Just starting college/uni search. Give me your wisdom....
January 22, 2017 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Just starting the college search process. Want all the advice...

My daughter is halfway through her sophomore year and we are just starting to talk about colleges. What advice can you give us as we start this journey? What do we ask? What do we do at college visits? Suggestions for her applications? Essays? We are starting early but this is a journey to find the perfect fit. Any advice for the beginner would be appreciated. A little info.... amazing grades and test scores, AP classes going well, very talented oboist so scholarships will be in play (how do we navigate that? Lord!!?) lots of solid extracurricular activities. She wants to do a pre DVM with a minor in music. Then plans for Vet school later. Not really looking for school suggestions but those are welcomed as well. We may learn about a great place that we didn't have on our radar... TIA
posted by pearlybob to Education (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm sure you'll get lots of good search advice, but let me say first: Don't stress it. Any giant state uni or even small liberal arts school is fine.

Sure, try to find a place that seems like a good fit, but unless you get caught up in scammy for profit schools or shoot for the ultra top tier, it just doesn't matter much, compared to what courses she takes, how hard she works, how she finds friends and hobbies, etc.

I've been a student and instructor at several institutions, and they just aren't as different as you might think.

Don't go into mountains of debt, encourage her to take as much math and bio as she can.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:15 AM on January 22, 2017 [16 favorites]

Best answer: "pre DVM" is not a degree. Your daughter most likely wants to be a biology major, although she might consider biochem if she's especially good at math and chem. Vet school is incredibly hard to get into (harder than medical school), so it's worth getting a good degree for a BS and enjoying and exploring while there, not just focusing on being pre-vet.

If she's at all interested in large animals, getting an animal science degree (most commonly found at state land grant universities) can be an excellent path, as can schools like Berry and Warren Wilson where the campus work programs allow students to get farm animal work experience.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:21 AM on January 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'll just note that these statements are somewhat in conflict with each other:

very talented oboist so scholarships will be in play (how do we navigate that? Lord!!?)

She wants to do a pre DVM with a minor in music.

If she wants school (even partially) paid for by playing the oboe, then she'll need to be at school to play the oboe. (See, e.g., UNC's music scholarships, which are "given only to students intending to major or double major in music".) I'm guessing most places at least have a strong preference for incoming declared majors.
posted by damayanti at 8:30 AM on January 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think the most important part of success is finding a school where she genuinely likes the culture and people (hopefully, a couple of schools so she has options). I would visit as many as you can afford to visit that are on her list of potentials, and encourage her to feel whether these seem like the kind of students she would like to hang out with. So much of the value of going to college is the network you build by making friends, living with people, joining extra-curricular activities, working in groups. Those friends often become the people who help you find jobs in later years, or form the basis for your adult social life.

My little brother went to a school with a great program for the area of study he was in, but a totally wrong culture for him (very fratty/sports/party focused). While I'm sure there were people he could have met and hung out with (and he did make SOME friends), I think he got far less value from his undergraduate experience because he felt like the campus as a whole was really not his thing. I think this lack of network has hurt him.

My final thought is to think about whether she's the kind of kid who will want to have the freedom to move wherever upon graduation, or whether she's going to want to stay close to home or in a regional area. If you want to move across the country, certain schools will make that easier (usually private institutions but also some large state schools). On the other hand, there can be an advantage to going to a school in the area where you think you want to settle, even if it's a less well-known school. Most schools have strong networks in their local areas, and their career centers can help you get jobs in the region.

So, there are the things I'd consider. Good luck!
posted by ch1x0r at 8:44 AM on January 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Go to a college fair. There may be some at local high schools, even if there is not one at your kids high school.

Find national fair info here - https://www.nacacfairs.org/attend/national-college-fairs/ (this is not a comprehensive list of all college fairs everywhere, just a list of the NACAC sponsored ones - usually very large with lots of schools attending).

Walk around and look at a few schools, local ones or ones you may have heard of.

ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS. If the admissions counselor / rep is blowing you off (or if they are just a crazy busy table), go to another table and ask THEM all the questions.

