One of the first questions we ask our students is this: have you thought about what type of college is a good fit for you? The answer 90% of the time: "I have no idea." My other favorite answer: "I haven’t been to college yet, so how would I know?"
I know what they’re thinking, “Come on! I’m just a junior in high school! I don’t need to have everything figured out!” That much is true, you don’t need to have everything figured out. But you do need to start thinking about it, and start going a little deeper than just the 3 best colleges in your state you’ve already heard about. There are many reasons why doing good college research is more important than you think. Here’s a few:
You are the one going to college, therefore, you need to know what YOU want.
This seems obvious, but it’s hard these days to not let all the college talk, parent talk, and peer pressure get to you. Maybe you’ve grown up in a home where mom and dad are die-hard fans and alumni of a beloved college, and you think you’d let them down if you didn’t go there, let alone even want to. Maybe all your friends talk about are 10 of the most highly selective colleges in the country, and you think you won’t be satisfied or successful unless you can get into one of these schools. Or, maybe you really don’t have any idea because you’ve just never, ever, ever really thought about it. The reality is, your parents, friends, counselors are not going to college for you next year. You'll get dropped off at your dorm and then you’ll be the one spending 4 years in the place you choose. The difference between a good college experience and a GREAT one is how much time you spend now figuring out what you want and where you will thrive.
We don’t believe in “fallback” schools, and you shouldn’t either.
Building on my last point, doing quality college research helps you build a list of colleges filled with places you love. If you don’t get into your top 3 choices, you know with certainty the other 6 you applied to are still colleges you are excited about and will be happy attending. Far too many students stop their research at their top favorite schools. They decide those 3 are the be-all-end-all, and they’ll just throw a few in-state options as “fallbacks.” And then they get the reality check: rejection letters. A rejection doesn’t say anything about you or your character or your chances at an amazing future, but they are an unavoidable part of the admissions process. Most students do not get into every single school they apply to (especially if they are shooting for highly selective schools,) so make certain that your list has a wide-range of schools that you love. How? Research, research, research, and take good notes. Be honest with yourself, what is it specifically about those 3 top schools that you love so much? Once you know that, you can find other colleges with those same qualities, and expand your list.
It will help you with your college applications.
Just as you are looking for the best fit for you, colleges are also looking for the best fit for them. Imagine this scenario: an Admissions Counselor at Awesome University has two application files on her desk, and they are pretty much identical when it comes to numbers. Same GPA, rigor of academics, similar test scores. But she can only admit one, so she looks at the next layer. One of the questions that Awesome University asks it’s applicants is this: Of all the colleges and universities in the country, why are you applying here? Applicant A has scrambled at the last minute to answer this essay question, and her answers barely skim the surface. She likes the sports atmosphere, it’s in a great location, and she has friends who love it there. Problem is, that could be a description of hundreds of other colleges, and it shows very little thought. Applicant B, on the other hand, has spent serious time researching and it shows. She writes about a student she met on her visit to Awesome U who told her all about the undergrad research opportunities in the psychology department, her specific area of interest. She also discovered through her own digging that the Psychology department offers real-world experience through internships, which is more unique to Awesome U. Class sizes are small, and she loves classroom discussion, which she saw first-hand in the Literature class she visited. She’d also happily join the Community Gardening club she learned about, because local food is one of her passions. Which student do you think the Admissions Officer is planning to admit?
The bottom line
Start your research in junior year and spend some quality time doing it. Go visit a variety of colleges near you and find out what you like. Check out their websites, look at clubs/activities/programs they offer, go to CollegeWeekLive.com or CampusTours.comand learn everything you can. If you start all of this in junior year you're giving yourself plenty of time to find your way to a GREAT college experience, not just a good one.