Ask the grumpies: How to pick a college?

CG asks:

How did you pick a college? Do you think you made a good choice? How have your children picked their colleges (if they are old enough)? How did you advise them?

#1:  I knew I wanted to go to a SLAC, and I read the Fiske Guide to Colleges and picked some good midwestern SLACs.  Then I took my list to the guidance counselor at our fancy school and he suggested a few more higher ranked SLACs not in the midwest.  I was waitlisted at my first choice and got into the second.  I think it was a great choice– I could go into detail about why but that would make it clear what my undergrad was!  Suffice to say that I’m a fan of highly-ranked SLACs generally.

#2:  Went to the state flagship R1 along with most everybody else, which happened to be a top school for her major and also where her now husband was going.  It was an excellent choice.

Our oldest hasn’t picked a college yet, but we will be giving hir a copy of the Fiske Guide* to colleges when it comes out in July.  I’ve already vetoed a few schools as we’ve been getting mail every since DC1 took the sophomore PSAT.  (No, you are not going to this over-priced meh-ranked local religious private school!)  I have no idea where zie is going to end up, but we’ve saved for an expensive private school.

*all amazon links listed give us tiny payments if you purchase through them

Grumpy Nation, what are your answers to CG’s question?

43 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How to pick a college?”

  1. wally Says:

    I had a not great GPA in high school and not great SAT scores (both due to depression, anxiety, lack of confidence). The guidance counselor I met with encouraged me to go to community college, but I really needed to actually go away. I was 16 when I graduated, community college or a year off would have been a good idea. I applied to Pomona, several UCs (Santa Cruz was my top choice), the University of Oregon, and Oregon State, along with some other schools. Because I was so young, my parents didn’t want me to go more than one state away (I grew up in CA). Somehow I miraculously got an interview at Pomona – not sure how. We went to visit both U of O and OSU and I fell in love with the U of O because it was green, had a river nearby, and they had a huge protest on campus. In many ways it was a very good choice for me – once I found my people. It was a huge university, but I majored in theatre and there were only ~100 of us so I knew everyone and all the professors and classes were small (i.e., I wasn’t anonymous and couldn’t just skip class and fail to do the work). I also talked my way into the honors college so I could take my science classes there (undergrad science classes were generally gigantic – the ones in the honors college had like 10 people). It sounds like it has changed a lot in recent years due to Nike and the influence/overimportance of sports but at the time it was a really good place for me – and Eugene, OR is kind of a perfect college town (I love college towns).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Eugene is great!

      DC1 will be 16 when zie graduates– we’re going to see what happens. Zie might do a year here before transferring to another school, I don’t know. We both left home at 15 so 16 doesn’t seem so crazy.

  2. mnitabach Says:

    I applied to every ivy league school & only got accepted at Penn bcs my dad went there.

  3. Steph Says:

    I was pretty sure I wanted to attend a SLAC, but I applied to a couple state schools too. I visited a dozen or so schools across my sophomore and junior year, mostly whenever a school was convenient to some other family trip.

    Mid-fall of my senior year, there was a rep coming to my high school and my counselor basically forced me to attend the session because nobody had signed up. I ended up liking the sound of the school, went to their open house a week or two later, and it just felt like the right fit. I also briefly met Miser Mom and N-son on my way to one of the info sessions where she was speaking. In hindsight, I probably could have been happy at a lot of SLACs, but that just felt like the right place for me given the extracurricular and campus set up at the time. So I ended up applying early decision and I was pretty happy there :)

  4. gwinne Says:

    So this is timely for us. My own college search was pretty random. I had a higher than 4.0 GPA (those AP classes!) and graduated toward the very top of my class. Not first. Maybe third? I was told by my parents that I would go to college where I got a scholarship. This was not helpful. I applied to random colleges whose brochures I liked (SLACs in the midwest mostly) and two places in state because they excelled at an extracurricular I planned to participate in (again, one SLAC, one state school). I ended up getting a full scholarship, including room and board, at the state school. That’s where I went. Worked out fine for me though I think I might have gotten into a different graduate school had I gone elsewhere for undergrad. Again, worked out fine in the end.

