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Question Well, I am a fourteen-year-old female student of an all-girl school in Detroit, Mi. The name of my school is Detroit International Academy. I would like to know how to get started looking for a college. Please help me because I don’t know where to start? – Shynera

AnswerPresumably, you’re in the 9th or 10th grade, so you have a lot of time to consider particular college choices. Right now you should focus on taking challenging courses in your school and doing well in them. Test preparation will happen just prior to or going into junior year, so you have time on that front as well. Your college choices should be the result of your matching your strengths and interests to particular environments. Most students don’t have a particular academic focus, but everyone has strengths and interests, in and out of class. So, spend the next two years pursuing your passions, concentrating on the things you love to do, and building knowledge of yourself and what kind of college environment and programs would most likely work best for you.

Heading into the summer prior to junior year you might begin your college list building, with the idea of seeing some campuses in the fall of junior year to get an idea of what is out there in terms of contrasting environments. Work with your school’s college counseling program to make sure you are taking appropriate tests and not missing deadlines or planning events organized by your school.

Question When I am applying to college, how will I know that it is the best one for me? – Sheri

AnswerYou should do serious research on each college that you have some potential interest in. Read the colleges’ descriptive material, review the key information on their Web sites, and best of all, if you are still interested at this point, visit the campuses. What are you looking for? Here are key elements: academic courses and major fields of study in your areas of interest; financial aid resources if this is an important consideration; location; size of student body; match up with your grades and test scores; the mix of students on campus; non academic activities that you are interested in pursuing. The visit to the campus will give you a feel for the environment and its rightness for you. Talk to present students to get more insight on campus feel and lifestyle and work demands.

Question what would be the best way to contact a college when in the process of early college searching? as a high school junior, i am not capable of traveling and going to see a school is there another way to “see” the schools? – Courtney

AnswerThe best way to begin your search is online. College Web sites are full of information, and you can “register” online as a prospective applicant. The college will begin to e-mail or mail you information after that. Many colleges have virtual tours, sometimes including 360 degree “on-the-green” cameras that show you live views of campus. You can learn a lot about admission requirements, academic programs, and extracurricular offerings as well. Additionally, many colleges have started blogs or student-led chats. Sites like Peterson’s also have information of a more or less formal nature about the colleges. Once you have initially narrowed your list, or selected a few colleges of interest, you can plan some campus visits. The Web sites will list tour and information session schedules for you, and sometimes let you sign up online.

Question What should the criteria be for choosing the ideal place for going to college? – Medha

AnswerYour strengths, interests, goals, and sense of your learning style and social life preferences. Finding the best fit for you should be your primary goal. Yes, fit includes level of academic challenge; it also means finding a place where the size of the classes, style of teaching, type of students around you, physical location, climate, and so on, will work best for you.

There is certainly more than one college that will fit you well. We don’t think that every student, or even most students, will find that they “fall in love with” one college which is the only best school for them. We encourage students to look for a diverse range of schools, each of which could work well for them, and to create a diverse application pattern, trying to open up several colleges to choose from in the spring of their senior year.

Start your college search by looking inward, and considering your academic strengths, extracurricular involvements, special talents, academic and career goals. Then focus on which kinds of college environments are likely to provide you with the kind of college experience that will work best for you. In that mix, and through the process of researching and visiting schools, you will be able to define and narrow your preferences. Then your academic and testing background can continue to help define which levels of schools in terms of difficulty of entrance and challenge of curriculum, will work best for your goals.

Question I would just like to know the best schools that fit my description of schools with great biology/pre-med tracks (not including the accelerated seven-year programs for pre-med students) and research opportunities. Thank you. – Pooja

AnswerThere so many excellent undergraduate colleges that provide the necessary foundation for qualifying for medical school entrance. There is a somewhat erroneous idea in the college shopping universe that a student interested in medicine must attend one of a handful of colleges known to prepare students for successful entrance to medical schools.

In fact, the real factors one should consider are these: what type of college setting will best suit my academic and personal style; where will I learn best and be able to cope successfully with the science and math required courses; where will I have an opportunity to work closely with faculty in science laboratory work and research projects; where will I be helped to gain clinical experiences as a volunteer or intern that relate to medical practice.

You should focus on these factors and then inquire at your targeted colleges as to the number of students who apply and enroll in medical colleges each of the past five years, and what role the premedical adviser plays in assisting students.

Question I am a 23 yr old former military person and I was just recently divorced. I just moved since my divorce and I would like to get back into college.  My question is how can I find a college that offers on or off campus residency for me and my 2yr old son.  I will receive my gi bill but I need to find a Historical Black College that would supply on or off-campus housing for single parents – Jennifer

AnswerGood for you for finding out about the available resources for veterans. You should be able to find a college that works for you and your family situation. You might find this list of HBCU’s helpful to continue your research: http://www.ed.gov/about/inits/list/whhbcu/edlite-list.html. You can narrow the field by looking at geographical location, your major areas of interest, and so on, and can conduct a search on the Petersons.com site for an initial screening of schools. The schools might have residency information easily available, or you might need to make a phone call directly to the admissions office or office of residential life on campus to ask about housing for single parents on campus or subsidies for you off campus.

