Now is the time of year when many students completing high school have to make an exciting, but at the same time daunting, choice: Which college should I attend in the fall? Those who are lucky enough to have multiple options often must make some difficult decisions. And parents who may not be very familiar with today's wide range of differences in curriculum and institutional character may feel less than confident in counseling their children wisely.
As a long-serving college president, I am often asked for advice on how to make a choice among colleges. Answers to the following five questions will, more often than not, result in a good decision.
1. What constitutes a good education?
It sometimes seems that people consider almost everything but their idea of a good education when trying to make a college decision. Of course, many other factors can enter into a college decision. But the main purpose of going to college is to get a good education. If you can't articulate your beliefs about a good education, you are unlikely to be able to tell whether a given college can provide it for you. So settle this question for yourself first -- then try to see which college best matches your ideal.
2. Is this college a good fit for me?
If you know the sort of education you want, then you still have to consider whether a particular college is suited to you, and vice versa. Every college is different. Educational philosophy, location, student life, social atmosphere, extracurricular activities, living arrangements -- these and many other elements combine to give each school an individual character. And then you too, of course, are a unique individual with your own personality. You need to try as best you can to get a feel for the personality of each school you are considering, and consider whether it is a good match for your own character. You can do this, of course, by studying admissions literature and especially by connecting with current students, who know first-hand what being on campus is like right now.
3. Is the classroom culture right for me?
Ask yourself what sort of classroom experience suits you best. Some are content listening to professors lecture, studying on their own, and demonstrating their individual achievement through taking tests and writing papers. There are certainly many schools that are very congenial to that style of learning. My own advice here, however, is a bit pushy, in the sense that I hope you will push yourself toward it if you are not so inclined: You should look for a college that insists on a decent amount of serious discussion in the classroom -- not just the one-way discussion that emanates from the teacher to be absorbed by the students, but serious conversation between teacher and students, as well as among students. This sort of intellectual interaction among lively minds is more conducive to deep learning and genuine inquiry than the mere, though obviously necessary, acquisition of facts and information.
4. How much can I grow?
Imagine yourself four years from now graduating from a given college. Ask your future self these questions: How much have you grown in the past four years? What personal strengths have you developed? How many trusted mentors have you found? How many lifelong friendships have you developed? Are you ready now to begin building a life worth living? If all these questions produce satisfactory answers, then ask one more: Did you acquire all this precisely because you attended this college, or would you have ended up the same no matter where you went to school? If the answer to the first part of this last question is Yes, that's a pretty strong indicator that you are making a good decision. The point is that personal growth and development are essential elements in a college education -- much more so than the choice of a specialty, which causes many students great anxiety.
5. What will be my major?
At the majority of colleges you can choose to attend, you will eventually have to select a major subject to study. If you are already passionate about a particular subject, or about a particular career that requires you to study a particular subject, you may be pretty sure already what your major will be. Actually, my advice would be to park that certainty for a while. I know that the world -- especially the contemporary world -- is pressuring you to use college to set yourself up for a career. The thinking is that survival comes first, then, if you're lucky, prosperity and maybe even a life worth living. I encourage you to stand this on its head, and to convince your parents of it, too. First, find a life worth living, and then you'll have a very good reason for surviving and thriving. Who knows, you may find a passion for something you never knew existed until you went to college. And if it turns out that you were right about your passion from the start, then all the better, because your final choice is more informed, and therefore more certain. So unless you have already made an unshakeable decision about a major, I advise you not to agonize over this question now.
My congratulations to those of you who are happy enough to have such fortunate choices. If you consider these five questions carefully, you will be as prepared as anyone can be to make the decision that stands before you.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly -- not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion -- with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought.
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