The Universal University Uncertainty

First of all, I'm prouder than I should be about the title of this post. What can I say? I'm a wordplay nerd. But that's not why we're here today. Yesterday I brought one of my best friends from home to my college so he could stay the night and go to the admitted students open house that's currently going on, and all of this got me thinking about one year ago when I was weighing my options and trying to figure out where I wanted to spend the next four years of my life. To be fair, if we're talking about my life exactly one year ago, as in April 2013, at that point I had already been sold on JMU for a while, but I know for a lot of high school seniors that are sorting through acceptance letters or juniors unsure of where to even start, this time of year can be especially stressful. Hence why I'm writing today: let's do this college thing together. I don't have any siblings, so no one in my family paved the way for me and my parents; that also means that I have no younger kids to pass down my knowledge to, so you, my dear readers, are getting the brunt of my lecturing. Sit back and enjoy the show.

This first part of the post is going out to those students completely unsure of where to start on the college process. Well, there are a few key components to consider, the most important being the 4 S's: Size, State, Selectivity and Setting.

First of all, size is pretty self-explanatory, but by that I mean both the student population and the acreage of the campus. Do you want a small, medium, or large school? For example, James Madison University (my school/the best school in the nation/Go Dukes) has about 20,000 students total with a relatively large campus. In the grand scheme of things, it's about medium sized, tending toward the larger end of the scale.

The next key component is one you and your parents (or whoever is footing the hefty tuition bill) need to sit down and seriously discuss, because it stands for State, aka do you want to be in the same state in which you currently reside or are you looking to cross state lines? (God, Lauren, can you say "state" any more in that one sentence?!) There are benefits to both, but personally I didn't even bother applying to out-of-state schools. For one, I live in Virginia so the schools available to me at an in-state price are superb, and I just didn't have an interest in going elsewhere. There are benefits to both options, but important elements to consider and discuss with Mom and Dad are the cost and the proximity to home. It's no secret that going out of state for school can dramatically raise the price of your tuition and sometimes affect your chances of being admitted. Additionally, if you're anything like me you like knowing that in a pinch home is only a few hours away. But a lot of people want independence badly enough to only see their family on scheduled breaks; it's just something to consider that will put the scope of prospects into perspective. I urge you to really think about how much you rely on your family as a support system; there's nothing wrong with admitting you want to go home more often so you can hang out with your parents. Trust me, hanging out with my parents is one of my favorite past times.

The next thing to consider is Selectivity, and by that I mean where can you feasibly get in? I know this can be the depressing part, but actually look at admissions stats and requirement to see how you stack up. Of course, just because you're out of the SAT range they'd like to see doesn't mean that all bets are off, in fact quite the opposite. You should apply to a few schools you're not 100% sure you qualify for in order to test your limits and reach; just make sure you balance this out with a few sure-fire safety schools and some that could go either way as far as you're concerned. If you need help determining where you stand, counselors can help you realistically judge where your transcript can and cannot gain access. Also just remember that these parameters exist for a reason: you need to be academically capable and comfortable where you go to school; challenged but not drowning. Grades aren't everything and they definitely aren't a true measure of intelligence, but in this case they're all we got.

The final S stands for setting. Do you want an urban, suburban, or rural environment? For me, I wanted a school that was surrounded by a quaint "college town" that functioned around the university to provide basic amenities plus a few unique coffee shops and independent bookstores. You, however, might want to be in the heart of the city or be able to see cows from your dorm window. Also consider the scenery that accompanies this type of setting: do you want mountains on the horizon? Four distinct seasons? Upper 60s all year 'round?

I will warn you though, once you've determined what you're looking for, don't buckle anything down because none of these are as important as that "feeling" you get when you step foot on the right campus. It sounds cheesy, but you'll just know when you belong somewhere. For example, just on paper, JMU seemed all wrong for me. The size and setting weren't what I thought I wanted at the start of my search, which initially scared me away from even considering the school I now couldn't imagine myself without. I originally thought I wanted to go to a small school with no more than 5000 kids, but as I quickly learned upon touring multiple college campuses, I didn't necessarily want a small school; what I wanted was a tight-knit school community. I'm happy to say that's what I got here, but I wouldn't have known that if I stuck strictly to my original protocol. So my advice for determining what you look for in the "4 S's" is to know what you want, but be flexible and willing to push your boundaries a bit.

Once you've thought through those major elements, I would recommend using an automated college filter online, or asking the career and college planning counselor at your school, if such a person exists where you live. Online, The College Board makes a great computer system that can help narrow down your choices. It will consider the 4 S's I just talked about, but will also ask you smaller-scale questions you should also consider; for example: religious affiliations, co-ed status, and housing preferences. Once you get some schools in mind, I would recommend scheduling a visit with your parents or close friends to experience the school in a way that websites and brochures just can't show you. Make sure to go when school is actually in session and students are walking around so you really get a feel for the atmosphere--early in the morning on a Saturday won't give you as authentic or bustling of an environment as 1 PM on a Wednesday will.

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This next section is for seniors that are still unsure of what you tell all your parent's friends that won't stop nagging you with the age-old question "So where will you be going to school next year?"

First of all, congratulations on your acceptance to what I'm sure are some fine schools; you did it! The hard part is over, now it's time to make a decision. And while closing your eyes and pointing at an acceptance letter can be a tempting method, it's not the best way to decide where you're be spending the next four years of your life.

My first tip is to do your research: ask around. Talk to students that currently attend colleges you're interested in about their experiences; this is easier if you're looking at an in-state school where older kids you knew in high school now attend. If you can, visit them overnight to get a good feel for the day-to-day life on campus; spending an overnight at my second-choice school quickly made the decision that it wasn't for me. If you don't know any people at your prospective university, see if there are any offered open houses or tours specifically for admitted students where you can experience the campus through the eyes of your future self. Eat in the dining halls, visit a dorm, talk to bystanders; for some reason doing all of this once you've gotten in is a lot more beneficial. When I first toured JMU before I even submitted my application, I couldn't really see myself here yet, only because the possibility of getting in was unknown. Once I came back after getting my acceptance letter, however, I was really able to start mentally placing myself around campus because I knew I was allowed to, if that makes any sense.

Another way to help sift through your options is to make Pros and Cons lists. Be critical and really think about what you do and do not like about every option. Next, take the time to sort the items on your lists by importance, i.e. is the fact that it's in the city the most important pro, or is the good food more imperative? Once you've messed around with these lists, read each of them aloud to a parent or friend without announcing the school's name as you do so. A lot of times we tend to get wrapped up in bias when we hear the name of a college, especially if it has a particular reputation (either good or bad). By omitting the name of the school and instead just considering the most important criteria, others can help you determine what the best fit for you is based solely on the factors you've ranked.

And my last tip for you is, in my opinion, the most important. If you're really stressed out about this decision, put it into perspective. The right college is one of the more pressing choices you'll make in your life, but like most things, it's not irreversible if need-be. I know that's probably odd to hear, but it really is important to know that you're not legally bound to attend for four years. Obviously no one goes in expecting to hate where they go to school, but just know that if that ends up being the case you can always transfer after just one semester. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, because it is quite a daunting process, but it is reassuring to know that you have more than just one shot to get this right. Plus, if you don't feel ready to go off to school, there's no shame in taking a gap year to work or attending community college to ease you into the process. Just know that you're awesome and I have faith in you to do what's best for your life right now.

And that's it; I hope this was at least somewhat helpful for some of you. I hope you're having a good Monday, and I'll see you soon!


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For any inquiries or comments, leave a message below or tweet me @asauerpatchkid

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