How to Choose a College: Tips for High-Achieving Students

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To feel wanted and to know that you belong.

In my opinion, these two elements are at the heart of choosing which college to attend.

I was chatting with a National Merit finalist last week when she said she had reached her information overload breaking point. After receiving large amounts of college mail over the past few months, she said: “Quentin, the 10 pounds of mail a week is getting excessive and the emails are getting worse. I have never even heard of these schools before. How do they know so much about me? I do not know what to do.

My answer was simple. “Let’s face it, there’s a fine line between being wanted and just being bored. Don’t fall for mass-produced “personalized” mailings and emails. Colleges and universities usually do mass mailings and emails to pique your interest. Everyone does it, even us. You can always unsubscribe. Just say, “Thank you.” But no thanks.'”

But you are interested in some of the colleges mailing you.

You never got less than a B+. For the truly ambitious, an A-. You’ve worked extremely hard to break your tail on every mission. You have broken every exam bell curve known to mankind. You are actively involved in your school and in the greater community in which you live. You even managed to place in the top 1% of PSAT test takers, becoming a National Merit Semi-Finalist. Congratulation! And, you’re a really nice person who knows how to use the good theirs there, and they are (one of my pet peeves). You are a real scholar. You’ve applied to America’s top universities, according to a university guide. By the way, I find it very odd that the top 20 universities are never public colleges (side eye emoji) and also lack diversity. I digress, that’s a blog post for another day.)

How to decide which college to attend

With a stellar record, you have plenty of options. So as you continue to broaden your college search, you flip through the pile of brochures piling up on your desk.

You ask yourself, “What really matters?

Location, location, location

Personally, I hate extreme cold, which is why I live in the state of Nevada. Find a college you can call “home” because you will be there for the next four years. But also, find an academic environment that gives you a sense of belonging. It may be the sheer size of the school or the many communities there, but consider your place within that school.

Stock market: Show me the money?

No, not that kind of scholarship. I’ll cover that in seconds. I’m talking about Merriam-Webster’s second definition of scholarship, defined as: “the character, qualities, activity or achievement of a scholar: learning”.

We have established that you are smart and like to learn. Other people know it too, hence the 10 pounds of mail you get every week. When we talk about scholarships, we are talking about something beyond a degree or a major. The scholarship is much more.

Does your university offer many opportunities for undergraduate research and academic mentorship? Experiences like these will propel you into new endeavors. Many National Merit Finalists and Presidential Scholars at the University of Nevada, Reno are competitive for international scholarships, internships, and academic conferences because of their early exposure and experience in their fields of study. One of the features of scholarship opportunities is the ability to be published. Access to undergraduate publication can be very rare, but at colleges that offer significant scholarship opportunities, like the University of Nevada, Reno, it’s a real possibility.

Show me the money (yeah, that kind of purse)

At 21st century, you and your family shouldn’t break the bank to attend a Tier 1 research university, especially if you take tough high school courses with an incredible GPA and rank in the top 1% of applicants. As the national student loan debt stands at $1.6 trillion, more and more students are carefully considering the realities of college debt. I would say that no college is worth holding back your future dreams and personal ambitions due to unbelievable debt. “A borrower is the slave of the lender,” my colleagues at the Jesuit College taught me.

Do I matter?

That’s how I started this conversation. To feel wanted and to know that you belong. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Did an admissions officer contact you by email or text message? If so, did you receive a generic response from a chatbot? If it was actually a chatbot that answered, it looks like this isn’t the college for you.
  • Have you received an invitation to meet current students and professors? If so, that’s a good sign. Hearing from current students breeds a lot of honesty. And, when a teaching or research faculty member contacts you directly, it is very important. This shows two things. First, the university wants to know more about you and the new freshman class (your future colleagues). And, second, the faculty is accessible to undergraduate students. If the faculty is not accessible to undergraduates, that’s a no-no for me.

I haven’t covered everything you might consider, but I hope you’ve gained some perspective in making this big decision. As we go through a global pandemic, I have personally reflected on what really matters in this world to our candidates, and that is YOU. You matter and don’t forget it. Good luck in your future projects.

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