It’s simply unavoidable: We make mistakes all the time. We order a hamburger when we really wanted a cheeseburger, we forget about the homework that’s due on Wednesday, we text “your” instead of “you’re.” This being said, some mistakes are more painful than others, and mistakenly attending a college that isn’t right for you can be overwhelming, painful, and frustrating.

 

Before you brace for impact, however, you should know that we can sometimes avoid making the mistake of going to the wrong college by being thoughtful beforehand — if you’re reading this blog post, then congrats! You’re taking steps in the right direction. First and foremost, you need to make sure that you’re focused on attending the right college for you. You should know that this will look different for every single student.

 

This blog post will focus on tips to help you avoid going to the wrong college. For more information about choosing the right college, check out this blog post: What to Consider When Applying to and Choosing Colleges. For advice on escaping a college choice disaster, read on.

 

1. Think Beyond Prestige

When it comes to your college search, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and reputation game — after all, if one wants the best college experience, then shouldn’t she simply attend the #1 school in the country? This mentality won’t always be beneficial for you.

 

While a degree from a prestigious institution can obviously offer many benefits, this degree might not be as valuable to you if you don’t end up enjoying your four years at college — especially if you didn’t get the type of experience that you might have gotten at another institution that would have been a better match for you.

 

Sometimes prestige and benefits overlap. If you want to study psych and you’re looking at an Ivy League with the number one psych program in the country, great! If you’re passionate about living in New York City and you can see yourself engaging in the activist community there, then Columbia might be a good choice for you. If you’ve visited Harvard and enjoyed the attitude of every single student that you’ve met there, awesome!

 

On the other hand, if you find that you don’t seem to mesh with many aspects of a certain school, but you still want to go there merely because it’s hard to get into, then it might be time to rethink this choice. Take a moment to check out this CollegeVine post about thinking beyond the Ivy League.

 

2. Separate Your Parents’ Needs From Your Own

Yes, it can be scary to have different opinions from your parents (think about the tense political discussions you’ve had over Thanksgiving dinner). But in this case, it’s necessary to make the distinction.

 

You need to ask yourself: Do you like the school or are you forcing yourself to like it because your parents want you to go there? Consider sitting down with your parents and having an open and honest discussion of your needs vs. their own. Be respectful but firm, keeping in mind that many different factors might come into play when it comes to parents and your college decision (affordability, your family’s cultural background, your parents’ own personal history with the college in question, etc.)

 

For a more in-depth discussion about parents and your college decision, take a look at this blog post: What if My Parents and I Have Different Visions for College?

 

Though we can’t speak for all families, in the end your parents will usually be happiest when you’re happy. Though it might please them in the short term if you go to a school that they want you to attend, if you end up doing poorly or disliking your experience because it wasn’t the right fit for you, then in the end, everyone loses out.

 

3. Be Honest with Yourself

We lie to ourselves all the time, whether it be about how prepared we are for that German test coming up or the fact that Nutella is part of a healthy breakfast (so much sugar and palm oil!)

 

Yes, it can be easy to tell yourself lies about your interests and needs in order to go to a college that is convenient. But these lies you tell yourself will catch up with you in the end. Again, issues like your family’s financial and cultural background can complicate things and blur the line between what you want to do and what you need to do.

 

This being said, if you’re considering going to school for Computer Science because it’s a field that often leads to well-paying jobs, but you cringe just looking at a circuit board, then you should take a second to think about why you want to go to school for this program and whether or not it’s the best decision for you in the end.

 

There are ways to balance passion and practicality, you just have to be thoughtful and willing to do some serious planning and self-reflection.

 

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4. Don’t Willfully Overlook the Downsides

If you really like a certain school or if you have a particular perception of it, then it can be easy to sell yourself a narrative that everything there is perfect. This being said, don’t do this. It’s obvious that every school has its downsides, but not all downsides are the same.

 

If you want to go to school for theater and the school you’re considering has one of the least-recognized programs in the country, then you should probably take a moment to think about this. If you’re in love with a school but your FinAid package would leave you with six-figure student debt by the time you graduate, you might need to think very seriously before accepting your admissions offer.

 

In any case, no matter what, you’re going to need to weigh the pros and cons — but be sure to really weigh them, don’t just ignore all the downsides (because you WILL need to confront them once you’re a student there, and by then it may be too late).

 

5. Visit Campus

Many places look great on paper or online, but there are important aspects of any campus experience that can only be contextualized by visiting campus. If you have the financial means to do so, visit your potential school’s campus (and if visiting presents a financial hurdle to you, consider applying to some fly-in programs).

 

Stay overnight if you can, eat in the dining halls, sit in on classes, talk to professors, and go to student group meetings — get the full experience to the extent that you’re able!

 

6. Talk to Real Students

When you do visit campus, be sure to write down your questions and concerns about the school and talk to real students there. Offer to buy them coffee or lunch, and the chances are they’ll be happy to talk about their experience there.

 

Make sure that the perspective you’re getting is an honest, uncensored one — this might mean taking into consideration the biases of student reps at admissions events that are trained to represent the best of a given school.

 

7. Give Yourself Room to Change Your Mind

Maybe you’ve had it in your head that you’ve wanted to attend a certain school since you were 5 years old, but (luckily) you’re not a kid anymore. Things have changed, and chances are you’ve changed as well. It might be hard to put the fantasy you’ve had for so long to rest, but often students find that by letting go of the plans they made for themselves when they were younger, they’re able to grow into a more mature and realistic version of themselves.

 

Sometimes, the fantasy and the reality overlap, and that’s great! Just make sure you’re looking at everything from a complex viewpoint rather than through the rose-colored glasses of your younger days.

 

Final Thoughts

Choosing a school is stressful, and working through these hard questions that deal with your identity and your future can be really scary. But if you can, try to think of it as a good thing! You’re doing the hard work now to ensure that you have a good experience for the next four years — kind of like studying each night for a test so that you’ll ace it rather than cramming everything in last minute and showing up to class unprepared.

 

For more tips on choosing the right college for you, take a look at these CollegeVine posts:

 

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Devin Barricklow

Devin Barricklow

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).
Devin Barricklow