Researching and Selecting Colleges: Go West, Young Person

In applying to college, college admission, Researching Colleges, university application information on February 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Who should read this post:  anybody who wants to reduce tuition costs; high school Juniors and Sophomores anywhere; community college students; anybody who wants to figure out which majors at which college in the West are most in demand (most impacted) and so are the hardest to get into;  students in any western state; cowboys and girls trapped on the East Coast; Beat poets who need an excuse to go on the road.

Researching Colleges:  Some Sources and Activities

I will start with the basics in this post and then quickly get into strategies for finding cheap tuition and good programs in many majors across the West, from Alaska to California and from Hawaii to New Mexico.

Here are three things you should be doing if you are a high school Junior or Sophomore or a Junior/Community College student in the early stages of planning for college admissions:

1. Do some research on majors.  I will address this separately for those of you who have not yet examined yourself and the available fields of study.

2. Start exploring colleges by going to sites like the Princeton Review and getting books like Princeton Review’s The Complete Book of Colleges; Princeton Review’s Best 376 Colleges is also a good place to get going as it is more selective than The Complete Book of Colleges, which can be overwhelming.  The Best 376, like most other college guide books, has a website which is easy to search and gives some information for free;  see the website here at The Best 376 Colleges.  I also like the Fiske products; though they are not as comprehensive, their opinions are useful–even when I don’t agree with what they say, they give me things to think about.

You should use a variety of factors to  match yourself to colleges, but start by looking at their GPA and SAT/ACT scores for entering students. Come up with a short list of your most preferred colleges–At this point, you might find dozens of colleges, but by the time you start to fill out applications, I recommend 10-12 total, and about 8 “most preferred;” you should include 2-3 schools which seem to be a reach in terms of entrance requirements.  Be sure to consider affordability when you compile this list and, in addition to the “reach” schools, include three schools which are both affordable and easily in the range of  your GPA and test scores.  You will need to do some guesswork here if you have not taken the SAT and ACT.  I know that is a lot to consider, but right now you are in the early stages, so don’t put on the blinders, and stay relaxed.  This stage can be a lot of fun if you treat it as an opportunity to do some armchair traveling.

You should also keep an eye out for visits by college representatives to your campus and, for colleges you already are interested in, you should check their websites–some schools visit  particular regions intensively while others are more like rock stars (or hip hop stars or whatever), visiting only a few venues to which you must travel.  If you do go to a presentation, try to introduce yourself and follow up with an e-mail to the presenter.  The more competitive the school, the more important it is that you have shown interest during the application process.

 When you have a list of schools that you like and that seem like  a good fit, you should add schools which are out of your comfort zone in the sense that are out of state or in a state you have not yet considered.  The rest of this post and the tools I suggest will focus specifically on western states, but the states involved include everything from Hilo  to Fargo, so there should be something for all but the most East Coast Preppy among you.

3. So step 3 is to look for schools which are a good match for you but which are out of state.  This is especially true for residents of California and our brethren on the East Coast,  places which have, for the most part, higher tuition and higher living expenses than do other, western states.  I will focus on tools for researching and evaluating western colleges for the remainder of this post.

What About Out-of-State Tuition?

But wait, you protest; isn’t the tuition for nonresidents much higher?  If I go to Oregon or Washington or Arizona (etc, et al) won’t I pay even more than I would in my home state?   The answer is maybe.  Yes, out-of-state tuition can be prohibitive in any state, but there are exceptions and more importantly, there are local and regional programs which alleviate or eliminate the extra cost.

As an example some of the smaller Oregon colleges–and a few of these are very good schools–have been particularly aggressive in recruiting students from California, offering in-state Oregon tuition to out-of-state students.  More generally, the  Western Undergraduate Exchange program can also drastically reduce costs at many colleges in many majors.  So next you should:

Reduced Tuition for Students Living in the West; Evaluating Impacted Majors

3.  Go to the Western Undergraduate Exchange website.  You can click on the link I provide here.   This lists schools participating and allows you to examine schools which participate.  You can check them by major, as the availability of WUE tuition support depends partly on the major.

The WUE is highly informative in another way–you can look at most colleges in the West and figure out which programs are looking to recruit students; put another way, you can see which programs are most impacted, meaning are hardest to get into, for the majors which interest you. Most of the WUE support will not be for majors which have too much demand or for which the college, for whatever reason, wants to help out-of-state students get into.

There may be  a few majors in which the universities have specific reasons for promoting out-of-state students even if the major is in high demand, but this is not the rule. As an example, History majors are still relatively common and many of the popular  WUE campuses do not offer a discount for History majors because, well, they have enough already from inside the state and have no reason to encourage others to apply.  For a more hip example, if you look up some of the Digital Arts and Computer majors, you can deduce how in demand they are, at which schools, which tells you not just if the WUE will help you but will also suggest  how demanding the admissions requirements are for these majors at these schools.  It might be much harder, for example, to get into the Digital Arts program at the University of Oregon than it would be to major in Music there.  Some colleges do not yet offer a Digital Arts Major, so check with the college website as well–they may not offer it yet, so it won’t show up on the WUE list.

I will go into using the major selection as a strategic move when applying  in later posts, though I have addressed it in briefly in earlier posts on this site.

4. Identify at least 4-6 colleges which are out-of-state a which are a good match for you in terms of GPA and test scores.  Hopefully you used the search by major tool on the WUE site and fiddled with different configurations to look at whether various majors and colleges participated in the WUE program.

I recommend not applying to more than ten colleges from your final list, with twelve being the highest number you should apply to (more about that in another post), so in the coming months, you should continue to research colleges.

Other Factors to Consider:  Would You Want To Live There Under Other Circumstances?

5. Consider factors you have not yet considered:  weather is important, as are other kinds of “climates” like the social climate and the political climate, as well as the potential for regional connections.  Is this a party school or an academic school or a place with both good academics and a good social life?  Is there an arts community? Are there opportunities to see music and theater?   What kinds of companies show up at job fairs and recruitment visits?  You should look up the city or town on wikipedia and other sites, and you should go to student review sites such as unigo–keep in mind the limitations of these sites, however–most of these students are evaluating without much direct experience with other schools, which makes many of their comparative evaluations suspect.  Also, research on user reviews shows a bias toward negative reviews.  And you should, if possible, visit the the school and explore its setting.  I mean the physical school, not just the website.  I would not want to enroll in the University of Washington, for example, without checking out Seattle, at least for a couple of days.  Especially if you are from a sunnier climate.

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