When you’re looking at colleges and compiling the list of schools you want to apply to, it seems like just about everyone has an opinion. Your aunt went to Miami back in the day and says it’s a party school, but your cousin just graduated with an engineering degree and begs to differ. Your dentist says Wesleyan is full of hippies and that Yale is for theater kids, but your piano teacher points to the number of alumni in banking and claims that both schools have gone full-on corporate.
It’s enough to make your head spin. Before you can even begin to worry about perfecting your college applications, you have to decide where to apply, and the circulation of all these differing opinions can make that process a daunting one. So what’s a high school senior (or junior) to do?
First, it’s helpful to take a step back and understand why the people in your life feel compelled to spout their opinions at every turn, whether prompted or not. People form snap judgments–it’s kind of just what we do. Always remember that everyone you talk to–even a recent alumnus!–has only a biased and limited perspective. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, necessarily. It just means that they’re right in terms of their own experience, which may or may not be helpful or relevant to your own case.
Your dentist who bemoaned hipsterdom at Wesleyan may be basing his opinion off of no more than a couple of encounters, and your aunt might be selectively remembering all of the frat parties she went to a couple decades ago while conveniently leaving out all of the late nights spent in the library. No one perspective should be considered doctrine, and it’s likely that people think they’re helping you out by providing their insight–even when in actuality they’re just confusing you further.
Now that you understand a bit more about where these opinions are coming from, you need to figure out what to do with them. First of all, we don’t recommend that you stop soliciting opinions from people who have firsthand experience with the institutions you’re interested in. The key is to be smart about your sources. Instead of taking the mailman’s advice to heart, consider investing in a book like the Fiske Guide to Colleges (#notanad). These types of books include snapshots of around 500 different schools, and each profile includes many quotes from current students. Use email to reach out to additional students or recent alumni if you still have questions. And try to schedule at least a few campus visits, if possible. These visits, while rarely a factor in elite college admissions, are a great help to you when it comes to deciding which schools to prioritize during application season.
Keep in mind that almost all colleges are far bigger than almost all high schools, so the social and academic stereotypes, no matter how pervasive, are only generalizations. Even the most intensely fratty school has a subset of undergraduates holed up in the library on Friday nights, just as even UChicago has parties. (Sorry, UChicago, you know we love you.)
At the end of the day, remember that you’re the one going to college–not your mom, or your sister, or the neighbor down the street who is convinced that an earthquake will swallow Stanford’s campus whole in the next few years. This process is a huge step towards asserting your independence as a real adult human being, so we encourage you to take ownership of it and advocate for your needs and interests as much as you can.