to achieve your career goals, is it necessary to receive a bachelor's or advanced degree, or do you just need to obtain certain skills or update your skills with a certificate program?
  • In talking to people already in your desired career, what recommendations do they have about the type of education required to be successful?
  • Is it important that your college be in an area where there are work opportunities such as internships related to your career?
  • Are you sure more education will help you achieve your desired career goals?
  • Where do you see yourself in your career in five years? Ten years?
    Academic goals:
  • What academic areas interest you?
  • What would you like to major in?
  • How sure are you about this major?
  • What if you end up hating this major? What would you study instead?
  • How will your major help you achieve your career or personal goals for returning to school?
  • In what kind of environment do you learn best? Small seminars? Large lectures? Interactive discussions? Lectures?
  • Do you have any previous college experience? Will you be finishing a degree that you started? Is it important that credits from previous courses can be transferred?
  • How much interaction with other students and professors do you want?
  • How well will you be able to work with students younger than you?
  • Can you put in the necessary study time to be successful in school? Do you have a place in your home that is conducive to studying?
  • Is academic reputation important to you?
    Balance:
  • How much time do you have to dedicate to your studies? In other words, can you afford the time to be a full-time student? Consider not only the time that you will spend in classes but also time for commuting and studying.
  • How will your class schedule fit with your other commitments such as family, work, socializing, etc.?
  • Will you be able to spend the time that you need with your family if you attend a full-time, part-time, evening or distance learning program?
  • Will you be able to find childcare if you need it?
  • Are you willing to move to attend a school?
    Money:
  • Can you afford to quit your job to go to school, or do you need to hold a part-time or full-time job?
  • Are you willing to make major financial sacrifices to pay for college? Is your family?
  • How much money have you saved to pay for college?
  • What tangible goods (i.e. new car, home improvement) will you have to postpone to pay for college?
  • Are you willing to borrow money to pay for tuition? How much debt are you willing to incur?
    Timing:
  • Is now the best time to return to school?
  • Since you'll be in school for anywhere from a few months to several years, what future commitments may conflict with your education?
    Personal:
  • Are you ready to be a student?
  • Are you willing to do homework, take tests and attend lectures?
  • Do you feel a burning desire to return to college? (If not, you might want to reassess whether you are truly ready to go back.)
  • Do you have a support network of family and friends who can encourage you through your studies as well as assist you during busy times?

This is the end of the test. Not all of these questions can be easily answered, but by forcing yourself to think about these issues you should have a much clearer idea of why you want to return to school, what's important to you and what kind of program will match your goals.