The process of putting together and then narrowing down a college list is going to look different for everyone, and it will really depend on what you want your college experience to look like. So, the first step is definitely going to be reflecting and thinking about your priorities and goals within a few different categories. Generally, I think the criteria can be broken down into the categories of academics, opportunities, and culture, and the ideal outcome in each of these is going to be entirely dependent on what you specifically are looking for in terms of those three aspects. Some of the concepts that were important to me were also somewhat abstract and difficult to evaluate (especially without visiting or being in contact with students), but there were still a few ways to anticipate what college might be like. It was a bit intimidating to find a starting point, so I started with the one criteria that doesn’t fit well into any of the categories.
One thing about me is that I am always cold. I knew that if I went to a college in a colder climate, I would leave my room for class, but that’s about it. To make sure I made the most of my time and fully engaged with all of the student activities available, I really wanted to be somewhere warm! I also didn’t want to go too far away from home, so I focused mostly on schools on the West coast. My college list started with the Google search “best schools for biology in California,” which I later extended to other warm states (New Mexico, Arizona, etc.), which seemed as good a place to start as any! I filled my list out with a few more of the top, well known schools to give myself a few more Reach options, and then it was time to apply the categories mentioned above, starting with academics.
I was very much looking for a challenging academic curriculum, which is relatively easy to get a sense of from college-ranking websites. It took a little bit more work to find out which programs were compatible with my interests and goals. For this, I spent some time browsing the catalogs to see which majors were available and how excited I was for the curriculum and required classes. For me personally, I knew I was interested in biology, but I didn’t want to commit prematurely to an overly specific course of study. So, I was specifically looking for programs that were relatively broad while still giving a good foundation for a more advanced degree down the line. This took some schools off my list, as they either didn’t offer much variety in biology or there was very little potential to change programs and explore other subsets once a track had been chosen. I also looked at the career outcomes for each school, noting the 4 year graduation rate and the typical annual income after completing a degree. In this area, reputation was also a consideration for me. As I intend to go on to complete a PhD, most of the advice I received emphasized the value of the university name. However, because my main priority during my undergraduate degree is to study and learn, I focused heavily on rigor and program compatibility. Once I had narrowed my list to institutions where my academic goals could be satisfied (also including the framework of Safety, Target, and Reach schools described by the College Board), I started looking into extracurricular opportunities that could add to my education and experience.
Outside of classes, I had a few very specific things in mind. First of all, I knew that in the field of biology, especially in pursuing a career in research, accessing undergraduate research opportunities needed to be a priority. To evaluate my options, I tried to find information about research programs offered to undergraduates and the percentages of students who participate in research. I attended various webinars to learn more about it and looked up some of the faculty at each institution to see which projects excited me the most. I also looked into the availability of study abroad and other programs that seemed interesting, making note of them on my spreadsheet. I glanced briefly at the clubs available, but since there was one in particular I was set on participating in, I knew that I would either join if it was there, or start it myself if it wasn’t available, So, this was not as much of a concern. Personally, this was an area where I was very open to exploring what was available as long as research and study abroad were possible, so I focused mainly on those programs with an intent to explore additional options once I made the final decision and committed. This narrowed it down a bit, but the most important factor was honestly the social aspect.
Socially, I knew I did not want to go to a party school. The scene and the crowd that tends to be drawn to it is just not appealing to me. I was looking for an environment where Greek Life was minimal or absent, or at the very least, easy to avoid. As such, I would not have enjoyed a student experience where social events centered around sports and partying, and I wanted to be in an environment where my peers and the institution shared the mindset of academics being the main priority. Even with incredible academic programs and cutting edge research, this was the aspect of Caltech that appealed to me the most. I distinctly remember watching a video about the Dabney Pumpkin Drop and thinking, “These are my people! If their idea of fun is freezing pumpkins in liquid nitrogen and dropping them off a roof (instead of the typical college parties), that sounds awesome, I will fit right in!” which was a very exciting concept. Due to the timing of my college decision, I was heavily reliant on YouTube videos to gauge student culture. In watching these, I was really drawn to the seemingly unanimous opinion among current students that the people and social environment at Caltech are the best thing about it. I felt confident that I would be able to find my people and feel a genuine sense of belonging, which was one of my main priorities in my college experience. This was ultimately the deciding factor in the final evaluation of my college list.
It is important to note that this was my thought process for creating and narrowing down my list of schools. Yours may not look similar at all, but seeing an example of a possible flow might still be helpful. Keep in mind not only what you want your experience to look like for the four years of undergraduate studies, but also the end goal. Having a comprehensive idea of what your personal priorities are and what you’re looking for will help ensure that you check as many of your boxes as possible.