Question Where do you find out about college events and college fairs? – Liarpa

AnswerYou can find information about college fairs on the site of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, www.nacacnet.org, which is the professional association of college admissions officers and guidance counselors. If you register at particular colleges’ Web sites, they will usually let you know if they will be in your area for an event. Your school guidance office also maintains information on local fairs and programs.

Question I’m a senior this year, and I know that I need to start applying to colleges soon. Right now I only have two colleges on my list that I really want to attend and I plan on applying to them. I know that I need to apply to more than two colleges. How do I decide what other colleges to apply to if I am really only interested in two colleges? – Melody

AnswerIn fact, many students apply to only one or two colleges and are done with the admissions process. That is because two-thirds of four-year college students attend public universities. Many of these students are attending one of their in-state public institutions, and many of these schools use rolling admissions to fill their classes during the fall. If one of these schools is high on your list, then you can apply early in the fall, and, if you get in, you’ll be done with the process. If, however, you don’t get in, you’ll need to expand your list going forward.

In general, we suggest considering a list of eight to ten colleges, especially if they don’t fit the plan we just outlined, and if they are more competitive for admission, and thus less predictable. If you have two strong choices, then you will want to look for other schools, both equally and less competitive which fit the model toward which you have gravitated. In some guidebooks, and on this website, you will be able to look at one of your schools and to then see a list of other colleges that tend to “overlap” with your chosen school. You can then research, and perhaps visit them to see if they might work for you.

Question How could I look up good colleges? what are the best ways to do it? and do you know any good site for me to search for colleges? – Jasmin

AnswerResearching colleges is an essential part of your college admissions process. Research is an ongoing task, one you should return to again and again as you begin to structure your initial list, finalize your list going into senior year, and make your final decisions (either applying Early Decision or deciding from among choices you’ve been admitted to in senior spring).

Petersons.com has a great deal of information available to you on colleges. You can also find a lot of highly specific information on each college’s Web site. Begin to spend time on the sites of colleges that interest you, going beyond the admissions section of the site to spend time exploring the sections on academic programs, majors, special programs, and so on. The more you learn about yourself, and then the colleges you’re considering, the more accurate and appropriate a college list you’ll put together.

Question How do I decide what college/university I would like to attend and whether it is right for me and my needs – R.L

AnswerBegin by evaluating your strengths and interests and what you might like to pursue in college academically and in terms of extracurriculars. Most college-bound students don’t know what they’d like to commit to, and that’s fine. The key is to know your strengths, and they include strengths of character and values that are important to you.

Next, start to consider the kind of college experience that would most likely match your strengths and interests, and allow you to pursue those most important to you. The environment can play a key role in your college experience, so start differentiating if you think you would do better in a small or large, urban or rural, campus or city, traditional or alternative, or competitive or less demanding institution, for example. If you have particular academic or extracurricular areas you’d like to pursue, conduct a college search initially to see which would allow you to pursue them.

Visiting is essential early on, during junior year, and again during senior year once you have been admitted. You can assess both a gut level sense of whether an institution feels right for you, as well as a more rational assessment of programs, opportunities, and requirements. Contrasting different types of colleges and universities and seeing a mix can often help to highlight what will work best for you.

Question How do you know what’s the right school for you? – Shanira

AnswerSometimes you begin the college search process with an instinctive sense of what the right fit will be for you — in a city, on a campus, small or large, competitive or less demanding, artsy or traditional, and so on. The important thing is to use your research time and visits to confirm or challenge your initial assumptions. And, if you have no clue as you’re starting the process, to begin to develop an understanding of what your options are. The most important factors in the long run for your success and happiness are the right academic program, good teaching, and students who suit you well. Those will have the greatest lasting impact on your college experience and future development. So, plan to visit some contrasting school models, keep an open mind, and begin to develop a template for what kind of college experience you’d like to have, and which schools will provide that for you.

Question I’m only in the 9th grade, is it to early to be looking for a college??? I cant seem to find anything on the colleges I would like to attend, can you help me? – Myeshia

AnswerIt’s too early to worry about which specific colleges are the best for you. Right now, your focus should be on preparing for selective college admissions, and knowing that you’re doing the right things to make college a reality for you. If you are taking good classes, doing well, and planning your standardized test taking schedule appropriately, then you’re on the right track. Pursuing one or two key interests to the highest level you can is another focus from here on out — do something you love to do, and do it well.

As you complete tenth grade, that’s the time to get more aware of different college models. You might begin visiting a few as you begin 11th grade, or at the end of that summer, to see what the different types (small, rural, urban, large, university, college, liberal, traditional, liberal arts, pre-professional) of institutions are like. In other words, start researching and visiting a few schools to get a sense of contrast and what’s out there, and the picture will become clearer.

Individual college Web sites have a lot of information, as does Petersons.com. The great thing for now is that you know you want to go to college. Stick with that, and stay focused on preparation and performance, and you’ll get there.

