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If Only I'd Known...

By Robin Wasserman
Harvard Graduate and Noted Author

Trying to decide where to go to college nearly landed me in a mental institution (the food probably wouldn't have been any worse, but the extracurricular activities might have been lacking). If you're even one hundredth as stressed as I was, you

Robein Wasserman - Harvard Grad Robin Wasserman is the author of several original novels for children and young adults, including the popular Seven Deadly Sins series. A Harvard alumna, she swears she got in on her own merits...

Her latest book is Hacking Harvard. Ocean's 11 meets The Princeton Review in this high-stakes admissions satire, as three too-smart-for-their-
own-good pranksters take on the ultimate challenge: breaking into the Ivy League.

could probably use some help.

Your guidance counselor / parent / older sibling / college guide / annoying guy down the street probably already filled you in on the basics of picking a college. You know to thumb through the course catalog and the college newspaper, to get a feel for the campus, to talk to students, all that stuff. But you want to know more... and more to the point, you want to know exactly what it is you're supposed to want to know.

So here it is. The top ten list of things I would think about... if I knew then what I know now. I'm not including the super-obvious stuff that you'll find out at an information session (like curriculum requirements or housing policies) or the super-specific stuff that, curious as you may be, you really don't need to know (like availability of cable TV or whether the dining hall offers banana-flavored fro-yo). Just the stuff I didn't really think about when I was a high school senior, but probably should have. If only I'd known...

1. Resume Value

Let's get the nasty practical stuff out of the way first. I hate college rankings as much as anyone. But the fact is that after you graduate, people will judge you, at least partly, on the name of your college. Is that name going to open doors, or shut them? It shouldn't be the first thing you think about, or the most important—but these days, when you may very well shell out $200,000 for your college education—it probably shouldn't be ignored.

2. What Next?

As long as we're talking about the future (a.k.a. your distant plunge into the icy waters of the real world), it's worth remembering that the day will someday come when you have to contemplate life after college. Will you be prepared? What percentage of a college's alumni get into top graduate schools? How many go off to good jobs or prestigious fellowships? How many are working down the street behind the cash register at the Quick-E-Mart?

3. The Kids in the Hall

It's a cliche to say that you'll learn more from your fellow students than from your classes. It's also true. Who are the other kids you'll be going to college with? Are they passionate, motivated, brilliant, type A go-getters who will awe and amaze you? Are they laid-back slackers who know where to find a keg and how to tap it? Are they clones of the kids you tried to escape from in high school, or perfect replacements for the friends you left behind? For the next four years, these people will be your whole world. So while you're checking out the campus, do your best to make sure they don't suck.

4. After Hours

It's easy enough to flip through a catalog and check a list of extracurricular activities. But do you care about breadth or depth; quantity or quality? Are you the kind of person who's going to want to join a million clubs, or the kind who hopes to hang out in the newspaper office 24/7? Do you want to write for that comedy magazine whose former writers all ended up at Saturday Night Live? Does "community service" mean organizing a city-wide recycling program—or picking up litter? Is your idea of an extracurricular activity hanging out on the couch watching TV? Just make sure that if you want it, they've got it.

5. Teach Me

Admissions offices love to quote statistics about "average" class size. Beware. Average does not mean normal, and statistics are easily skewed. Ask current students how well they know their professors—and how well their professors know them. Are most of the classes small discussion seminars or large lectures? Are they graded by professors or TAs? Do students wish they got more attention from their professors, or much, much less?

6. Home Sweet Home

Dormrooms come in all shapes and sizes. Unless you're a freshman, in which case your options are usually: small, smaller, extra-small, and closet. Still, there are choices to be made: Do most rooms have bathrooms, or will you be showering down the hall? Are suites more common than doubles? Are the dorms brand new or falling apart? Do most people live on campus, or escape as quickly as they possibly can? How are roommate matches made? You'll probably be spending more time in your dorm than anywhere else—it'll help if you enjoy it.

7. Food, Glorious Food

First thing to know: Your dining hall food will suck. Guaranteed. So the question isn't what you'll eat, but where. Does everyone gather in the dining hall for communal meals, or do most people grab fast food at campus taco stands and burger bars? Does sitting in the dining hall make you feel like you should be wearing a robe and chatting with Harry Potter, or does it seem so much like a food court that you're looking around for the Cinnabon?

8. Money Talks

If your college has plenty of money—and feels like spending it—that means cash for new courses, departments, resources, infrastructure, faculty salaries, study abroad programs, buildings, financial aid, student organizations, and the occasional hole in your dorm's roof. If, on the other hand, your college is running low on cash, keep an eye out for grumbling—and, if things are bad enough, fleeing—professors, cranky TAs, penny-pinching administrators, cancelled events, defunct athletic teams, eliminated scholarships, and, basically, a whole lot of bad news.

9. No Guts, No Glory

What does your gut say? Your knee-jerk reaction to a college may not be logical, it may not make any sense, it may not be anything you can put into words for yourself (much less your parents, your guidance counselor, your friends, your annoying neighbor down the street…), but you're allowed to take it into consideration. Sometimes, for no particular reason whatsoever, a college just feels wrong. And sometimes, when you're lucky, a college feels right.

10. Change is Good

You can study all the variables you want; you can make enough pro/con lists to fill up your hard drive. You can visit the campus, you can interrogate the students, you can read every book, every site, every Facebook missive—you can do everything humanly possible, and you'll still never have enough info to make a fully informed decision. Because there's one important variable missing: You. Sure, you know who you are now—but who are you going to be in two or three years? What are you going to want to do, to see, to learn? What kind of life will you make for yourself? You have no idea, and you won't until it happens. So whatever you do, choose a college that gives you some space to change your mind—about everything. Because chances are, you will.

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