When I was a counselor, I would have answered as many questions to parents and students as I possibly could, even if they were not at all interested in my school. Very busy tables may point you to other resources, but it's still worth it to ask.

The people at those fairs are there to sell their schools, sure, but many of them are there because they like helping parents and students find the best fit for them.
posted by kellygrape at 8:50 AM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a big believer is small liberal arts colleges, but I don't think they would be a good fit for your daughter. A biology degree with good grades from one of the top line could be competitive for entry to vet school, but they could be frustrating for the oboist. My own college didn't have any instrumental group that stayed organized continuously after football season. OTOH, there's Oberlin. Wherever you go, stop by the music department and ask to talk to someone.

Universities that have a good program for performance music majors will have an orchestra filled out with students who are not music majors and there may be chamber music and musical theater possibilities. I think every student should have one or two activities outside his/her major for the change of pace, to blow off anxiety, and just for the fun of it.

Admissions departments look favorably on candidates with a record of achievement and success in any area whether it's in the projected major or not. They know that entering college is walking through the door into a wide, wide world of ideas and possibilities, and more students change course than stay with that first idea.

Just as an aside, Admissions Departments are only one source of info. Professors and recent grads may be more helpful in some areas.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:52 AM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Everything I learned about scholarships when my daughter earned a near full ride.
posted by COD at 9:02 AM on January 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Are you talking about the US? It sounds like you are, but if not, the country in which she'll be applying will make a huge difference in the answers you need.

For the US, her school should have some guidance counselor who is a college admissions advisor. Some schools have a dedicated person (or people) for this, but not all schools reach out to students about how and when to meet with them. Sophomore year is actually a great time for her to schedule a meeting, start talking about options, and find out what schools are looking for. A good college guidance counselor will be able to not only give generic info, but even specific test scores or extracurriculars to shoot for for specific colleges.

I'd recommend The Insider's Guide to colleges, or another student-written guide (if you fond one that looks better - not sure what's the gold standard these days) that lists colleges and gives rundowns on student life and expectations alongside more dry performance statistics. I'd also recommend picking up a book of sample essays that worked, to see the range of writing styles that have gotten results - I think a great essay can still make a huge difference, because it's so easy for kids to fall into tropes of what they think admissions officers are looking for, rather than showing what makes them special in a way that makes them shine.
posted by Mchelly at 9:06 AM on January 22, 2017

Best answer: As noted above, except for outliers, academics are going to approximately be the same from one university to the next. It's not like she'll be reading Shakespeare at one school and Dr. Seuss at another. Every school's English department will have classes on Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and Dickens. Every school's History department will have classes on the French Revolution and the Civil War. Unless she's intending to specialize in something so esoteric that most high school students aren't even aware that it exists as a field of study, academics should not disqualify any schools on her list, nor should it add schools to her list that she wouldn't otherwise consider.

At this point in her search, you should be helping her figure out what's important to her so that when you do start visiting, you know what to look at. Colleges are going to sell themselves on hundreds of different things. Does she care that the cafeteria offers organic vegan options 24 hours a day? Is it a deal breaker to have a non-air conditioned dorm room? Is proximity to home important? Is she interested in Greek life? Does she want to live in a big city or a small town? Does she care about watching football or basketball? Not all of these things matter, so if a school's pitch is "our students love watching the football team on Saturdays", and she thinks football is stupid, she can rank that school lower on her list.

One thing to consider is that most schools have a fairly concentrated alumni base, so if she's hoping that being an alumna will help her network after graduation, it's helpful to go to a school near where she wants to live after graduation. I have a cousin who went to Ole Miss and lived it there. If she stays in the south, that's a valuable alumni network, but if she comes back to Ohio, it's not going to be useful at all.

As a parent of a girl, I'm sad to say you're going to have to think about her safety. Look at statistics for sexual assault (not just on campus, either), and ask how the school handles sexual assault reports. This is a huge problem. There's only so much you can do, but you don't want her going somewhere where she's going to be sacrificed to protect Joe Quarterback. Actual reports of sexual assault are a lagging indicator, so look at leading indicators like binge drinking as well.