Question I have no clue where to start when deciding where to go to college! I am currently a senior and I have looked around but I feel clueless, I don’t know what I want to do! What should I start to do? – Amanda

AnswerOne of the fundamental exercises is to do a self-assessment of your personal and academic strengths and your needs. Considering such key factors as the level of academic demands, enrollment and average class size, geographic location, type and style of the student body, academic fields of interest, extracurricular offerings, and distance from home should help you develop a good picture of what kind of college will work best for you. This information should be matched with the academic and test requirements for admission as well.

Question If rankings are not to be believed in their entirety, what are the other ways I should evaluate colleges by? Further, is there any place where I can see a list of college rankings by popularity, from students and also employers? [For example, MIT is a very sought after institution for studies] – Nitin

AnswerThe major advantage we see to the several different rankings publications is the organization of a good deal of data that would be difficult for any one individual to amass on his or her own. Reviewing the selectivity, the financial resources, retention and graduation rates, and student to faculty ratio as primary examples, can prove very helpful to you in comparing colleges. However, while these are important data points you must determine what kind of learning and social environment will be best for you and what majors are offered that fit with your talents and potential future goals. Keep in mind as you compare the several different publications that rank colleges what matters most to you, not to anyone else. Financial aid may be a significant factor that you will also want to consider which has little to do with the rankings criteria.

We are not big fans of the so-called insider publications which invariably base their generalities about individual colleges on off-the-cuff comments from only a handful of students. The best course of action, to the extent it is possible, is to visit the campuses of the colleges you have researched and think might work for you. There you can gain your own reactions and speak with students and admissions representatives.

Question I know that we should not rely on rankings, but it is interesting to see where some schools rate on the lists. Is there anyone ranking that stands out above the rest. – Chris

AnswerIn terms of visibility and sales in the public marketplace, the “US News and World Report’s” annual edition of “America’s Best Colleges” stands out. There is a good deal of collected data that is helpful to a student launching his or her college search. But no rankings we have seen can address your very individual interests and priorities. We encourage students to use search engines, such as Peterson’s, to use their personal criteria to find appropriate matches.

Question How do I create a college list that is right for me? So that I can get the best for myself. – Bryant

AnswerYour question suggests two very important points. First, your list should indeed be one that is right for you personally; and, second, you are trying to find the best (and we would add, most appropriate) college for yourself.

Building your college list involves examining your own strengths, interests, and priorities, and then looking to find colleges that offer programs and an environment which suit you well. Set out a list first of the important things for you in a college. Each student prioritizes different criteria. Some are more interested in the campus setting, others a particular academic program. Sometimes the size of the institution seems to matter a great deal, or the atmosphere on campus, or the availability of financial assistance or a particular extracurricular activity. In our experience, and in surveys with undergraduates, the most important elements of a college match for the long term are finding the right academic program, finding teaching that works for you and to which you respond, and studying among peers who make good friends and stimulating learning partners.

Once you list your major priorities and interests, start reading some guidebooks, talk to your guidance counselor and teachers and friends, and browse college Web sites. Begin to visit some colleges that seem like they might fit, and, if you are on the right track, look for other schools that fit the models you like best. Keep an open mind, apply broadly, and try to open up at least a couple of choices that seem like strong matches for you.

Question I was looking at the U.S. News rankings and noticed that the school I want to go to as dropped significantly in the rankings between last year and this year. Does that mean, that I shouldn’t consider going? – Cait

AnswerFirst of all, rankings should be one of the least important factors involved in making your college decision. Fit is much more important: fit of academic programs, social environment, physical location, activities, culture, and so forth. Rankings make the most sense when you look at them in terms of tiers, rather than narrowly differentiated numbers. That is, yes, there is a difference in quality and reputation between a “third tier” university and a number 7 ranked national university. Resources, teaching, and programs can all be different between the two.

However, there is much less difference between a college ranked number 4 and one ranked 14. Rankings at that level change annually, and for almost no reason. Minor changes in the ways in which the rankings are calculated, the ways universities report or don’t report their data, and the way academic peers rank reputation all impact rankings. See the rankings guides as offering some helpful comparative information, but little in the way of reliable numbers to make your final decision on.

Question I am the first person in my family to consider college and have no clue where to even start when it comes to figuring out which school I should go to. – Evan

AnswerFirst, we’d encourage you by noting that selective colleges are actively seeking first-generation college students, sometimes referred to as “non-traditional” college students, though that gets confused with students who are older, returning to school, and so on. So, you should not limit your options because of a lack of family experience with college or a lack of “connections”, which many people think are more important than that actually are. You should also not limit yourself in terms of cost.

To start the process, you’ll need to consider your own strengths, abilities, and character traits, and begin to assess which types of college environments will fit you best. Meeting with your school guidance counselor can help, as can meeting with college representatives at a local college fair, many sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Visiting a few representative campuses nearby — a small school, a large university, an urban setting, a small town or rural campus — will help you develop the vocabulary to talk about which schools seem right.

You can search on Petersons.com to try to match an initial set of schools with your academic and other interests, and early estimates of grades, scores, and what kinds of places are of most interest to you. Above all, keep an open mind and don’t set too many early limits.