    LG is going through this process now. I am trying to provide perspective without being controlling. It’s been fascinating listening to LG talk about this. Earlier in high school LG was hellbent on attending what I’ve called Fancy Overpriced Art School (you know, like RISDI and such). I kept insisting that a school with majors other than art is important. LG has now come around to this, as their interests have broadened. They sent SAT scores to the place I work (begrudgingly!) which is an R1, the flagship school in the state that I don’t teach at (where they want to go), University of Chicago (because Chicago, and because apparently it looks like Hogwarts), and NYU (because New York). LG will not consider a SLAC for LG reasons, but I think there’s a SLAC in state that would actually be a good fit. I think as fall approaches, LG will end up applying to one other school in state. And possibly one Fancy Overpriced Art School in an attractive area. In the end I think they will either get into the flagship they want to attend (highly likely) or not, in which case they attend my workplace for a year or two and transfer out. We’ll see….

    • gwinne Says:

      Also, there’s some website that Kids These Days use for matching purposes and narrowing down. Still, we get mail almost weekly from University of Chicago. Sigh.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I applied to Earlham (a SLAC in Indiana IIRC) because I liked their brochure, though I didn’t end up going there.

      I 100% agree that a school with more majors is important pretty much no matter what your end goal is. But I can’t articulate why– part of it is mitigating risk if you change your mind, but that’s not the only thing. Maybe my mom’s insistence that becoming well-rounded is important?

  5. omdg Says:

    I had good grades and ok SATs (back in the 90s this was ok). Applied 5 places based on the vibe I got from them in the fiske guide and from going around seeing colleges the summer before my senior year — do people still do this? The 5 places were Columbia, one east coast SLAC, and two midwest SLACs, and U Chicago. Got waitlisted at east coast SLAC and accepted all other places. Chose U Chicago because I felt happiest when I went for my prospie weekend. Parents told me I would ruin my life if I didn’t go to Columbia, and I am happy to report that their fears were unfounded. Loved U Chicago. It was nerd heaven. I think U Chicago started a program where they waive tuition if family income is <125K, fwiw.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My sister got into Columbia (or was it Cornell? some ivy in NY) but went to … someplace similar to UChicago instead. She had college friends who didn’t get into any ivies who were upset about having to attend [excellent school], which is pretty sad.

      She’s an engineer and we’d both had a lot of female friends who went to our state flagship and dropped out of the program because it was so hostile to women and minorities. So she was especially careful about investigating how the major she was interested in treated women.

      We also both got into Caltech, which I’d totally forgotten.

      I also got waitlisted at east coast SLAC! My mom wouldn’t let me apply to UChicago because she was worried about crime. Though I probably wouldn’t have majored in economics if I’d gone there because the department was pretty sexist at the time.

      • omdg Says:

        Oh gosh yes! There were many people at U Chicago who were all butt-hurt that they hadn’t gotten into Yale or something. Given the reputation of the place it’s kind of a tragedy they felt that way. I personally loved it there.

        I feel like sexism was kind of the norm across the board when I was in college, so I doubt I would have noticed the sexism in the econ department at the time. Personally, I felt very supported in the math and econ classes I took, but notably these classes tended to be with younger faculty and grad students rather than with the geezers. Maybe that was the main difference?

        I remember applying to med school through their pre-med advising office in 2005-2006 and being appalled that one of the advisors almost universally told women not to apply MD-PhD because she didn’t perceive it to be “family friendly.” When I asked her about why she’d never given me this particular advice, her response was that I “didn’t seem like [I] would have taken that advice well” (whatever that means). I will take that as a compliment, even though it almost certainly was not one. Annnnnyway. :-)

  6. Jessica Says:

    I wanted to go to a school that was good for my major, was in a city, and wasn’t tiny, so I looked into that category of schools (I don’t remember how) and narrowed down a list to apply. Then I got in early action (non-binding) to one of my top choices, and didn’t apply to most of the other schools because I wasn’t going to pick them over that one. I applied to 3 ivy’s and got into one that was less good for my major, so decided to go with the early action school which gave me a full tuition scholarship, rather than paying a lot for a school that was probably less good for my major. It worked out well, I loved my school, did a bunch of cool stuff there, and got a bunch of work experience and corporate connections. Also got to do a combined MS program. So I’m happy with my choice, though if my family had a ton of money I would have applied to more ivy’s / other very prestigious schools and more seriously considered that option (we are kinda at the in-between income/wealth where we don’t get good need-based aid but also don’t want to spend crazy amounts of money on school).

