It’s never too early to start looking at what factors are important to you for your college years. Ask yourself carefully what is important to you: a certain program, geographical region, structured vs. open curriculum, school spirit, fraternity/sorority (Greek) system, and level of pressure. These are just a few aspects that will determine your best-fit college.
Although it is very common, we do not recommend looking at colleges solely on the basis of rankings. Rankings are very easily manipulated, and have resulted in real problems in admission, as colleges try to make themselves look as selective as possibly, which gives them a higher rating. A high rating does not mean that a particular college is the best for you. Look deeper at how good of an educational fit in will be. Are the classes large or small? Is there good teacher/student interaction? Is the undergraduate experience compromised for the graduate experience, resulting in most of your teachers being TA’s? Is it so difficult to get good grades because you squeaked into the most difficult college, so that you will never make it into a good graduate school? These are just some of the factors to consider.
A good rule of thumb is to begin in your sophomore year, once you have some idea of how your GPA is shaping up, and how you will do on your test scores, to make a list of the factors important to you. Then you can start making a large list of which schools you are interested in. There are many good secondary websites that will allow you to take virtual tours of the schools and to read impartial narratives. One of our favorite secondary book sources is The Fiske Guide. Also, look at the college’s own website, and drill down on the departments you are interested in.
As you build your list, make sure that you have Reaches, Targets and Safeties. Especially with the most selective schools, you cannot determine by scores and grades alone who will get in and who will not. Build a varied list.
By the end of your junior year, you should have a good, varied list of schools. That way, you can begin your applications during the summer, and be done early in your senior year. There is much advantage to apply early, either Early Decision or Early Action.
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