How to Help Students Find the Right College
By Samantha Jonas-Hain, Link for Counselors I October 10, 2023
As counselors you know firsthand just how unique each student is. From high achievers and athletes to those who are just getting by or hyper focused on one particular interest like art, no two student profiles are exactly the same, which is why a holistic approach to the college search, accounting for personal likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, finances, and goals can make the difference between a subpar college experience and one that will truly set the student up for success. And while in the past the cost prohibitiveness of touring colleges left many students at a disadvantage, that no longer has to be the case, and the world can be on their radar!
Unfortunately, many students have a limited scope and understanding as to what college is, not realizing that when it comes to higher education it is not a one-size-fits-all game. Just because a school worked for their parent, sibling or friend doesn’t mean it is the best choice for them, but oftentimes trying to tell a teenager that they are wrong in their assumptions is a futile task. So what then? What is the best way to break students out of their myopic shell so they can find a school that will work best for them based on comprehensive consideration, and not just something as generic as liking a basketball team or the school’s colors?
eens are inherently driven by expressing their individuality, and the college search is a great opportunity to play on that. Just as there are different genres of music, clothing styles, and food palettes that dictate what they wear, eat, and listen to, each college has its own flavor, style and harmony, and asking the right questions beforehand can give students the opportunity to really customize their future experience, which can be tailored to their needs and wants. Just as a vegan student wouldn’t eat a cheeseburger in the cafeteria, why would a student who has a fear of crowds go to a large school with 600-person lecture halls? The concept seems obvious, but only to those who recognize that there are many options to choose from when it comes to higher education. Not every student understands that there are small schools, large schools, private schools, state schools, HBCUs, Hispanic Serving Institutions, international learning opportunities, community colleges, online schools and even a semester at sea!
In less than three years our tv show The College Tour has visited over 110 colleges and universities across the country, and has spoken to thousands of students about their individual pathways and experiences on and off campus. Whether it was at a big school like University of California, Riverside or a small school like Hanover College, our takeaway was that finding the right school is the biggest factor when it comes to ensuring a successful outcome for the student. While those specific factors look different for each student, there are universal ones that we recommend each person to consider in their college search, such as accounting for location, majors, size, type of school, and campus culture. In fact, we created a series of interactive online classes that in under an hour can help students figure out what priorities they should keep in the forefront of their college search based off of those key pillars. Classes include Majors, First-Generation Students, International Students, and Core classes, each using video-based segments directly from our show, all told through the lens of current students. Having that peer-to-peer communication is extremely advantageous for teens as it enables them to identify with being on campus. In each episode of our show, The College Tour, we feature 10 different student-led segments, all of whom are from diverse backgrounds,with varying abilities, interests and learning styles. Our goal is to allow the viewer to see themselves thriving in higher education, regardless of where they come from. The show and website are free of charge, and have been created literally to help both the counselor and student!
The daunting nature of the college search is nothing new, and while a plethora of content is readily available to this generation oftentimes the problem is that they don’t know where to start and what to be looking for. Navigating what seems like an endless sea of information can trigger some students to take a step back. To combat the overwhelming nature of this new stage in their life, we believe in giving them an easy to digest approach based on pragmatism and critical thinking. This decision doesn’t happen overnight, and trying to figure it all out once can be a recipe for failure. By breaking it down into fragmented categories to use as a springboard to narrow down what will work best for them individually, students will take the time to really think about what is important to them. Here are some ideas of how to get this process moving.
Check the Surroundings
Locations are as varied as the students themselves. There are schools close to outdoor recreation like hiking and rock climbing, and then there are those schools that are smack in the middle of a bustling big city, or sitting in a rural area near farmland. The question to the student is, “Where do you most want to be?” Maybe they want to be in a suburb close to a metropolis so they have access to high-level internships, or maybe they want to be in a small town. Whatever the answer is, have them use that as a guide to finding a school. Each one of their answers narrows down the list of schools that are right for them and can very quickly shift their focus to something that is a much better fit.
Also, aside from the main campus being considered, many schools offer study abroad opportunities around the world. If your student is someone who loves adventure, travel, and getting to learn about different cultures and languages, consider steering them toward a school that can expand their horizons and provide unique learning opportunities, like being a part of Semester at Sea!
When it comes to college, there is a community waiting for everyone. If finding a school with a strong LGBTQIA is important to your student, find one that is known for their supportive pride community, like Sarah Lawrence College. Or, make sure the school that they are interested in has at least a club on campus or a support system that is equipped to provide your student every resource they need to thrive on campus.
For students with various learning styles, health conditions or other impairments it is critical to make sure their needs can be met even before applying to the school. Identify what needs your student has and use that as the guide to finding the school that can not only accommodate that need but support it as best as possible. Schools like Landmark College that are designed for students with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, executive function disorders and learning disabilities, and can be an amazing alternative for students who need extra help.
The Spirit Guide
There are schools that are notorious sports schools, where the entire campus partakes in game day fun. For some students this type of atmosphere is exhilarating, and a dream come true, but to others it is a reason to feel isolated and out of touch with their fellow student body.