  7. FF Says:

    I applied to a bunch of places, based in large part on ignorance–three Ivies (Cornell, Penn, Yale), some SUNYs and CUNYs, NYU (a commuter school at the time), Brandeis, Wesleyan (I liked their brochure). I got in everywhere but Yale and the Sophie Davis program at CCNY/Mount Sinai. I graduated high school at 16 and my parent were not savvy about different schools, plus had little money. My high school guidance counselor’s sole piece of advice was “Be careful where you apply, you may get in.” My parents (they may have been right) thought I should go to Penn (‘the Jewish Ivy”) or Brandeis (also Jewish), both of accepted me into their honors programs . They didn’t want me to even apply to more expensive schools–they thought I should live at home and go to Queens College and told me the if I wanted to go anyplace else, I had to get scholarships.

    I had been in a summer program at Cornell and loved the campus and Ithaca, so that’s where I went. The only other school I visited was Penn, which was close enough that my mother could take me for their honors college accepted students weekend by train. I didn’t like it as much, they didn’t let you out of intro bio with a AP score of 5, and Cornell was considered better for bio. Also, by staying in New York, I had more financial aid through NYS programs. My family was in the bottom 15% by income at Cornell–nowadays it would be completely free for someone like me. Both of my parents were seriously ill while I was in college and my father died the summer after my third year, so I don’t look back at my college years at all fondly, but I did make some good friends there. The education was good, but brutal–huge intro science weed-out classes and with some pre-meds who fit every negative stereotype. I generally don’t recommend Cornell (at least to people I like), but I have friends with kids there who love it.

    In hindsight, I think that a small liberal arts college, maybe closer to home, would have been a better fit for me, especially since I was younger and very introverted/shy.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s all very impressive too! And I had no idea we had so many readers who graduated from high school so early.

      Even my SLAC had nasty premed weed out courses. I would have liked to be able to have learned chemistry in a better environment after not having taken any in high school.

      That’s terrible about your parents. :(. The semester my mom had breast cancer was so rough I can’t imagine losing a parent.

  8. Bee Says:

    I applied to all the colleges within X miles that had a technical or professional writing specialization for their English major, which turned out to be four. My top choice wait-listed me. I decided the one five hours away was too far away. That left two and I honestly don’t remember why I went to one over the other– one didn’t have the specialization anymore so maybe that was it? Although I never found how to do the specialization at the one I went to either…

    In fact maybe that’s why I never got a technical writing job. Maybe I should have made sure I went to one that had the specialization and gotten it.

  9. CG Says:

    I had excellent grades and excellent SATs but was an extracurricular generalist and didn’t take math my senior year of high school (and who knows how of all that mattered but there you go). I applied to four schools (an ivy, a private school in the midwest, a top women’s college, and a top ranked public U not in our state). I got into the women’s college and the public U and went to the public U. My parents were alums and I already loved the school and the town. But it was only an ok experience. I was miserable in a very unfriendly dorm my freshman year. I found a better living situation my sophomore year and things looked up, but I think I should have gone somewhere less enormous. Academically it was very good, but socially I was really lost. I’m not sure why no one suggested that I apply to more than one ivy if I was intrigued by that climate (I now think I should have gone to Brown, but who knows).

    Ironically, we now live in that same nice university town and DH, who himself went to an ivy, is set on having our kids go to to that same school (now in-state for us). I am less sure about that since I’m the one who actually went there and it was not my favorite experience. I don’t think I’d want them to go to the other state schools, including the one where I teach, unless they really didn’t have other good options. They will probably apply to DH’s ivy since they are legacies, but I don’t know if they’ll get in/want to go there. I appreciated reading about other people’s decision processes–there are a lot of different criteria people may use!

