The process of exploring colleges is long, and everyone dreams of getting into their dream school. Often students have a list of perfect colleges even before they can make sense of the process. While it’s important to be enthusiastic and have dreams and goals, the whole idea of “dream school” is often misleading. In fact, there’s no such thing as a dream school, and students need to understand that the obsession will only cause them to wince internally if they don’t get in. They won’t be able to handle the sadness and disappointment when the application to their single dream school gets rejected.  

So instead of finding that one big dream school with the perfect campus and classes, try to explore your personality and eventually the best fit for your dreams. When you give preferences to your goals and aspirations, everything else will fall into place. You just have to be willingly open and put time and effort to achieve that experience. Instead of going after a particular dream college, aspire for ones that can provide a better career and the life you look forward to.

Following a Holistic Approach to finding the best fit

Before you start compiling your list of colleges, it’s best to do some self-discovery. Get to know your interests and invest time in understanding what’s most important to you. Here are the steps that will get you started on the right path.

Step 1: Understanding your needs and preferences 

Everybody has different interests and preferences. What makes a perfect school to your friend doesn’t mean that it’s right for you too. We’re all born in different family circumstances, following our own educational philosophy and motive. So our choices should be unique too and driven by our interests and aspirations. Before going through numerous and diverse school brochures and websites, we would suggest you sit back with your family and look for what you want in a school and why?

Take a paper and a pen and write down must-haves in one column. This can include a budget for education, location, or how you will commute distance to school. Some other parameters can be coed or same-sex preferences, type of program, duration of the program, other special learning programs, etc. Add to this a column, your wish list, or non-essential points that will act as a bonus. Schools with athletic facilities, musical programs, focus on extracurricular activities, technological focus, etc. can be non-essential but often make for a good addition. 

Step 2: Collecting information on schools

It’s always good to have knowledge and information about the school’s landscape. It will help you to make choices between potential schools. The best time to start the search is a year before you are going to apply. Do some digging by yourself; don’t rely on the experience of others. You can use some dedicated websites and books to begin your search. Here’s a list of references that you can consider.

  • Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope
  • Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be by Frank Bruni
  • The Fiske Guide to Colleges by Edmund Fiske
  • Niche.com

Along with these, you can also refer to college admissions offices, social media accounts, mailing lists, and newsletters for information. Don’t forget to go through college websites as they’re designed so that they will tell you the kind of students they’re looking for. But remember, you don’t need to mold yourself according to their needs. Find out your needs and then shortlist the college according to your fit. You can also contact the school directly and ask them to mail you an information package.        

Step 3: Visiting the schools

Arrange a tour and start visiting colleges from your list one by one. Most of the schools are always ready to welcome visitors. Have a first-hand look around the school to get a personal sense of experience. Also, ask a lot of questions such as -

  • Schools curriculum – Do you follow the provincial ministry of education guidelines?
  • School philosophy – How do they achieve their vision and mission?
  • Schools teachers – What are their qualifications and professional development offered to them?
  • Schools admission criteria – Do you have an entrance test or emphasize on specific test results?
  • Schools criteria of assessment for students – How do you measure individual achievement and progress?
  • Schools homework policy – Do you offer homework help or support to students?
  • Schools student-to-teacher ratio – What is the usual size of the class?
  • Schools tuition fees – What do you include other than tuition fees and other expenses such as uniforms, books, extracurricular activities?

We would suggest making a spreadsheet that tracks the research you’re doing to not miss out on anything. It will not only give you a visual overview of information but also help you manage your research well. You can include columns like average standardized test scores, application platforms, school size, traveling distance, surrounding areas, weather conditions, urban or rural, social or cultural vibe, the total cost of the program or name and email of the counselor.  

Step 4: Different type of schools and including them in your list 

Safety schools or reach schools are the terms used for colleges where minimum test scores and acceptable grades are above the 50th percentile range, and the admission rate is above 25%. You just need to fit in these academic criteria, and then you can make sure that you’re an ideal candidate for them. Include some in your list as a bonus and remember to only finalize on the ones where you have a strong chance of acceptance.

Wildcard lottery schools are highly selective schools that have a stringent criterion for selection. So, no matter how impressive your applications are, they will not lower down their bars. But that doesn’t mean you can’t include these in your list. You can indeed send an application to them.

