“Institutional priorities” is the fancy-schmancy way of explaining why an admissions officer may choose an All-State oboe player with a 3.6 GPA over a champion chess player with a 3.8 GPA. Quite simply, the college may be looking to maintain its distinction as having one of the most prestigious college symphonies in the country, and their last oboe player is graduating. This same college may be perfectly fine with its chess club finishing in the middle of the pack at most competitions. If a college introduces a new major we can assume they want students to come to their school for that area of study; otherwise, it’s difficult to know if what a student has to offer is what the college needs in any given year. My advice is this: Do not even try to figure it out. Instead, create your own list of priorities.
When I meet with families, we talk about finding several schools with an appropriate academic, financial, and social fit. Of course, what this means exactly can get a little fuzzy and even I find myself swayed by anecdotes and slick websites—so I’m offering a list of questions here that may help you determine your family’s higher education priorities. It’s far from exhaustive, but it’s a start.
What are your academic interests? Since many students enter college undecided or likely to change majors, be sure you have the option to explore without having to transfer later.
Is your main motivation for attending college to gain knowledge, think deep thoughts, develop a purpose, and learn transferable skills or is it to be prepared for a specific career path upon graduation? In other words, are you okay with spending money for a class called “The Coen Brothers as Postmodern Auteurs” rather than “Pathophysiology/Pharmacology in Nursing 1”? There is no right answer here, but it’s an important distinction.
What is your comfort level with challenge? Do you learn best when you are the star in the classroom, or do you crave intellectual challenges from your peers? When it comes time to decide between attending a “match” school versus a “reach” school, your answer to this question will help you make that decision.
What is your family able to—and what are they willing to—pay for college? Everyone in the family needs to be on the same page here, and the only way to do this is to sit down and share the details. Discuss your personal borrowing limits on loans.
Have you made your best effort to qualify for the Florida Bright Futures scholarship, by getting good grades, preparing for standardized tests, and participating in community service? The tuition at our Florida public universities is among the lowest in the nation, but adding the Bright Futures scholarship is even sweeter.
Are you willing to consider a lesser-known school if they offer you significant merit scholarships? I know students attending colleges out of state for less than the total cost of attendance at a Florida public university.
How far away do you want to be from your family? A day’s drive? A short non-stop flight? It’s okay to still want to be close enough to see your younger siblings regularly and it’s also okay to want to experience life in a different area of the country or world.
What support do you need to practice your religion, to maintain your physical and mental health, and to continue activities important to you? Colleges understand they are providing more than classes for you to take, and what colleges offer beyond that vary—and only you know what else you need. Have others with your religious or ethnic background historically been welcomed on campus? If you need to speak with a health professional, how soon can you make an appointment at the clinic? If you enjoy attending sporting events and parties, will you find plenty of others who do too?
Who do you want to be and how will the college help you become that person? Are you seeking a diverse set of peers (racially, culturally, socioeconomically, geographically) to learn from? Colleges are more homogeneous than you might expect, so check out the stats. Is there something you have always wanted to try but have not had the time or opportunity? Not every college offers fire spinning or marching band spots for cellists, but for those that do, it’s a big deal on campus. Are you looking for a place where you can take risks, your high school image won’t get in the way, and your courage will be celebrated?
Heading into the college application process armed with your own set of priorities will allow you to select a college based on what matters to you. And chances are, with your priorities clearly identified, more than one college will recognize you are a perfect fit for them!