    Also I had never heard of the Fiske Guide until you mentioned it a few weeks ago–will definitely look into that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, I didn’t have any focused extracurriculars either. Not even music!

      My undergrad doesn’t take legacies anymore! It did when I went (one of the guys in my hall would not have gotten in otherwise, and now he’s our alumni year president), but it doesn’t now!

      • CG Says:

        I actually was a pretty serious musician, so much so that I considered majoring in music, but that in itself wasn’t enough to make me stand out. At least that’s my interpretation. And it’s entirely possible the relevant ivy won’t consider legacies by the time it could help our kids (and I support that change even though we could benefit from the status quo).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        My guess is that ivies will always consider legacies.

  10. accm Says:

    Canadian culture is so different, with a huge fraction of students in big cities just commuting to one of the local universities (that’s what I did). I have the good fortune to be employed by an excellent university in one of those big cities, and tuition will be close to free for my kids, so that is Plan A. We have about 10 years to figure it out, though.

  11. Debbie M Says:

    I was quite ignorant but did okay. (I mean, my mom was so excited that after the PSATs I was getting brochures from places like Johns Hopkins, but I’d never heard of anything but Harvard and Yale.) I wanted to go to a good school, and I assumed nothing called “University of [location]” and nothing located in Texas qualified. I was wrong!

    I also wanted a place with a 50/50 male/female ratio. I didn’t want an all-women’s school because I still needed practice with guys. And I didn’t want a mostly-male school because I didn’t want that much pressure.

    I also wanted one where most people lived on campus because in my high school the rich/smart/popular were almost all the same people and they did not live in my neighborhood. If everyone lives on campus, they will all live in my neighborhood!

    My dad took me to tour college campuses on the east coast when he had a business trip and to tour University of Chicago where his mom lived. Some of these colleges were kind of like gated communities in the midst of ghettos–I decided I didn’t want to feel stuck on campus, even though campuses are fabulous places to be stuck. Also, in Chicago, my grandma would probably keep introducing me to too many nice Jewish boys.

    I ended up applying early (binding) to Brandeis University, a small, private, mostly-Jewish liberal arts college near Boston (that was full of people who didn’t quite make it into ivy league schools) and I got in. I was Jewish at the time, and thought it would be lovely that you get the Jewish holidays off from school. I also liked that it had no football team and no sororities or fraternities; I thought there would be a stronger focus on academics. And I liked that only 10% of the students were from the same state, plus 10% were from outside the US.

    So I loved going to a good school surrounded by smart people. I loved ending up in a Boston suburb, which made it sort of like a study-abroad experience (I’d lived in many places across the US, but never in the northeast). It started off affordable, but Reagan changed all that and I ended up with much bigger debts than I would have otherwise, but I was able to pay them (unlike today’s students, yikes!).

    The male/female ratio was great and I did get a little better at talking to guys, though I actually ended up preferring the 3/1 male/female ratio in my grad school dorm. I was undecided on my major for a long time, and finally chose psychology, like 1/4 of everyone else, so all my classes were big and I didn’t get the same advantages of going to a small school that people in every other major had. (Later I met a physics major who had 3 students in most of his classes, for example.)

    But, it wasn’t long before I was no longer religious, so I no longer cared about getting Jewish holidays off. And they made spring break be during Passover, which was always closer to the end of the semester than I would have liked. It turned out most of my friends were Catholic, which also made it a little like study-abroad. Maybe only 10% were from Massachusetts, but at least 1/3 of my friends were from New York! Still, I did have a friend from Connecticut and one from Atlanta. But all my friends studied all the time and almost never made time to explore Boston and Cambridge, so I did most of that by myself or when my best friend from high school or my parents visited. But they all lived on campus, so I did get to see them every day at dinner–we all showed up as soon as the cafeteria opened at 4:45 so we could get a good table).

