I knew where I wanted to go to school when I was seven years old. Michigan had me with the winged helmets. Fortunately, when I got there they had a pretty good economics department too. This was fortunate because I went to Ann Arbor to study astronomy. Plans change.
Students have more information about colleges today than I did when I was making my choice. Universities have elaborate websites and produce materials that describe their programs and the student experience. Several news outlets (e.g., Business Week, U.S. News) now rank universities using a variety of measures. Frankly, most of this stuff isn’t very useful when deciding to attend one institution rather than another.
As far as the rankings go, being at a top 25 school is better than being at a top 50 school which is better than being at a top 100 school, but the national reach of academic reputation declines rapidly after the top 50. If you want to change the world or become a leader in your profession some day, attending a top academic institution helps. It gives you access to extraordinary people and opens doors. Yet even schools with great reputations differ in ways that will impact your experience. You want to explore these differences and find a school with an environment that is going to help you reach your full potential whether it is in the top 50 or not. To help you assess fit, you will need to meet with people from a few schools and get answers to a few questions:
(1) What qualities or traits does the school want to instill in graduates and how do they do this? Schools will tell you that they produce “ethical decision makers,” “risk-takers,” “innovators” or “data-driven decision makers”. Such labels are nice, but make them give you specific examples of how they develop these qualities in their students. Then ask yourself if this is the type of experience you desire and whether these traits are the ones you want to develop while you are in college.
(2) How much access do students have to the most prominent faculty on campus? The person in front of the classroom is the most important part of your education. All that fancy technology, nice living spaces, and great workout facilities they are going to show you doesn’t change this reality. You want to learn from experts whose insights and experiences change how you view the world. Some schools only use prominent faculty in graduate courses. Undergraduates never see them. Other schools require their most prominent faculty to teach students at all levels. Don’t take administrators’ responses to this question at face value. Talk to students who go to the institution. They will give you the real story.
(3) How much structure is there to the student experience? All schools will tell you that they have programs, but most really just have lists of courses students need to complete in order to get a degree. There is a big difference. Programs create experiences that build relationships and common perspective. So for example, students may take classes in a sequence together in small groups (called cohorts). Or they may have culminating cross-disciplinary experiences that consume an entire semester of courses. If you know what you want to do when you graduate, highly structured programs have many advantages, but they do restrict choice. If you are undecided about your major, you may want a school that is less structured and allows you to explore topics without slowing down your progress to graduation.
(4) What do you offer students at your institution that will help me stand out in the job market? Elite universities have reputations that other institutions can’t match. Once you get out of the top 50 institutions, universities need a different answer to this question. Maybe it is the opportunity to work with a professor on a consulting project. Or, maybe it involves exposure to cutting-edge technology. Or, maybe it is an internship that allows you to work and study in another country. Make sure you know what these opportunities are, how they will further your career, and how likely it is you will be able to take advantage of them.
(5) What does the school do to connect students to people in the profession? Almost all universities offer career services, but don’t expect them “to get you a job.” Trade schools do this, universities don’t. What the school can do is help you understand professional norms, build your professional network and get you in front of potential employers. Some schools have strong alumni networks that help students transition from college to employment. Others incorporate professional development courses into the curriculum. Still others provide internships or one-on-one mentoring programs. The more connections you can make in college, the easier it will be to successfully transition to employment. Also make sure to ask what percent of students have a job in their chosen field within three months of graduation.
The answers to these questions, along with the ones you develop on your own, should give you a much better sense of whether a specific institution is right for you. This is an exciting time in your life and the decision you make in the next few months will have a big impact on you for years to come. Take the time to be proactive and make a good choice.