Finally, use these next two years to have her visit older friends from high school at their colleges. A lot of people decide where to go based on where their friends go, so it might help her clarify her list. It'll also give her a firsthand look at college life without her parents around, which is important. Even if she doesn't end up liking her friends' schools, it'll give her a ton of insight into what she's looking for.

Good luck, and congratulations!
posted by kevinbelt at 9:09 AM on January 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

With respect to finding a perfect fit, these were the things that surprised me most about going from "flagship state U" to "small elite private"--YMMV, but they're things I'd look at: 1) add/drop deadlines at the small elite private were amazingly generous--more than a factor of 10 greater than those at flagship state U--so it was trivial for students at small elite private to shop for optimal schedules and to get out of classes they'd have failed at state U; 2) the fact that most people lived on campus for four years at small elite private noticeably reduced how likely it was for college relationships to mature in the direction of cohabitation, so perhaps not by coincidence, a great many people I knew at state U graduated in relatively committed long-term relationships but few did at small elite private; but 3) there otherwise wasn't much difference between the honors college at flagship state U compared to all of small elite private--faculty reputation, institutional resources, research opportunities, peer-based interest-sharing, lifelong connections made to people doing unusual things, etc. were all about the same--so they're both reasonable choices. Incidentally, I think it's important to let your daughter steer this, so I'd be very open with her about any financial limitations, and otherwise just take her to see some places she could realistically attend--maybe after you're pretty sure about the money.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:14 AM on January 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

If possible, have your daughter visit her perspective college on multiple occasions outside of their college fair day. Go to a couple of events open to the public to experience their culture. See if there's a "shadow a Senior student around for a day" program. Or get an one-on-one visit with a few college departments.
posted by mountainblue at 9:33 AM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When applying to scholarships, realize that there is some committee of volunteers on the other side fumbling with a rubric, desperately trying to find essays that hit the points their organization has put together as "things we are looking for in the next generation."

Thus, to win, figure out what the rubric is and WRITE TO IT. You can spin the same story in infinite ways to appeal to different organizations -- in summary, help them help you.

Don't overlook small community scholarships from your local grocery store, tire shop, whatever. Money is money and sometimes obscure money is easier to get.

For some schools, amazing grades and test scores (plus a committed instrument and several "leadership" / "community" activities) are table stakes. However, if she wants to go to vet school, she doesn't have to compete in that pool, since that pool also leads to a six-figure bill and generally does not give merit scholarships.

How is your state school honors program?
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:40 AM on January 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

i went to a small liberal arts school, am a grad student at a (mostly undergrad-oriented, medium-sized) private research university, and have been learning about all sorts of schools while on the academic job market.

a couple of things:
- If you haven't already lost your mind about the sticker prices at many schools, you will probably lose your mind. Know that very few people end up paying full freight; high tuition prices are a way to price discriminate. You can negotiate with financial aid offices. Don't bankrupt yourself sending your kid to school, but don't immediately dismiss a school just because the tuition seems high - that's their starting offer for negotiations.
- That said, for what your daughter wants to do, my guess is that your state has a university that started out as an ag school and might have an excellent veterinary science program. But you should visit and talk to people to get a feel for it. I have a high school friend who was in veterinary science at one large state university, hated the culture and the department, and transferred to the other one (which was in a less-geographically desirable part of the state) but she was so, so much happier and is now a successful large animal vet. At a teaching-oriented college, she'll likely need to major in something like biology and research what admissions requirements are for DVM programs. The upshot of something like that is if she decides once she gets to college that she actually doesn't want to do science it's a bit easier to switch. But there's no reason you can't ask the school whether and how they've been successful in placing their students into DVM programs in the past.
- Other people have covered the oboe thing. But basically you can always ask schools whether and how they offer merit-based scholarships (for either academically excellent students and/or for students who have a particular talent like your daughter's).

