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Criteria to Consider When Thinking About Colleges

There are several factors involved when choosing colleges to which to apply. It is best to make a priority list of the factors you want a college to have. With more than 3,000 schools to choose from, there will be several colleges that match your criteria. In the beginning of your search, be specific about what you want but also open to the possibilities. Challenge yourself to learn about colleges you may never have heard of before.
Go through the following characteristics and think about those factors that are important to you. Then use those factors to judge a college's desirability.
Size: very small (under 1,000) vs. small (1,000–2,500) vs. medium (2,500–10,000) vs. large (10,000–20,000) vs. very large (20,000+)
  • Very small and small: These schools typically offer a very personalized education, usually greater contact with professors, fewer, if any graduate students, less diversity, fewer majors and activities, but many times a better opportunity to utilize facilities. There may be a greater opportunity to play sports (usually Division II or III in athletics and sometimes NAIA).
  • Medium: These colleges can sometimes offer the best of both worlds: large enough to have the necessary courses and diversity of students but small enough for a personalized education. Classes can still be as large as 100 students; can be Division I, II, or III in athletics.
  • Large and very large: Such schools can usually offer more majors, a greater variety of courses and activities, larger libraries, more student facilities, larger classes, and usually more bureaucracy. Graduate programs can sometimes take away from professors’ time and availability. Always Division I in athletics.
Two-year vs. four-year
Most students leaving MA will choose a four-year college. However, a two-year school can sometimes be a smart alternative. Two-year schools are less expensive. They typically offer more flexibility. California community colleges can be a smart stepping stone to the UC system if this isn’t a viable option after MA. There are over 100 community colleges that will accept all students who have received a high school diploma or the equivalent.
Public vs. Private vs. Religiously-Affiliated
  • Public schools tend to be less expensive, particularly in California. However, public universities are larger and can be subject to funding shortfalls because of their dependence on state financing. Some very strong out of state public schools include University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, and University of Texas.
  • Private schools are typically smaller, more expensive, and vary widely from one another.
  • Religiously-affiliated schools vary widely in their missions and student bodies. Some, like the Jesuit colleges and universities, can offer great opportunities and are not quite as conservative as some assume.
Liberal Arts vs. Pre-professional/Career Training
  • Liberal arts colleges are best for exploration during the college years and allow greater freedom of choice in your studies.
  • Pre-professional programs are best suited to those students who are very focused on what they want to pursue as a career. 
Semester System vs. Quarter System vs. Alternative Calendars
The calendar is how the school chooses the time it operates throughout the year. MA is on a semester calendar and has two grading periods: one in the fall and one in the spring. The calendar can influence how often you are able to return home, what programs that are offered, and breadth of time with course content.
Research-oriented vs. Teaching-oriented
This is basically related to the size of the institution. If you want a college with an MA feel, a teaching-oriented school is the place for you. However, many smaller schools are offering more research opportunities for their students.
Required Core/Distribution Curriculum vs. Open Curriculum
Many MA students want schools with an open curriculum that allows for greater choice in a student’s course selection. However, remember that core curriculua can expose you to subjects you may never have thought you could enjoy. Often times they can force you to explore other areas of interests. If you are uncertain about this area, speak with your college counselor.
Lecture Classes vs. Discussion Seminars
This is related very closely to the previous characteristics. Again, think about what type of classroom environment you will be most comfortable with.
  • Proximity to home vs. a chance to see another part of the country
  • Urban vs. suburban vs. rural
  • A dramatic change of seasons vs. typical California weather
  • Don’t forget that going away from home can be more expensive, you will initially feel homesick, and there is less opportunity to get home. But this might be the best chance to experience a different place with different people.
Student Body Type
  • Greek-dominated social scene vs. dorm-oriented
  • Exclusively undergraduate vs. graduate intensive
  • Predominantly commuter vs. residential
  • Coeducational vs. single sex vs. predominantly male or female
  • Politically and socially liberal vs. middle-of-the-road vs. conservative
  • Academically curious vs. career driven vs. party-oriented
  • Team sports oriented vs. recreation-sports oriented vs. nonathletic
This is important for two reasons. The first is whether or not you can realistically be admitted. The other is, once admitted, can you handle the curriculum and the competitiveness of the student body?
In addition to the previous options, students should also consider:
  • Availability of internships
  • Foreign study opportunities
  • Joint degree programs
  • Campus facilities (especially in regard to academic interests)
  • Costs
  • College retention rates
  • Faculty accessibility and qualifications
  • Prominent campus organizations