How to Choose Where to Apply

How to Choose Where to Apply

Before you can begin to even think about your college essay topic or what style you’re going to write in, you’ve got to answer a simple yet sometimes difficult question to answer–where to apply for college.

The simplest way to accomplish this is to go to the US News and World Report, look at the top 25 schools, and pick whichever 6-8 you like best from a combination of price, location, academic programs, and extracurricular activities. This approach isn’t necessarily wrong, per se–if you’ve got the grades and the financial means to attend one of these schools, you’re going to wind up at a place like an Ivy League school, Duke, Stanford, or a top-tier public school like the University of Virginia.

But the problem with this approach is that it’s just not one that requires a lot of thought and, as a result, leaves you open to overlooking something crucial or experiencing stress as a result. What happens when you see, for example, that Duke has a strong engineering school, only to realize upon enrolling that it doesn’t have the specific subniche you want to study? Or what happens if you don’t consider what living across the country from your parents will do, and you hate going to school at Stanford when you’re from Maine?

Instead, deliberating carefully on where to apply will help you make the right choice both for the next four years of your life and for setting yourself up for the next four decades that follow. In order of importance, here are the two things that matter the most when picking a school:

1. The Students. It might seem strange that I didn’t put “academics” first, but here’s a statement almost every college graduate can agree with–you are almost certainly going to change your major (or at least your intended major) multiple times in your first couple of years. In high school, I excelled at math and planned on double majoring in physics and theatre studies. One failed monologue and math test later, I graduated from Duke having never taken a physics class. I never even considered psychology (my eventual major) until the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.

However, what will determine the quality of your time over the next four years and will have a profound impact on your career and social success over your adult life are the type of people you associate with. As someone who graduated in 2010, I worked for a friend’s admissions consulting business that allowed me to expand this part of my career; I launched a startup with two of my friends from college; I have traveled through Europe for a month with a friend from college; and I have helped push one friend to pursue her passion for acting in New York City.

I can do this, in part, because the type of people I associated with at Duke were driven, far smarter than me, and studious, but also just great people in general. That is not to say that I would not have met such people at Notre Dame or UNC or Cornell, but the typical Duke student, from my observations, really knows how to excel not just academically, but socially, spiritually, and globally.

When you’re considering where to apply, think about what the typical student does. Do they conduct research? Do they start companies? Do they like sports? Do they like to socialize, or do they like to work on weekends? Even seemingly trivial questions like what kind of sports do they like can matter (though, obviously, not as much as their work ethic or emotional intelligence); it’s through basketball that I met one of my co-founders at the startup I launched a few years ago.

You’re going to change your major. You’re going to move a lot as an adult. But the friendships and relationships you build will last a lifetime–so make sure you put yourself in an environment where you can find those kind of people.

2. The Postgraduate Opportunities. An economics degree is a wonderful thing, especially if you have ambitions on going to Wall Street after college. But as someone who has many friends who went to one of the Big 4 investment firms upon graduation (and has friends who have relatives in high-ranking places in those firms), it’s also worth noting that many of those firms will hire graduates with nontraditional backgrounds.

Why? Because they know that these students from Harvard, Columbia, and so on know how to think and they know how to work for long hours at peak levels. They want to see a certain baseline level of competence, of course, but to suggest that the only way in is with a business and economics track ignores that oftentimes, it depends on where you went to school as much as what you majored in to get where you want to go.

This is not just true for investment banking, but software development, consulting, politics, and much, much more. If you have a school that acts essentially as a feeder into a major industry and can land you at a major company or a major graduate/medical/law school program, that should be a major factor in your decision.


While there’s certainly something to be said for learning for the sake of learning–actually, there’s a lot of valid things to be said for that–it’s important to keep something in mind.

The top tier schools do not have a monopoly on what information you can learn.

It’s not like if you study economics at the University of Chicago that you’ll learn some mystical microeconomics theory you wouldn’t get at a state school. You won’t learn the mysteries of quantum physics at MIT.

But what you will have access to are incredible students (and, in turn, incredible professors), access to amazing postgraduate opportunities, and a chance to study in an atmosphere that truly promotes whatever it is you’re going for.

Absolutely, keep in mind price, the academics, and the athletics (or, if you’re not into that, the extracurriculars) of a school. But remember–aside from price, all of this boils down to what kind of students you’ll associate with and what kind of opportunities you’ll have after school. Price, unfortunately, is a factor that can’t be bargained with when it comes to you and your family.

