When picking a college, students often choose on the criteria of either academic programs and prestige, or a loosely based feeling of “fit.” However, there are so many characteristics of a college that are important to consider, especially if you want to have a good college experience outside of the classroom. The campus culture, location, opportunities, and extracurricular options will affect you everyday life, your happiness, and, in some cases, your future career.
So here are the 10 things I wish I knew would affect my college experience.
1) WHERE STUDENTS LIVE
How many students live on campus? Or, do they live on campus all four years? Do students commute to school? Do lots of students live in greek housing? Are there co-op housing options? Is off-campus housing far from campus?
Where students live has a big impact on student college experience. If most students are commuting to campus but you want to have the classic dorm experience, it could negatively impact your college experience. Alternatively, if students are required to live on campus all four years, you may feel trapped as you get older and want to start living a more “adult” existence.
- Pro tip: you can pretty much figure this out by how many big parking lots there are on campus. If there are a lot, odds are, it’s a commuter school.
In addition, if your only off-campus housing options are far from campus, run-down buildings, or ridiculously expensive, you might want to reconsider this school. Where you live has a huge impact on your everyday experience at college.
2) FOOD ACCESSIBILITY
What are the dining halls like? How many are there? Are meal plans required? Are they close to where your classes might be? Or, are they close to the dorms?
As a student, you don’t want to have to travel far for your food. That means you want dining halls near your classes and near your dorm. Also consider what options are available outside of the dining hall for when you want to change things up. Does the university have deals with nearby restaurants to give discounts to students? Are there on-campus cafes for things like bagels and coffee? And for when you move off campus, is there a grocery store on/near campus? Food is a big part of your experience as a student, so make sure you have good options.
- Pro tip: if you know a student who goes to this school, see if they can swipe you into the dining hall–and be sure to say thanks. That way you can try the food for yourself. Also ask them what they think. Students will tell you the truth that the tour guide won’t.
3) CAREER ADVISING AND OPPORTUNITIES
How strong are the alumni connections for students? Does the career center provide a way for students and alumni to connect? Are there career advising opportunities, such as resume reviews, mock interviews, etc.? Do employers come to campus to talk to students often? If so, which employers? Where do students intern over the summer? Where do they end up after college?
Since the end of goal of college for most people is get a good job, having a university that helps you achieve that is extremely valuable (almost more than the classes themselves, but that’s just my opinion). Loyal alumni with great connections and an active career center with many initiatives and opportunities to prepare students is a recipe for success. Without these things, it means more work for you and probably minimal chance of getting internships and jobs at coveted companies.
- Pro-tip: pretend you are a student and go on the career center’s website. See what kind of things they offer their students. Students usually find all of the opportunities this way, so you can scope out your options.
4) CAMPUS WALKABILITY
Is it easy to get around campus? Is the campus divided into a north and south campus, or some sort of equivalent? If so, how easy is it to get between the campuses? Is the campus walkable? Is there a transit system for getting around the campus and the town?
College students are always on their feet, walking from dorm to class, dining hall to class, and class to class. Having a campus that’s walkable with minimal hills and a good transit system makes day-to-day life so much better. Especially if this school gets cold in the winter, the last thing you’ll want to do is walk for 30 minutes outside to get to your 8am class. In addition, if the dorms are on north campus and all the classes are on central campus, which is a 20 minute bus ride away, it can feel like you’re commuting to school instead of actually living on campus.
- Pro-tip: when you visit the campus, ditch the rental car and use the public transit available there. How long does it take for the bus to come? Does the bus go all over campus or just to select locations? Experience the transit system through the eyes of a student and you’ll learn a lot.
5) SURROUNDING TOWN
What is the town or city around the campus like? What kind of activities are there for students to do? How safe does it seem? Is it easy to get around? While students don’t often go off-campus, it’s nice to have some off-campus options. In addition, if there isn’t anything to do in your college town, things can get boring pretty quickly. Choosing a college that’s near or surrounded by a great town or city is very nice.
- Pro tip: look at the public Facebook events for that town or city. This is sometimes where students hear about events in the college town/city, and you’ll already have some activities in mind to be excited about… and be able to invite new friends to join!
6) ACCESS TO THE ACTIVITIES YOUR INTERESTED IN
Does the school have club sports that I’m interested in playing? Is there a good amount of student clubs and organizations? Is there a student government organization?
Whether you’ve been dancing since you were three and need to be in a dance club to stay sane or you were a passionate student government official in high school and want to continue your legacy into college, choosing a school that has the activities you’re interested in pursuing is important.
- Pro-tip: colleges usually have an online database of all the clubs and organizations students can join. Learn what you can so that club fairs in the first week of school aren’t so overwhelming.
7) WEEKEND AND NIGHT-TIME ACTIVITIES
Does Greek life dominate the social scene? How intense is Greek life? If there isn’t any Greek life, what other kinds of clubs or student orgs make up student’s social lives? What might a typical weekend look like for students? Does the university offer sober student mixers for students who don’t want to drink? What about concerts, on or near campus?
Knowing that most students do on the weekends and what options there are for students can let you know where you might fit in. If all the students are going out to fraternity parties every weekend and that’s not really your vibe, that is definitely something to note. It’s nice to have a school that has an array of options.
- Pro-tip: also check the Facebook events for this one. Frats will sometimes post their parties on Facebook and the university will post its alternative social events there as well.
8) HOW HARD IS IT TO GET THE CLASSES YOU WANT
I would ask a student this question, as the visiting center and tour guides will probably exaggerate the truth. Considering this is the #1 reason you are going to college, knowing how hard it is to get the classes you need to graduate, or get into the classes you want to take each semester, is something to consider. This doesn’t necessarily mean all big schools are bad for getting the classes you need. Some schools create additional sections in classes when they fill up, and the waitlist usually has good results.
- Pro tip: ask a student what their class selection experience is like each semester, and also consider: your major might be different from the norm, depending on if it’s the campus’ largest discipline or a more niche, insular department.
9) SCHOOL SPIRIT
Do students attend football game, basketball games, etc? Are they proud to go to the school they go to? A good dose of school spirit can really take your college experience to the next level and make you feel more connected to your school.
- Pro tip: if you can, attend one of the school’s Game Days. That might be football, basketball, or something else; it all depends on the school and the students. If you see students decked out in school colors, tailgating, etc., it’s a high-spirited school.
Does the cost of tuition work for you and your situation? Are there hidden fees? Is room and board expensive? What are the financial aid packages you received? Does the school cover healthcare costs? How much will it cost to travel to school and to your home state? What are the budget options for off-campus housing? Is the school in a different climate, meaning you’ll need to buy new clothes? How many student loans will you need to take out? Do you plan on going to grad school?
Cost covers a lot of subjects, and this topic is different for everyone. Some people may be lucky enough to have their parents covering their costs, and others might be paying for college all on their own. You know your situation best, but be realistic on how much you want to be owing month-to-month in debt for years after college. Financial stress can ruin your college experience.
- Pro tip: visiting the school will give you an idea of the extra costs, including airfare and travel, cost of living in the city, etc. Check out the nearby grocery, clothing, and office supply stores if you have the time.
Are you still nervous about acclimating to your first year of college, or stuck trying to choose a school that will be able to offer everything you’re looking for?
A college counselor is an invaluable resource to help you out with all of the above. Empowerly will match you to a counselor that fits your goals and style to make sure you’re on the right track. Talk to us about options today.