Choosing a college is a big decision with substantial consequences for your intellectual development and life. If you attend the local public school, chances are your counselor has given you very limited information about your options. The decision shouldn't be between the Ivy League, the top state college, and the local unprestigious college. The truth is that within the United States we have a tremendous number of unique colleges to choose from. If you want the best shot at enjoying your college experience, it is imperative that you research the heck out of these schools until you find a handful that really feel like the right fit.
To help you in your college search, I've compiled a short list of key resources that will help you enormously if you treat them with seriousness.
Before you do the first Google search on colleges you need to spend some serious time thinking about the big questions of life. If you go into college thinking that this is the automatic next step after high school or that this is what people need to do in order to be successful, you're setting yourself up for a life crisis down the road. Do yourself a big favor and invest the time in reading the following wise words of William Deresiewicz:
What Are You Going to Do With That? (Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct 2010)
Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The nation's top colleges are turning your kids into zombies (New Republic, Jul 2014)
Remember when I mentioned the myriad of college options we have here in the United States? Here's a taste of what I was referring to:
The 50 Best Colleges for Not-Traditional Students (BestCollegesOnline.com, Jun 2012)
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There's a big secret in the world of higher education: The Ivy League is not the best place to get a college education. There are two false assumptions about college quality that are especially widespread:
The more difficult it is to get into a college, the better the college.
The more accomplished the faculty, the better the teaching.
Pity on those who heed the above two myths. Low college acceptance rates are driven by a self-perpetuating phenomenon: Students and parents believe that the hardest schools to get into are the best, so more and more students apply to those schools, in turn driving down the acceptance rates further.
The second myth is a sinister one. It seems like common sense that the most accomplished faculty members would make the best teachers, but in reality this is not the case at all. The world's top scholars are attracted to the world's top places to do research, so they end up in prestigious universities, such as Harvard, University of Chicago, and UC Berkeley. The problem for undergraduate students is that these top scholars generally view their teaching responsibilities as an unfortunate obligation to minimize as much as possible. They're at Harvard to further their research, not to teach. You might be thinking: "Well then why don't the college administrators place more emphasis on teaching quality in their hiring?" Well the fact is that the Deans and Presidents don't really do the hiring. For the most part they let each academic department determine which faculty candidates they'd like the university to hire and then the Dean just rubber stamps their choice. Now as for the criteria existing faculty use when evaluating candidates, they're looking for promising colleagues with common interests and interesting ideas. The question of teaching ability will rarely cross their minds.
Now that I've explained the two most significant false assumptions, I need to tell you about the two most significant ignored factors: class size and teaching method. Most of the well-known universities are large institutions dominated by large lecture-based classes. Classes might calm down in size in your junior and senior year when you're taking mainly upper division classes, but during those first two years you will be going from stadium to stadium listening to lecture after lecture. You will in addition have discussion-section classes, where a teacher's assistant (graduate student) will attempt to facilitate a discussion with a smaller group of students about the topics discussed in the lectures. If you have any questions about the class or your grade, you will be encouraged to discuss this with your assigned teacher's assistant. If you want to speak to your actual professor, it's not impossible, but it's generally quite difficult in this sort of school environment.
At this time you're probably wondering about the alternative to all of this. I'm happy to inform you that there indeed are terrific alternatives to the conventional university model. These schools generally fall under the category of liberal arts colleges, though there are some deserving institutions not categorized as such. The following links will serve as an excellent guide to colleges and universities that put teaching first:
U.S. News National Liberal Arts College Rankings (FYI: Ignore the actual rankings)
U.S. News Best Undergraduate Teaching: National Liberal Arts Colleges
Fiske Guide to Colleges (FYI: You don't need the latest edition. Not much changes in a year)