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.
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!
Deciding between multiple schools can be quite the challenge, especially if you like both schools. Deciding between a scholarship and perhaps even a full ride at one school and paying for a more prestigious school can feel like an even tougher decision.
So how do you decide? Which one do you go with?
There’s two ways to analyze this: the mathematical way and the “gut” way.
No Matter What, Consider This
Whether you go to a school with a full ride or not can be a very brief discussion depending on your family’s financial situation. If your family can only afford the school with the full ride, you’re going to wind up at that school. On the other hand, if you can afford to go to the more prestigious school, you might do so but still take on some debt.
Let’s make it very clear that every situation is personal and that I am certainly not a financial adviser. The following information comes only once you realize that both schools are possible, if not necessarily financially easy. If your parents are paying for the school, then they have a voice in what you do. If you’re going to take on the burden yourself, you need to be fully honest on if you can take on the debt that will come.
The Mathematical Approach
This one requires a little bit of foresight and a little bit of guessing, making it a risk–especially since as an 18-year old, you may change your mind as to your future career down the line. But if you are dead set on a certain career path and have a clear vision you intend on following, it can work.
Let’s say you know you want to major in computer science and work as a software engineer. On the one hand, you have option A, which will give you a free ride, and option B, which costs $45,000 per year, coming out to $180,000 after four years of education. With a disparity that large, it would seem option A is the easy choice, right?
Well, let’s say that almost all graduates from option A wind up with a job that pays $40,000/year, while option B usually places students in jobs that make $85,000/year. (This may sound like a lot, but if you wind up working in a field like economics or computer science and wind up with a job on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, it’s not unreasonable.) All of a sudden, within four years, you’ve already made up the difference–and that’s just strictly on a financial level.
There’s also the fact that by having the higher-paying job (and as a result probably with a more well-known company) your future earnings will look more promising, you’ll have better connections, and you’ll advance faster.
On the other hand, let’s say you plan on becoming a teacher. The costs of university are the same, but option A’s starting salary for teachers will be $35,000, while option B will be $50,000. Suddenly, it may not be worth it if you don’t want to spend over a decade making up the difference in cost–to say nothing about the psychological burden of debt.
There’s no definitive formula here, because getting precise information about the average starting salary for a graduate given their major is difficult at a lot of schools. By asking around and looking up some profiles on LinkedIn, however, you can get a pretty good ballpark of how this will play out.
The Gut Approach
For all of the math–and you’d be a fool to ignore the math–you can’t break this problem down into a simple math equation. There are real intangible values that you have to consider as you make your choice.
What do you value in a university? If it’s connections, a prestigious school is going to look a lot better. If it’s value, the free ride will matter more. If it’s research opportunities, it’s probably going to be the top-tier school.
When I had my decision come down to Duke, Notre Dame, and Michigan, Michigan was by far and away the cheapest option. Notre Dame had some money to give as my father went there, but since I had gotten into Duke, Notre Dame was never a serious consideration. Duke, however, had several things that made it worth the cost.
-The friends I made have opened up business opportunities I’m not sure I would have had if I’d gone to Michigan. These include working gigs that have led me to Elite Essay Editing.
-I met some absolutely brilliant professors who have written NYT bestselling books, appeared on national TV, and can give me invaluable feedback on just about anything I produce. Michigan could have given me this, but not as much.
-As shallow as this sounds, people really do take you more seriously (especially in business) when you say you have a degree from Duke University. It’s like the cover of a book all these years later–we know we aren’t supposed to judge, but we do.
For all I’ve written, only you can decide if the full ride is worth the dropoff. If you wind up paying for both, take the elite school. If you have a full ride to both (or even partial scholarships), go to the elite school.
If you need to debate, take everything said above into consideration and take your time–the worst thing you can do is rush your decision.
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As a high school student, you’ve probably put a lot of time, stress, and energy into figuring out where you’ll go to school. You may have even already heard back from a few schools, but most likely, you’re waiting for April 1st to come with nervous anticipation, and not because your family has some April Fools’ pranks planned.
The advice I’m about to give might be the single greatest case of “easy to say, hard to do” but if you want to enjoy your last semester to the fullest, you must follow it. In short, you must let go of the outcome.
What does this mean? It means that when April 1st comes, you will accept whatever decisions all of the schools you have applied to make. Whether they accept you, deny you, or put you on the waitlist, you will do your best to accept it, make the best decision based on your options, and go on.
