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How to Find the Right College for *You*

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

This article was originally written and published by Rose Wong in 2020.

Taped on the front door of the college counseling office in my high school was this quote, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

I admit that when I was applying to colleges, I rolled my eyes whenever I walked past that door and pithy statement. I wanted to get into the best school, which, to me at the time, meant highest ranking. While I am very grateful for my Duke experience, this mindset held me back from exploring many other, potentially more fitting, options.

It would be remiss of me to tell you that ranking does not matter. Many highly ranked colleges and universities hold an excellent academic and professional reputation, offering networking opportunities and other potential advantages in job search.

However, ranking is a number, and you—a dynamic, interesting and multi-faceted individual—cannot be reduced to a number. If you are not in a space that aligns with your values and feeds your interests, then you may be in the highest ranking university and still find it difficult to thrive. So here are some other factors to consider when choosing a college, besides ranking:

Pre-Professional Interests. Some of you may have come straight out of the womb knowing that you will be a bioengineer. If so, you may want to consider the engineering programs at the University of Illinois or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Or perhaps you have always had the entrepreneurial spirit, then you may want to look into the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business or the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Certain schools specialize in various professional fields, providing not only academic expertise, but also a network of alumni and professors who have succeeded in the arena.

If you are unsure about your future career, then a) that makes you similar to most people b) you should consider a school with a general liberal arts curriculum. That allows you to explore different classes and academic interests and switch majors if you so choose.

Size. The population of a school can have a big impact on the day-to-day experience. You may attend Pomona College, where the undergraduate population is 1,671 and the average class size is 15. In a small school, you are likely to get to know most people in your class and potentially feel a sense of tight-knit community. For those who enjoy crowds, however, the University of Ohio has an undergraduate enrollment of 22,275 and an average class size of 32 students, so you will be constantly surrounded by new people and the lively energy of a big school.

I attend a medium-size school, with 6,526 undergraduate students. I find that the size allows me to constantly be running into people I know, while still allowing for opportunity to meet new people in my class.

“Wait, you’re a senior too?” I thought I knew all the seniors at this school.

“Yeah! Weird that we’ve never met.”

Happens all the time.

Location. A big city? Where there may be increased access to internships, networking opportunities and cultural events? Check out NYU or Columbia. A more rural, outdoorsy experience? For greater focus on campus community and fewer temptations to spend money off-campus? Look into Dartmouth or University of Virginia. Or perhaps a suburban scene with the best of both worlds? Potentially Northwestern or University of Notre Dame.

Culture. I wish I had thought more about this while picking colleges. Different factors contribute to the culture of a school: the presence of Greek life, the influence of collegiate sports and the racial and economic diversity of the student population. For example, I love that Duke has such a great basketball team. Not every student is a basketball fan, but we are all Duke basketball fans. The love for our team permeates campus and I cannot imagine being a Blue Devil without Duke basketball. Meanwhile, Greek life is much more dominant at Duke than in other colleges of similar caliber, which generates a certain social culture that appeals to some and not others.

As you can tell, there are a lot of choices and there is no right or wrong. I simply encourage you to be brave, explore and listen to your heart. You deserve to have a tremendous four years and, just remember, we are here to help.

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