I don't know whether this is a cautionary tale or not: I loved my undergraduate institution; most of my friends (and my fiancee!) were people I met there and it definitely changed me for the better in a bunch of ways. But had I been totally fixed on "what is the school that would have helped me the most in my career" ex-post I'm not sure I would've picked mine. There's an extent to which college choice is consumption as much as investment, and it's worth checking out a variety of schools to see what gels the best vis-a-vis your daughter's personality and interests.
posted by dismas at 9:42 AM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: State is Georgia but we don't have to stay in state... a biology degree or something similar is on the radar as a path to DVM. Possible UGA or NC but we know how difficult they are to get in to. Good info about animal science.... I went to school on a music scholarship...good oboe players are so few that she can get a scholarship without that being her major at most schools... we have checked. Thanks about the tuition negotiation info, I didn't know that... keep the great ideas coming. I'm printing these all out for our notebook.
posted by pearlybob at 9:53 AM on January 22, 2017

Best answer: I went to a small elite private liberal arts college, under 1500 students total, and the school was well-endowed enough that they eliminated loans from students' financial aid packages. I would encourage you to at least run the net price calculators at such a school, e.g. Pomona College (not my alma mater, but a similar-caliber school). It could well come up more affordable than a merit scholarship, depending on your family's financial situation (note that if divorced parents are in the picture, *all* parental incomes are considered including non-custodial and stepparents). And many Ivy-League-level schools have similarly generous financial aid programs.

Of course, maybe she doesn't want to go to a small-to-medium private school that's likely not located in the South. Or maybe your financial situation isn't well-accommodated by need-based programs. But you've been focusing on merit aid without explicitly ruling out need-based aid, so I wanted to emphasize it as a possibility. After aid, my private college education cost about the same as my in-state flagship university and the education I got was much better-suited to my learning style (small classes, casually intimate professor interactions, personal attention as a given without having to seek it out).

I'm not sure exactly what difficulty-level-of-admissions you're targeting--for a student with top grades/test scores, UGA should be a shoo-in. UNC-Chapel Hill is a bit more complicated for out-of-state students, but do talk to your guidance counselor about admission statistics for the in-state flagship.
posted by serelliya at 10:09 AM on January 22, 2017

Best answer: One thing I haven't seen mentioned too much above is how much people can change their minds about career paths during college.

For instance, I went in sure I wanted to major in political science and go into government/public service. I came out with a history major and am now a fantasy/science fiction novelist. My husband started off as a math major, ended up majoring in computer science, and now manages software engineers. A friend who definitely wanted to be a vet and picked her school based on its animal science program is now finishing her PhD in Early Modern English history, and two friends who graduated with liberal arts degrees (German and International Relations) did post-baccs and went to vet school. I can actually only think of one friend who came in wanting to do a particular thing (in her case, also become a vet) and is now doing that.

All this to say, if we have kids, when they get to this point, I think we'll probably urge them to pick a school that has *options* - not the little tiny specialized school no one has heard of, or the ag school in the middle of nowhere that only turns out animal science majors, but the school that has a variety of good programs so there are many other choices if they decide their first passion isn't actually for them. A small liberal arts school is totally okay, but I wouldn't choose the number one school for oboe in the country if it has nothing else going for it/no other good options.

And, critically, I think we will probably try not to be annoyingly parental about the *reason* for this choice. If you had told 18-year-old me, "Pick a school that has more than a great poli sci department because you might change your mind," I would have bridled and huffed and insisted that poli sci was my One True Passion and You Don't Understand Me and Why Can't You Let Me Lead My Own Life? Instead, if you casually pointed out that *options in general* were good (schools with multiple strong departments often have more to offer in terms of social life, living arrangements, eating options, study abroad programs, elective classes, etc. etc.), I'd have thought, "Oh, okay, more freedom, more opportunities, more choice - that's all good." You can mention the major thing too, but I wouldn't harp on the "From my wise vantage point of experience, I know in advance you'll probably change your mind" thing - because, while true, nothing is more annoying to a teenager who is pretty sure they know what they want to do with their lives. It's good to know changing your mind is *okay,* but frustrating to hear that it's pretty likely you will change it.