    It turns out I would probably have done just fine going to the University of Texas at Austin (which was in-state for me) and majoring in Plan II (an honors liberal arts degree) and having a lot less debt. I didn’t really understand that in a big school, you still find small sub-groups to hang in. Although I do prefer when everyone lives on campus. Oh well, I went to UT Austin for grad school instead!

  12. Can I just be anon Says:

    I wanted to be a teacher, so I didn’t want to take out loans for that kind of a salary. I had a really high GPA and SATs, always won awards etc. My parents made good money so I wasn’t eligible for financial aid, and they gave me the same lump sum they had given my older siblings, which about covered room and board but not tuition. Therefore, I applied for all the full ride merit-based scholarships I could find. I didn’t even apply to any Ivy’s including my dream school because I didn’t want loans and they didn’t have purely merit-based scholarships. I got into all the schools i applied to, and got multiple full-ride offers. I took the one at a large private school on the opposite coast because it was the most prestigious of the tier of schools I had applied to. I never even visited, just packed my bags and went to orientation (this was the late 90s). The school and location was not a good fit. I think I should have put some effort into figuring out how to transfer. Instead, I was working my butt off to maintain the 3.7 GPA required to keep my scholarship while I switched my major to physics where straight A-‘s are not easy. I made full use of my full ride and graduated in 4 years with a double major, but did not have the fun college experience I wish I had. I’ve since lost touch with all my college friends because I just didn’t really click with anyone there/then, and I would encourage young people to be open to transferring if they don’t like it.

  13. revanche @ a gai shan life Says:

    This brings back some memories. I think I was academically ranked something like #150 in a graduating class of 900, and that felt like it meant I was dumb as a bag of rocks because all my friends were in the top ten, or at least top 30. It, and my fear of change, meant that I chickened out when it came to my college applications. I thought about applying to Cornell to get away, and force myself out of my comfort zone, but I didn’t even try. I rationalized that the local state school was one of the best around for the major I was originally in, and it was, and not so incidentally was a breeze to get into because our high school honors program was so rigorous.

    I used to think it was a good thing because I stayed home, so I was able to support my family through a really hard time but with today’s perspective, maybe that part wasn’t actually good. Maybe I should have gotten away.

    But everything *else* from that decision was good. I paid my way through college with no debt and even a little savings. I got a solid start in my industry after college, which is when I met PiC, even though that first job was grade-A awful.

  14. teresa Says:

    I had great SATs, okay grades, meh extracurriculars, and not a lot of guidance. I applied to 2 ivies because I was enamored of the idea of ivies, one fancy west coast SLAC, UCLA, Cal, and USC (I don’t actually remember why USC besides I grew up in LA, it seemed pretty sure and the few teachers/counselors at my HS who didn’t think everyone should go to a community college pushed USC as the best school anyone could go to). My mom tried to get me to apply to a bunch of midwest SLACs and traditionally women’s schools but I refused. I got into both UCs, USC and the SLAC, went to the SLAC. In retrospect as a shy, introverted, young-for-grade kid that was definitely the best choice and I probably should have looked at other coastal SLACs too instead of the ivies/USC. Even though I still should’ve gone where I did.
    FWIW I had just turned 17 when I started my freshman year and it was fine…I don’t think one year earlier would’ve been much different.

  15. Lisa Says:

    I’m impressed with the amount of foresight and rigor people put into their college choices! I came from a middle class family that was education-forward, but not at all savvy about this kind of thing. So, while I really enjoyed perusing the catalogs I was sent from all kinds of great places after taking the PSAT, I only applied to the 3 universities within 2-3 hours of home. Decided to go to our flagship state U because they had the strongest (really, a very strong) program in my planned major and they gave me a full-ride scholarship. It was fine – impersonal but I got a good education. I was able to graduate after only 3 years because I had plenty of AP credits from HS. Most of the faculty in my major seemed surprised when I went on to the top PhD program in my field. I was really glad to discover that my background was competitive with classmates who had gone to Wellesley, Columbia, Harvard, etc.

