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  • Michelle Silbernagel

College Priorities: The Key to A Great College List

Updated: Jul 24

Part 2 of the College Research Series

Questions to Ask After Why?


Part 1 of the College Research Series encourages students to find their Why before they dive into researching their college list. Knowing Why College? gives students clarity and direction for the next step - identifying their college priorities.


College priorities are the key characteristics that will make the colleges on a student’s list a good match for them. The colleges that meet a student's top priorities are places where they will most likely thrive and succeed (and be less likely to transfer).


Most teens skim the surface when considering college characteristics. They look at geographic location, college size, or academic programs. But there are many other academic, cultural, geographic, and financial factors to consider, which students may miss simply because they haven't taken the time to think about them. They aren't sure what questions to ask. College priorities are revealed when students ask themselves questions that get to the heart of, “What do I hope to get out of my college experience, both during and after?”


Here are some questions that go beyond the typical big school vs small school or public vs private dichotomy and will encourage your teen to dig a little deeper into their academic, social/cultural, geographical and financial priorities. This is not an exhaustive list of questions; rather the list is designed to get your teen thinking beyond priorities such as “A Pac 10 college,” so that they can build a college list that will give them several enriching options.


At the end of the article, I’ll share a tool that will help your teen quickly sort and keep track of their priorities. I find students tend to get the most benefit from this tool after they have asked themselves the following questions.

Questions to help you figure out your College Priorities

The tricky thing about priorities is that they can be hard to pin down when thinking about a future you’ve yet to experience. You can begin by using your current experiences as a guide. Think about what you have and haven’t found important, rewarding, and helpful in your high school experience.


Academic Priorities: How have you done your best learning? Sometimes teens are asked, “Do you want small classes or big classes?” But the better questions drill down on how you learn best. Some colleges are known for one style of learning over another, but many combine learning styles. The best-match colleges for you should give you lots of opportunities to love what you’re learning and how you’re learning it, whether that is small, discussion-based setting; large lecture-style learning, experiential hands-on learning or a hybrid of options. Think about the times in high school when you felt like you were really “in the flow.” Not just the times you got the highest grades, but when you were excited about what you were learning. Was it a particular subject? Was it because the teacher was great? Was it because it involved projects, competition with other students, or a lot of class discussions? How has the current remote learning been going for you? Do you miss interpersonal engagement? Or do you love the independence and sense of autonomy? What has gone well and what has been a struggle? Use this information as you research colleges, their core curriculums, and teaching methods. Your answers to these questions can tell you a lot about what you might like to study, whether or not it’s important that you like the teacher, and how much academic freedom you’ll want. Academic Priorities: What would you like to learn more about?

You may not be ready to answer the “What do you want to major in?” question. Instead, think about “What would you like to learn more about?” Are you all science, all day? Or do you gravitate toward history? This is a definite clue to the type of college you’ll want on your list. Or maybe you love psychology and math. Look for a college that encourages interdisciplinary studies -- breadth and depth. Many colleges have “core curriculums” that go beyond general education graduation requirements of math, science, humanities, etc. Some may require philosophy or religion courses. Some require a foreign language (not just for admissions but as a graduation requirement). Pay attention to these requirements when you research colleges and consider how open you are to fulfilling them in your coursework.

Academic Priorities: How hard do you want to work academically?

Do you thrive on constant academic challenge? Does competition with your peers motivate you? Or do you want to have a balance between your social and academic life? When you’re researching schools, pay attention to what the students say about their experiences. Check out Niche.com or simply ask students when visiting campus -- How many hours would you say you study on average a week? How would you describe the academic culture? Academic Priorities: Do you have specific career goals?

Don’t worry if you are uncertain. But if you already have a future career in mind, it should probably be a priority when exploring colleges. But, remember to look beyond what the rankings for that major (don’t just search for “best business school, West coast), or you may miss out on some hidden gems. Do a little career research and find out where people who are successful in your area of interest went to college and what they studied. You might be surprised by what you find. For example, Google and Apple employ more graduates from San Jose State than they do from Berkeley, UCLA, or MIT. Is a pre-professional program or graduate school in your future? You’ll want to be sure colleges on your list provide advising in those areas and check out their placement rates. Social Priorities: What would you like to do on a Tuesday night in college?