As a side note, throughout my career (and I had many different jobs before becoming a novelist), no one ever cared what I majored in or what my GPA was. They cared that they recognized the name of my school. If you're down to two choices and all other things are equal, I'd suggest going with the one with more name recognition.

Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 10:21 AM on January 22, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'm a university professor at a large state university. Some questions that you may want to ask about (and ask hard because you might receive some fake answers):
- What are the lecture sizes for introductory biology courses?
- What are the typical class sizes for upper division biology courses?
- What percent of courses at the university/department are taught by graduate students, adjunct faculty, teaching faculty, research faculty?
- What are the standards for English language proficiency for teaching assistants in the sciences/math?
- What sort of pedagogical training do teaching assistants get?
- What opportunities exist for undergraduates to participate in research? (This will be a huge feather in her cap when applying for graduate school.)
- How many opportunities does a typical student get to be in a smaller course (under 50 students?) with a research line faculty member? (This will be very important for grad school letters of recommendation.)
- What is the current mix of in-state, out-of-state, and international students both at the university and in the department?
- What percent of students live on-campus, off-campus, at home?
- What percent of students are considered "commuters"?

Other things that are worth considering include:
- Level of prestige. There are some very good smaller schools that have good reputations and good alumni networks within a state or a region, but are entirely unheard of outside of that area. This could be problematic for someone that wants to move to another place and/or apply to graduate school. It isn't a dealbreaker, but could help.
- How well your daughter does in a large versus a small environment. Some people really like small classes and smaller social scenes. Other people like more variety. Some people feel like they get lost in the shuffle in a big program/university.
posted by k8t at 10:40 AM on January 22, 2017 [11 favorites]

A lot of DVM programs are looking for more diversity in terms of major. Most come in with biology, animal science, etc. You can take the prerequisite classes and major in something that's of interest (if that happens to be something else). I have entomology and history bachelor's degrees and a master's in entomology, and I got in to the vet school that I wanted. It's not about the degree, it's about your animal experience, and what unique things you bring to the table, in my opinion. Volunteer experience, clubs, hobbies...in talking to faculty it seems that they are trying to go for more well-rounded people than those who are narrowly focused on vet med. Plus, if she doesn't get in, she has to live with that degree, so she should make it something she actually enjoys. If that's a music degree, then do it. She'll certainly stand out on applications, in my opinion, and for the better. A room full of bio majors can be kind of...boring.

Just my opinion and experience.
posted by bolognius maximus at 12:30 PM on January 22, 2017

Is Hope still a thing in Georgia? I would think that would make UGA much more attractive.
posted by crazy with stars at 12:30 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd suggest very first taking a look at the top-flight vet schools and seeing what they require for admission. Often they'll have a statistical breakdown of the entering class's GPAs, colleges, majors, etc. It's a helpful thing to have in mind. A lot of lower-tier private colleges, or lower-end "directional state" places offer a "pre-DVM" or "pre-med" or "pre-law" degree, and don't tell their students that is not what professional schools want to see. She'll probably see a lot of biology/biochem majors; a lot of colleges have a "biology major, pre-professional track" that makes sure they get the pre-pro classes they need. So since she knows she wants to aim for vet school, I'd start by looking at vet school requirements, and then working backwards.

They are also TOTALLY willing to chat with an eager high-school student about what sorts of things will help her in a few years when she's looking at vet schools, so don't be shy about talking to them.

Like your daughter I was a talented musician in a rare-ish instrument (bass) and I was able to get a few thousand dollars in scholarships to play bass for the college while majoring in poli sci and theology. I didn't even take music classes, I just played in some ensembles for them. At a big flagship state university, money for things like oboe and field hockey are a bit more rare, since they have 30,000 students and can probably find enough oboe majors on their own. But at smaller colleges, with 10,000 students or fewer, there's totally money in it for an oboe player who doesn't want to major in music but is willing to play in the orchestra.