But outside of that, remember: when you decide where to apply, it’s the students, not the ranking, and the opportunities, not the degree, that truly matter.

Picking a School That’s Right For You!

Picking a School That’s Right For You!

It’s April 1st, which means by now, you should have heard from all of the schools you applied to. It may sound cliche, but you deserve congratulations for getting through this stressful process! Now comes one last step–picking a school.

By now, you’re probably just ready for school to end. You’re ready to head out for spring break, if you haven’t already. If you’ve had spring break, you’re just ready for summer to come. And more than that, you’re probably ready to begin college.

What could be better than freedom from the parents, after all? (For me, at that time, the answer was simple: nothing!)

But–I know, you’ve had so many buts, you’re over it, just take this last one to heart–don’t rush into making a decision on a school. You’re not just picking a name–you’re picking your experiences for the next few years, and if you do it wrong, you’re going to wind up having mediocre experiences at best.

There are many factors that will go into play, such as the prestige, the price, the academic offerings, and so on. But there are a few other things you’ll want to keep in mind, things that may not seem so obvious but will play a major role in your happiness over the next few years.

Of course, prioritize the academics and cost. But if you’ve narrowed it down to a few schools and still can’t decide on where to go, consider the following.

Where do students live during all four years?

When I was a student at Duke, you were required to live on campus your first three years. All freshmen lived on East Campus, all sophomores lived on West Campus, and while juniors got to choose Central or West Campus, both were less than a five minute walk through the Duke Gardens away from each other.

Why does this matter? A school that requires its students to live on campus will make it much easier for you to make friends, especially if said campus is relatively small. Conversely, a school that allows you to live off-campus right off the bat will allow students to lead isolated lives, making it more difficult to establish friendships and cultivate those friendships.

Most schools will not mandate you live on campus for three years like Duke does. But if one of your goals is to make new friends or to meet people of different backgrounds, pay close attention to where those students live when you’re picking a school. It’s a lot easier to make friends when everyone in your class is within a quarter-mile radius on campus than when people are spread out through the town.

How active are alumni?

I recently went back to Duke’s campus for our rivalry men’s basketball game against UNC. It had been eight years since I graduated, and I was with a couple of other friends who graduated around the same time I did.

It was fascinating talking to students in line for the game, because we were far from the only alums who had come back to campus. In fact, one student said something to the effect of how he had run into an alum every day since he started tenting for the game.

Every school has alums that speak about “school pride.” But the more committed and passionate alums are to their school, the more likely they are to reach out and lend a helping hand. I had the good fortune of attending a school with a strong, passionate, and well-connected alumni base. You should aim for the same.

What is the parking policy on campus?

This sounds absurd, right? But here’s another point in line with the first point. The easier it is to park on campus, the more easily students can get off campus. The harder it is, the more they’ll stay on campus.

Parking at Duke drove me insane. I probably racked up more fees in parking tickets than I have in speeding tickets in my lifetime, and my sister had an even more hilariously bad experience at Auburn. But how easy would it be to get off campus if parking was easy? How easy would it be to come and go?

The easier, the worse. (Except when you get a ticket. Then you’ll curse your school’s campus security.)

How many professors teach classes?

When I got to Duke, I received a bit of a wake up call. Not every professor taught classes. Some, in fact, only conducted research, worked with grad students, or did some other sort of special projects.

Unlike the other factors above, there’s no right or wrong answer here. A school that has all or most of its professors teaching will make it easier for you to meet these professors… but on the other hand, if you work with a professor who only does research, you know that their full attention will stay on the research and, by extension, your contributions to the research.

So whether or not this matters depends on if you anticipate doing research in college. In general, you should default toward doing research–but nevertheless, this is a point to consider.


Again, in the grand scheme of things, these things don’t matter nearly as much as the school’s academic prestige, the cost of attendance, and your academic fit.

But when you’ve got your choices narrowed down and you truly can’t decide, compare these schools on the criteria above. You might just find your answer.

And if you still have trouble picking a school? Take visits to both and go with your gut. You generally don’t want to leave a life-altering decision up to your gut, but by that point, your gut will be so informed it could pass a final exam on the matter.

But the process of picking a school usually won’t go that far. You’ll know your answer soon enough.

And then you won’t have to think again until you begin your first college class!