Surefire safety schools are the ones where you can get direct admissions after meeting the stats, scores, and grades. You should at least apply to one of them to have a contingency plan if everything goes haywire. Research heavily for these as you would want the safety one to be of your liking.

Step 5: Short listing schools 

After you’ve gathered all the knowledge, it’s time to shortlist your choices and compile a final list as your guide. It’s essential to keep the following points in mind before you start:

  • Financial

Before including the college in the final list, always consider its affordability, financial aid, qualification chances, merit aid, etc. These are related to whether you’re ready to invest or not and are very crucial considerations. If you want to calculate your expected financial expenditure for the concerned college, you can simply Google search “net price calculator” followed by the college’s name. Devote your time in this and calculate the expenditure for all the colleges that are on your list. Do involve your parents because, in the end, they are the ones who are paying. Remember, if you can’t afford the school, it’s not a fit for you.  

  • School size

School size is a strong determinant of student outcomes. Big state schools with loads of students offer large lectures that often are not inclusive and provide fewer chances of contribution. You can just sit anonymously, taking notes if this is what you ever wanted. On the other hand, small or mid-sized schools have seminar-style small classes where you can take part in any discussions and develop strong relationships with your professors.

  • Geographical area

Students often rule out some great opportunities just because the school’s geographical landscape is not that appealing. While you must give some importance to this aspect, you should not be entirely dismissive and consider other factors as well. What you can surely think about is the distance from your home, and the time it will take to reach. Will you be able to pay the travel expenses? Maybe it’s time to come out of your comfort zone and change your daily routine. Imagine what routine you need to follow in the future, and you will get your answer. Maybe you can get a chance to enjoy the activities you always want to.

  • Social atmosphere

Students should always look for a prominent social atmosphere. Maintaining social life and expanding your social circle will not only help you in your studies, but it will also boost your self-confidence. Also, it will give a chance to explore other cultures. Cross-cultural connections and interacting with people from different ethnic backgrounds will help you develop strong relationships and excel in life. It’s all part of your personal growth by which you can boost your self-esteem and come out of your comfort zone. The choice you will make in your school days will be impacting your future. Maybe some of your friends from the same circle will become co-workers in the future. 

  • Climate

If you’re tolerable to any climate, whether it’s hot, cold, rainy, or humid, this may not bother you. But if you fall ill easily due to frequently changing climate or have strong preferences on weather conditions, carefully consider this aspect. It depends on you whether you want to study in challenging weather with good education facilities or in comforting weather with an average educational environment. 

  • Potential major

Many students have preferences in subjects that they want to major in. If you haven’t finalized this, its time you do so as some colleges might offer better programs, and you should certainly look to include them in your list.

  • Stats and Grades

You would always want to keep a reality check on your list based on your grades and resume. There’s no point in including colleges that will never entertain your application as they are highly selective and only want the cream of students.   

Step 6: Applying to shortlisted schools 

You can send as many applications as you want. Don’t look to fixate on just one school as there are many choices available that could be a fit for you. Make sure you send the applications as early as possible. Almost all schools have a fixed enrolment time, and you may have to appear in an entrance exam or interview. In the interview, they might ask you about your family, strengths, challenges, your understanding of school philosophy, how you will contribute to it, and your expectations. Just be clear on what you’re looking for and prepare well before appearing. Look to highlight your learning and bring forward your personality since colleges look to explore the real you instead of random stats and grades. Once you’re done with the selection procedure, make sure you follow up if you don’t hear from them.        

To wrap it up

Creating a list that includes all flavors of your preferences requires a lot of work. You would want to refrain from compiling a top-ten list based on online reviews without giving much thought to your aspirations and career goals. Remember, there’s no such thing as a dream school, and longing for one will only bring you disappointment if you don’t get in. You will always consider other opportunities inferior and seldom appreciate what you have.

Be open-minded and explore all options based on your needs and fit. Focus on discovering yourself and your personality. Research well to find your best fit and visit each college to gain more knowledge. Finalize a list based on important aspects like geographical location, climate, size of the school, and your grades. Have a contingency plan in place and surely include worst-case scenarios.    

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