    Now that my kids are getting closer to this decision themselves, I’m torn on how to advise them. That local flagship state U is still a great bargain and a strong option to prep them for grad school. But there is a part of me that wishes I’d had a SLAC education and reveres that model. If they found a really top school (ivy, SLAC, other state U, etc.) that had the resources and programs they really wanted, I’d be on board. I don’t see the advantage of going to a mid-tier place elsewhere over our local state U, though.

    • Lisa Says:

      I should add that I’m also not sure I see the huge advantage of an Ivy over strong local state U if they’re planning on grad school. In my opinion (and in my field), it’s the grad school education that matters and the connections of a top school will really open doors. But, maybe that’s just my bias because it was my lived experience.

  16. Matthew D Healy Says:

    I grew up in Wisconsin. For my BS, I chose Purdue because I did my BS in Engineering and Purdue is better than Wisconsin in Engineering but not horribly far away from Wisconsin. I changed fields for my PhD from Engineering to Biology, and picked Duke because two Professors there were among the best in the world for the specific things I wanted to study. While at Duke I met and married the gal who is sitting about 15 feet away from me right now, which is relevant to this thread because while she and I were in grad school a faculty member from where she did her BS got a job at Yale. So we ended up doing our Postdocs at Yale via DW’s connection. I’ve visited Harvard a few times over the years, but since I never studied or worked there I can’t say whether being there would have been a dramatic difference from Yale academically. What I *can* say is that living on two NIH Postdoc stipends was a lot easier at Yale than it would have been at Harvard: we found an apartment we could easily afford on our stipends that was about a 30-minute city bus ride to Yale Medical School. People we knew who did Postdocs at Harvard spent several hours a day commuting back and forth.

    My nephew, who graduated from a Chicago High School two weeks ago, will join the Illini in “Shampoo-Banana” this Fall; he picked them because they are quite solid in what he wants to study and with in-State tuition less costly for him than the other places he considered. He and my brother decided that while some of the other options are ranked higher in his subject than Illinois, none of them is enough better to justify their higher costs. He’s neither rich enough nor brilliant enough to get super-generous aid offers.

    • Matthew D Healy Says:

      PS: tangential to the question… in the late 1970s Case Western must have had a HUGE recruiting budget. I did well on the SAT, and I checked yes in the “do you want us to make your contact information available to colleges” box so I got mail from various places. But by far the most such mail came from Case Western, so much so that it became a family joke. I never applied there, I never visited there, I had zero known connections there, so I could only assume every kid with high SAT scores was getting mail from them. All I knew about them was that the Michelson–Morley experiment was done there.

  17. First Gen American Says:

    My husband and I both went to catholic high schools. His was a good one. Mine was bad. I got good grades and mediocre sat scores. He had the opposite. He went to the cheap state school which actually had one of the only engineering programs of that type in the country and was very highly ranked. I went to a highly ranked private engineering school but these days $70k/year. We both got the same job out of college and to this day earn about the same. Because of this single data point, my older son thinks fancy privates are a waste of money. (But I do see a lot of value in the network and recruitment potential of those places).

    For me, it didn’t make a difference because I qualified for a lot of need based aid. I actually did not have the best experience at the expensive private. The professors only cared about their research and I learned most from my TAs. Most had no industry experience and some even openly resented having to stoop to doing their mandatory one class. The very few that had actually worked in industry were 1000% better than the others because they could put theoretical science into context of why this matters and how said concept can used in real life and most were there because they wanted to teach. Almost all my husband’s professors were real life engineers with their own companies and were teaching because they wanted to teach. Most were not phds. I did get to work abroad and that was a great experience but I couldn’t afford the study abroad options they had.

    So it very much depends on the major and where you want to live when you grow up. The biggest thing I learned is most employers recruit regionally except for the very specific specialty majors. (Maybe this is different for the ivys…we’ve never recruited from there). So if your dream is to live on the west coast some day, you should probably go to college there.

    I think during college tours I will start asking how many professors worked in their field for my tech kid. I think it matters In engineering. The ironic thing is that some of the phds I work with feel like failures because they could not land a tenure track job are in industry.

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