As a high school senior, I weirdly had an easy time with this. I applied to three schools–Duke, Michigan, and Notre Dame. I knew I got into Michigan in October, so I knew very, very early in my senior year I was going to college next fall. I got deferred from Duke, which I took as a death wish to my application chances. My dad graduated from Notre Dame, so I felt quite confident that my legacy status would get me in. Thus, by the time my last semester of high school rolled around, I felt an unusual degree of certainty that I would get in.
But the roles switched when I applied to graduate school in psychology. I applied to eight schools, and of those, only two even scheduled me for an interview. I had my interview for the University of Kentucky in early January and my interview for Wake Forest about two weeks later. For another two months, I sat there in Charlotte, waiting for an update, checking my email daily.
In the end, Kentucky said no, Wake accepted me, and I said no to Wake to focus on writing.
But had I not stressed so unnecessarily over my grad school admissions, maybe I could have written more faster sooner. Maybe I could have realized sooner that grad school wasn’t for me, and I could have let go even sooner. Maybe I could have slept better, stayed healthier, or eaten better.
Regardless, while that ship has sailed, if you’re reading this at the time of publication, it has not for you. This may be your last semester in the same school as many of your friends. If you want to enjoy it, here are some tips I have.
1. Don’t worry about your grades that much. For obvious reasons, universities won’t see your final semester’s grades until they’ve already made their decision. That means, for perhaps the first time ever, you don’t have to worry about grades that much.
This does NOT mean you stop caring about school at all. One, colleges will rescind your offer of admissions if you crater so hard that your GPA dives. Two, if you’re the type of person who loves to learn, you’re not going to suddenly stop studying six hours a night and start watching five hours of television a day.
But it does mean that instead of studying for the test in every class, you can spend some time focusing on what you truly love. If you hate English but love STEM subjects, guess what? Read the literature for class, but don’t worry about taking copious notes on it. If the reverse is true, know your formulas, but don’t spend three hours on practice problems. Take the time to focus on what you love.
From my second semester of freshman year to my first semester of senior year, I never had more than one B per semester. My last semester, I had three As and four Bs. It wasn’t my normal standard, but it wasn’t so bad that it dropped me out of any of the schools I got into. And in turn, I got to enjoy my extracurricular activities, watch sports, and sleep more. So don’t bomb, but don’t burden yourself either.
2. Spend as much time with friends, and don’t discuss colleges. I didn’t apply to grad school until I was over three years out of undergrad, but in my last semester in college, I didn’t discuss my post-college plans more than once or twice. Instead, I focused on playing basketball, traveling, and having good conversations with my friends. By staying in the moment, I didn’t have time to stress about the future.
The problem with being alone and having nothing to do–or having mindless activities like checking Facebook and Instagram–is that it lets your mind wonder about the future. And when you wonder about the future for too long, you tend to have an overly optimistic view or assume the worst. Neither are good for your stress levels. But spending time with friends doing activities that require you to be present will help you a great deal.
3. If you do think about the future, think about something not related to college. Immediately upon graduating, my parents offered me a vacation anywhere in the United States in late June. They told me this, however, in January. What this meant was that when my mind shifted to the months ahead, I wasn’t thinking “Duke, Notre Dame, or Michigan?” I was thinking “Los Angeles, Miami, or New York?”
If you can’t travel, think about a summer job you might want to take, a camp you want to partake in, or a new hobby you’ll learn once you finish school. You may not be able to control what schools will accept you, but you can control how you enjoy your future time, and if you can do it with a new hobby, all the better.
One last piece of advice that may help in letting go of the outcome. I won’t pretend that where you go to college doesn’t matter.
But it probably doesn’t matter as much as you think it will. It will matter when you get your first job or when you go to grad school, but life is a series of stepping stones, and once you get to the next stepping stone, what you did before it doesn’t matter quite as much. That’s not to sound nihilistic, but just a simple acknowledgment that busting your tail at whatever school you wind up at and then doing well at your first job can more than overcome going to a school you hadn’t dreamed of. I can tell you that my Duke degree helps getting clients, but not as much as my work with my previous clients has.
It’s far easier said than done. Without a doubt. But let go of the outcome. I promise in the long run, you’ll feel much happier for it.
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