So you’re trying to decide where to attend college. That’s what I’m assuming, considering you clicked on this article and are reading past the first line. I’m going to preface this whole piece by saying one thing: even if you do everything perfectly, all the research, legwork, and soul-searching, there will still be hiccups. I’m a self-proclaimed expert on this subject as my freshman year of college was basically a series of unfortunate events. In the end, I was able to transfer to Southwestern University and turn a new leaf, but not without learning a painful—and necessary—lesson first about self-fulfillment. If you aren’t first happy with yourself and grateful for what you have, you will never be satisfied when you attain the things you thought you needed. You won’t be content with where you are and will always be waiting for your life to start, whether that has to do with a dream college, dream job, or dream life. My advice: try to go into the process without expectations. Disappointment is less likely to happen if you refrain from idealizing the outcome. Instead, you’ll open yourself up to possibilities you wouldn’t have considered if you were confined by your expectations.

Try to go into the process without expectations. Disappointment is less likely to happen if you refrain from idealizing the outcome.

But now that we’ve gotten the precursory disclosure out of the way, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the things you should consider when making your college decision, based on the insensible mistakes I made.

Here’s the thing about college: it’s only the rest of your life

I lied. College is definitely not the rest of your life, and it doesn’t determine who you are or who you will be. It is only one component in a plethora of things that could potentially affect your life. Of course, there are certain expectations of what you will experience at one college that you may not experience at another. But if you remember our conversation about expectations, you’ll recall that they’re usually pointless and often impossible to meet. So don’t sweat the unknown. Life is full of them, and they’re not going to stop once you get to college. But that’s the beauty of it. There are new things to experience every day. And even if some are unsavory at the time, they can lead to something sweeter down the line.

Don’t choose the college you go to based solely on the financial package

I did that, and it didn’t work. Learn from me. 

It might be more ideal to have less student debt at the end of your college career, but here’s the thing: you’re already paying for it, so why not get anything and everything you can from it? Look for a university that has resources you can exploit. They should be specifically made for you and meant to be taken advantage of. In my experience at Southwestern University, professors love when you come to office hours, your academic advisor is always down to chat if you pop by their office, and the Center for Career and Professional Development personnel will spend as much time with you as needed to land that internship or job opportunity. 

So think carefully about your priorities. What types of opportunities would you like to have available? Do you want to be able to network with other professionals, study abroad for a semester, or join a specific type of school organization? 

These considerations should be at the forefront of your brain while you browse all the catalogues and emails and brochures and swag bags you get from the many universities trying to catch your attention, not things like “all my friends are going there,” “it’s my parents alma mater,” or “it’s close to the beach.” Don’t think about the surface-level things. Think about what would make you happy in the short term and the long term. If you think you might want to be president someday, then choose a university with an exceptional political science program. But if you also would like to be able to go for a jog in the morning surrounded by beautiful scenery, then find a campus that inspires you to do so. 

Talk to actual people

The information on university websites is great and very informative, but you’re only going to know the real culture of the university if you interact with its main constituents: students. Here’s some data to support this theory: the number of people I talked to when deciding to go to my first university: zero. The number of people I talked to when deciding to go to Southwestern: more than zero people. If you haven’t already guessed, my first university did not pan out, and my time at Southwestern University has been considerably better.

Here are the things to take note of: Do they sound excited when they talk about their university? Do they love the staff? Do they enjoy seeing the stray cats that made a home on the campus and have a specific organization dedicated toward feeding and caring for them ? You’re only going to get these details if you talk to a real live human being. 

Support, support, support

I cannot stress this enough. You need to have a support system. For many people, entering college is a culture shock. Suddenly, you have all this free time because you’re not in class for eight hours a day, but at the same time, it feels like every day is only two hours long because the amount of work you have to do is almost equal to the amount of time you’re awake during the day. This can be extremely stressful, especially if you’re in a new environment, living on your own for the first time, and trying to navigate a new campus but you have a horrible sense of direction (like me).

If you’re going somewhere far away from home where you’ll be without family or friends, make sure your university of choice is equipped with resources to help you if you start sinking. A welcoming student body with many opportunities to meet new people and to find a niche in your new community certainly helps. Professors who really care about you and your success are integral. Resources on campus to manage stress, such as gyms or counseling centers, are crucial. That being said, don’t go off to college with your best friend and only spend time with that person and then wonder a year down the road why you didn’t make any friends your first year (also me). Just be smart about choosing a new home that could potentially last for the next four years of your life. Make sure it’s one where you’ll feel comfortable and welcomed and not like you stick out like a sore thumb while simultaneously losing your sense of identity among all the unknown faces.

When it’s all said and done…

Seriously, don’t worry about it. Easier said than done, but I know what it’s like to have an existential crisis about how every small decision changes the future, but at the same time hardly any decisions are large enough to actually change the world, but then on the other, other hand, it’s all the small decisions that come together to create reality. But really, it’s not that deep. If you want to get into all that, then take a philosophy class when you get to your new and hopefully well-suited university, but right now, for the time being, just focus on doing the next best thing for yourself and your future.