College is a time to learn, grow and make friends, but if your student feels like the odd man out, that situation can be stressful and hinder their success. Remind students that “school spirit” can come in many forms. There are places like The University of Utah, where community engagement events are designed to bring students together, and then there are schools where they have a close-knit relationship with the community right outside the campus. Sororities, fraternities, clubs, and student leadership opportunities can all help bolster a sense of pride, as well. Supporting a school’s sports’ teams is great, but it isn’t the only way to have a communal experience. It’s important for students to have access to groups that cater to their interests, whatever they may be.
The Culture Club
College is the place to celebrate who you are, and there are campuses around the country that are geared toward allowing students to connect with a particular culture or community. For example, historically black colleges, known as HBCUs, including schools like Xavier University and Jackson State University afford black students the ability to be on a campus surrounded by people of similar backgrounds. Hispanic Serving Institutions, known as HSIs, which include schools like Florida International University and Kean University, are driven toward helping the latino community, many of whom are first-generation college goers.
Devout students will be happy to know that keeping the faith can continue on campus, as well. There are plenty of religious colleges and universities like Abilene Christian University, St. Mary’s University and Yeshiva University that are designed to not just support a student’s faith but nurture it, and provide them with likeminded people who share the same values.
As for ROTC and military students, finding a military-friendly college, such as The University of Alaska Fairbanks, is important, as the school will be helpful with navigating the nuanced challenges that come with being in the military.
Culture is part of a student’s identity and finding a school that reflects that culture can heighten their experience in more ways than one.
For many students college comes down to cost, and oftentimes that even starts with the tour itself. It used to be that in order for a student to truly check out the schools that they were interested in they would need to physically go there to get a sense of place, but contemporary students have the advantage of new age digital experiences that can broaden their scope from anywhere. The College Tour was created just for that purpose, and is a great example of technology that brings the schools directly to the students free of charge.
Additionally, numerous resources are available to assist students in navigating financial aid, discovering scholarships and grants, which can ultimately transform attending a school from an impossibility into a tangible possibility. Don’t just rule out a school based on price alone . Some schools even base their tuition on a sliding scale dependent on family income.
Sizing up the Situation
With 900 community colleges and 2,500 four-year institutions across the country, there is no reason why any student has to go to a school that they find too large or too small. When looking at schools, it makes sense to take the Goldilocks approach. Have your student look at the student population, and ask themselves, “Does this feel too large, too small or just right?” Aside from looking at the total number of students, have them find out about dorm size, class size and even the amount of extracurricular activities and clubs. Aside from having larger facilities, larger schools with larger populations may offer more clubs and resources, however, some students may work better in an intimate setting and benefit from being able to build relationships with their professors.
College is a time to keep an open mind, but it is also important for incoming students to know exactly what type of majors are available to them. There are students who may dream of being a pilot, so finding a school with a great aviation program is one step closer to making their dream become a reality. Another reason to investigate a school’s majors is that there are many exciting majors that students don’t know exist, such as video game programming and development, and agriculture. New innovations and industries are constantly burgeoning, and the future jobs of tomorrow are finding their way to today’s campuses. Learning about a school’s majors can inspire students to embark on a new path of discovery.
Take the Temperature
Some students love the cold and others hate it. Some schools allow freshmen to have cars on campuses and others don’t. It’s important for students to figure out just what type of environment they want to live in. If they don’t mind the heat or walking in the snow, take note of that, but if they do, take note of that as well. There are campuses that can give you a taste of all four seasons, and then there are those that offer year-round sun, which is a great option for those who like water sports and find that they are happiest when soaking in Vitamin D. It may seem simplistic, but environment and weather shouldn’t be discounted. Students are only in class for a set amount of time, and being in a place where they feel comfortable will benefit their overall welfare.
College isn’t just about freedom from parents and freedom from the k-12 school system. It is about freedom to become who you want to be. It is a time of new beginnings, a path to the rest of your life. Counselors have the incredibly difficult job of guiding students not just toward that future, but making sure it is lit brightly. One of the most rewarding aspects of working on The College Tour is knowing that we are not just helping the students find the right college but that we are helping counselors in their constant quest to lift up the next generation. Each campus we visit is a new opportunity to understand the vast, and ever changing landscape of higher education. Our knowledge is your knowledge.
What an effective college search really comes down to is clarity. By definition, clarity can be regarded as “freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity.” Clarity is the ultimate in mindfulness, and gives students intelligibility, and a sense of control when it comes to their destiny. Even if a student takes the time to consider just one of the aforementioned topics, they will have that much more of an understanding of themselves and an elevated perception of their role in higher education. In fact, in some cases, these simple questions can make the difference between a student continuing on to college or not. Different things motivate different people, and rooting out a student’s motivation can be the catalyst for a positive attitude while determining their journey.
We all have our college memories, some more exciting than others, but the one thing we can all agree on is that college is a turning point in a young person’s life, regardless of whether they stay home and go to a community college or venture half-way around the world to study abroad. The skills that you are helping them build in this search will be everlasting, and maybe one day they too will look back on their college experience and remember the amazing counselor who helped them realize that it was all possible.
The College Tour is a groundbreaking TV series that takes the viewer on an intimate journey through campuses across the country, telling each school’s story through the diverse lens of its students. Hosted by The Amazing Race winner Alex Boylan, The College Tour brings equity to college readiness by providing a platform to access comprehensive and meaningful information regarding higher education anytime and anywhere, free of charge. The College Tour is available on Amazon Prime Video and on www.thecollegetour.com.