I would make some college visits to nearby places and do the tours (or when you're on vacation near a college, drop in and do the tour), just to get a sort of baseline of "what colleges are like." Go visit UGA and Georgia Tech and Emory and Kennesaw State, and just get an idea of what different sorts of schools are like. Then as she gets into her junior year, start making the more targeted trips where you go further afield and visit specific schools with specific questions as she decides where to apply. Her senior year, as she's making actual decisions, a lot of places have prospective student weekends, overnights, etc., and those are great to take advantage of as she narrows it down. (My prospective student visits helped me narrow it down to my top two and I felt very good about it.)

In my experience, having sat as a student rep on admissions committees several times, schools value depth of resume over breadth, which sounds like not a problem with her oboe playing. They want to see she's been SUPER INTO OBOE and maybe a couple other things for several years, rather than that she's checking resume boxes with casual participation in 400 activities. (Like it's cool to have hella-oboe, and then casual participation in Spanish Club and Key Club and whatnot. But it's not cool to have casual participation in 12 things and no deep participation anywhere.) I liked essays that were honest and a little idiosyncratic -- that had some personality come through -- rather than essays that were cookie-cutter "Here Is My College Essay" essays about The Time I Built Some Houses For The Poors And Learned Some Things. I preferred reading about kids who went to Civil War Roundtable or who learned to mountain climb or who found their souls in Mozart or whatever. There are 400 kids with I Built Some Houses For The Poors as their essays, but just one who's rhapsodic about the glories of Salman Rushdie in opening their hearts.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:21 PM on January 22, 2017

Best answer: (I mean she doesn't need to strive to come up with something all Manic Pixie Dream Applicant to write about for her essay, but she should write about her honest and genuine passions, and not feel constrained to write only about Approved College Topics.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:23 PM on January 22, 2017

I'm a state college professor. And I have some advice. Those two statements are not necessarily related!

* Don't shoot too low purely for financial reasons: the best schools (public or private) have awesome scholarship / financial aid programs. Apply to the best, and if admitted work out the financial details later.

* I teach at a large state school where most students are commuters. We do good work. But you really want your child to go to a small liberal arts residential school. It's just better.

* My parents invested and saved and gave me a free ride to school - they told me "We prefer that you don't have a job during college, because your job during college is now to be in college." This was great and very effective for me.

* My parents (both academics) expected me to go out of state. By comparison, most of my high school friends expected to stay in state, live with parents and go to the state college. A distinction with a difference.

* Let go, let her loose, and trust: Very few adults I've talked to ended up where they planned. Support her strongly, but from a distance. Let her grow, make mistakes, and thrive.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 7:32 PM on January 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Look at average time to graduation! As other folks have noted, need-based aid can be substantial, even if you don't think of your family as one that would qualify. But even at full sticker price, if the average student at one school takes an extra year or two to pick a major or snag a place in the senior seminar, that may outweigh the higher year-by-year price at another school.
posted by yarntheory at 7:35 PM on January 22, 2017

My parents shelled out for a private college counselor for me, and it was well worth the money. She helped me figure out what type of school I wanted to go to and which ones in that category were likely to offer me a scholarship. Plus she guided me in which classes to take in HS, where to go for SAT prep, helped me brainstorm my application essay topic, etc. I went to a school that I loved that offered me a 50% scholarship, so she basically paid for herself.

One thing that really helped me was visiting a bunch of different types of schools. For example, I knew I didn't want to go to a huge state school, but I thought I'd love a tiny liberal arts school. Then then I visited a school with like 1500 students and was totally turned off by it, so I was able to narrow my focus to less-tiny private schools. If possible, she should spend the night or at least hang out for a day with some students. That also really helped me see how much I would like the school I ended up at.
posted by radioamy at 8:31 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

As many have pointed out, one school's Chemistry, English, etc. Department isn't going to be that different from another's.

With that in mind, my daughter (graduating in June) was somewhat left to her own devices in terms of which schools she wanted to look at and visit.

I actively encouraged her to do her best to evaluate the "feel" of the campus and its facilities, since she's going to be the one living there for the next four years. I know that can sometimes be a difficult proposition for a 15-16yo who has lived in essentially the same place for most of their lives, but that's what I wanted to be the most important (and thus, deciding) factor.
posted by kuanes at 4:07 AM on January 23, 2017

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