3 Questions When Choosing a College

Are you stressed out over where to go to college? Congratulations! It probably means you're taking this whole thing seriously. My goal as a counselor and teacher who writes about this stuff--and has lived through it--is to make sure you don't take it so seriously that it starts messing with your head, your soul, or your sense of humor.

Too late? Here's a quick story that might help: Years ago, I attended a panel discussion among students of color. They shared what it was like to be on a predominantly white campus. The subject matter was hardly new to me--as a university career counselor, I had been asking students of color about their experiences for years.

But this day, a young lady on the panel nearly knocked me out of my chair when she leaned into the microphone, and in front of Dean So-and-So and everybody, thundered, "College is meant to prepare students for the real world. This campus shelters students from the real world!" Boom.

Will you choose a college that shelters you--or one that prepares you?

Before you answer, I want to urge you to do some soul-searching. Don't just choose the knee-jerk answer, or the one that sounds good. Allow yourself to explore this question, with your heart and head engaged, but free of judgment.

Because the reality is, the world is big. Which means you have options. Even if you're determined to make college a time of preparation--not shelter--you can and should choose a school where you'll fundamentally fit in.

For example, if you're the type of kid who goes on mission trips and plays in the church band, choose a school that supports that. Even if you're on the opposite end of the spectrum, the point is still the same: You don't need to "challenge" yourself by going somewhere that doesn't jibe with who you are at your core.

(Please don't, or you'll end up transferring, as I did. No real regrets, but I wish I had known to choose a school based on fit, not simply prestige. When you choose a school based on prestige, it's like getting an expensive pair of shoes that pinch your feet, mercilessly.)

What do you need in order to fit, and what do you need so you're challenged in a good way?

Make a list for each. For example, if one of your dreams is to study in London, look for a school that makes it both possible and exciting. And again, be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you've grown up on the West Coast, for example, do you really want to spend your college years in the snow belt? It's okay if you do--it's okay if you don't.

Here's another tip: Consider picking a college close enough to let you get back home when you want to--but also one with enough fun things going on that you'll want to stick around. If you duck home every weekend, college is going to feel like thirteenth grade. I don't know anyone who truly enjoyed that.

But remember, it's not cheating to attend close to home. I had several friends who went to high school in or around East Lansing and attended Michigan State. It's pretty hard not to branch out at a school with over 50,000 students.

Which brings me to another key point that is often-overlooked: Look for socioeconomic diversity, not simply geographic diversity. Michigan State (the school where I transferred as an undergrad and earned a B.A. in Advertising) happens to have both--but at least when I was there, 85% of the students were from Michigan, including yours truly.

Here's the difference: At a big state school, you had socioeconomic diversity out the wazoo. Having come from a private school where I saw a lot of geographic diversity and not much other kind, the difference felt like a cool breeze on a hot day. It also made my world larger, not smaller.

Which brings us to our third and final question.

Once you get to college, what are you willing to do to make it a great experience--one that's not only fun and rewarding, but prepares you to take your rightful place in the world?

Don't feel as though you have to have it all figured out--let alone, have it all figured out at once. But your initial hunches about the above question might help you rule some options out and rule some others in.

And though it may seem like the scariest thing you've ever done, I want to encourage you to trust yourself.

If ever there were a time to pay attention to your gut, this would be it. Do your homework--for example, talk to friends who are already at college. Weigh the financial considerations, obviously. But in the end, listen for what your gut is telling you, and honor it.

Finally, if the spirit moves you, invite God into this. He can speak through your gut far more than you realize. That's how I ended up in San Diego for grad school and for the rest of my life, instead of Steubenville, Ohio. But that's another story for another day.

Gina DeLapa is the author of the forthcoming book, Stuff You Already Know: And Every College Student Should (Maestro Press, $16.95).