Many students will look into the clubs a college offers in order to get a sense of how the college fits with their social interests. This certainly answers the “What activities do you want to do in college?” But asking questions like "What do you do on a Tuesday night?" will give insight into things like the types of students you want to be around (intellectual, outgoing, conservative), campus type and location (residential, rural, metropolitan), campus culture (Greek life, sports, etc.). Answers like, “Play pickup basketball,” “Debate current events over coffee with friends,” “Play Xbox with my roommates,” “Go into the city for a show,” “Build a voice-controlled robot,” all paint a different campus culture picture. Think about how comfortable you are with the idea of students drinking and doing other things they may not tell their parents about. With the exception of military academies and strict religious colleges, most colleges have some degree of a party culture. Think about how much of a presence you’d feel comfortable with. Compared to high school, college life is highly unstructured. You’ll spend just a few hours in class a day. The rest of the time, you’ll be living your life on (or off) campus with your peers. Think about what you’d like to do in your free time and look for opportunities that match.

Social Priorities: What are your current interests outside of school?

Which of your extracurricular activities have been most important to you? Will you want to continue them in college? Are there others you’ve always wanted to explore? Maybe you have danced for years, and while you may not want to major in dance, dancing makes you happy. Finding a college with dance options either through clubs or courses will be important.

Social Priorities: Do you want to be with students who are like you or different from you?

Think in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, and political and religious beliefs. How would you characterize the community where you live now? Do you want to be exposed to more or different diversity? Some colleges are a lot more diverse than others. The activities and interests of the students give the campus a certain vibe (conservative, religious, progressive, etc.). It's a good idea to consider ahead of time what vibe you are looking for and whether or not you want to be with people who may be very different from you. Think about - Who are my friends? Do I want my relationships in college to be similar or different? College can be a chance to live in a place very different from where you live now in terms of cultural, political, and socio-economic diversity. But it’s important to consider how far out of your comfort zone you are willing to go. For some teens expanding horizons is a goal, others just want to fit in. This article provides some tips on how to research a campus culture virtually.

Geographic Priorities: Do you want to be in a place that’s different or similar to where you live now? It can be a shock for a PNW kid to suddenly be immersed in the far South - both in terms of culture and climate. Even the Midwest’s wide-open skies can be a big change -- for some a welcome one, for others, the sky may just be too big (a comment I heard from one teen who ended up transferring back home after a year in Colorado). Financial Priorities: What can my family afford? While last in this list of considerations, it is certainly not least. What’s your family’s college budget? How much can, and should you pay for college? Before you begin picking college possibilities, it is a good idea to have a candid conversation with your parents about finances. There is nothing so disheartening as being accepted to some colleges that match all your priorities only to realize they are out of financial reach. Some parents may be reluctant to discuss finances with their kids, but it’s important for everyone to be on the same page about what is feasible from the beginning -- even if it’s in terms of “round numbers.” Ask for a ballpark figure and be sure to consider the total cost of attendance (room and board, expenses, travel ) not just the cost of tuition. For more guidance on how to have this conversation and what to consider, refer to this article.

If you are still reading, congratulations! You now have put more thought into what will make a college a good fit for you than many of your peers. As a reward, I will share with you a great free tool to help you keep track of these priorities. It will also help you identify other characteristics important to you. Head over to Corsava to create a free, student account and then do the virtual card sort that will help you discover the rest of your college priorities. When you're done, you will have a sorted list of your top college priorities in terms of academics, campus, and educational culture, extracurriculars, residential life, student resources, and geography that you can save, share and refer back to.


If you are the sort of person that really enjoys self-reflection and reflection, take a look at these self-surveys developed by Dr. Steven Antonoff, a renowned college advisor and author.

My two favorites are the Self-Survey for the College-Bound Student (tip, if you do the online version, you will receive an email that summarizes the results for you) and the Qualities that will make a college right for you worksheet.


With your college priorities clearly defined you will know what to look for and what questions to ask as your research the colleges for your list. There are more than 3,000 colleges to choose from. Remember, your goal is not to find the "best" college for you, but to create a list of 5-12 colleges where you will be happy and successful.


Up Next: Part 3 in the College Research Series: Five Steps to Building a Great College List


Source: This article over at CollegeXpress (one of my favorite college search resources) provided the inspiration for a couple of the questions posted here, which I iterated and expanded upon with additional context.

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