Choosing A Liberal Arts College
You should start considering which liberal arts college you would like to attend no later than May of your junior year in high school. Between your parents, your school counselor, your friends and through your own knowledge and research, you should have a decent list of potential colleges to choose from. In June, its time to start researching each and every one of the schools on this list and assessing their curriculum.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Not all liberal arts colleges are created equal and you want to make sure the liberal arts college you choose isnt weak in the areas that are of most importance to you. For instance, if you want to study music, you dont want to attend a liberal arts college with a strong science program but a sub-par music offering. Because of this, its important to discover the strengths and weaknesses of each liberal arts college on your list.
Many students who decide to attend a liberal arts college prefer a lower student/teacher ratio. However, it is important to remember that while many liberal arts colleges provide smaller class sizes, not all do. When researching liberal arts colleges, research the average student/teacher ratio offered by the colleges you are interested in. If any of them do not meet your requirements, you can cross them off your list.
Phi Beta Kappa
Another way to judge the academic excellence of a liberal arts college is by looking into whether or not the college has been granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Phi Beta Kappa is the countrys oldest academic honor society. If a college has been granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, it means that it has met the societys stringent academic standards. A schools eligibility for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter is determined by the number of faculty members who hold doctorate degrees, how many members of the faculty are Phi Beta Kappa members, the number of volumes in the schools library and a number of other academic factors.
A Phi Beta Kappa chapter is not easy for an educational institution to obtain. There are more than four-thousand colleges and universities in the United States and less than 7-percent of them have been granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. If a college you are considering has a Phi Beta Kappa Chapter, you can be sure that it is an institution of excellence.
A colleges graduation rate is another excellent way of assessing how good the school is. If a school has an unusually low graduation rate, you may want to rethink your decision of attending that particular college. A colleges admission office should be able to provide you with information regarding the schools graduation rate.
Proportion of B.A. Degrees
Another way to evaluate a liberal arts college is by looking at how many of the students who graduate from the college receive B.A. degrees. Many people believe that the higher the percentage of B.A. degrees issued at a liberal arts college, the more focused the school is on the liberal arts and the better the school is as a liberal arts institution in general. For instance, if a liberal arts college awards a large percentage of B.B.A. degrees or a high number of Bachelors of Music degrees, the school may not be as focused on the liberal arts as you would like it to be. Some of the best liberal arts colleges have a B.A. percentage of seventy or higher.
Research the Moodys Rating
Moodys is an investors service that provides ratings on a number of institutions. To get a Moodys rating of A or better, an institution has to have a solid financial standing and a healthy budget. While a colleges Moodys rating cannot give you insight as to the educational excellence of a school, it can shed light on the schools financial health. A school with a better Moodys rating may have more resources, better facilities and newer equipment due to the schools financial health. You can research the Moodys rating of the colleges youre interesting in attending by visiting the Moodys website at www.moodys.com.
College rankings are a highly-controversial subject. A schools ranking cannot be used to effectively evaluate the merit of a school (or lack thereof) due to the fact that what the ranking system deems as being important may not be important to you, and vice versa. For example, the formula U.S. News uses to determine a schools rank gives the greatest weight (twenty-five percent) to peer assessments. This means that the biggest factor in determining where a school ranks in the report is based on the opinions of staff members at peer schools. However, per-student spending is only weighted at ten percent in their formula. Because per-student spending usually indicates how many resources and programs are available to students, you may care more about how a school rates in this area than what other schools think of the college in question. Because of this, a ranking system may give a school a very high rank, while you might place that school at the bottom of your list.
Another thing to consider is that rankings can often exaggerate insignificant statistical differences. For example, if four different schools have very close scores, the fourth one will have a lower rank than the first one, even though the actual differences between the schools are almost nonexistent.
As you can see, whether a school places first or last shouldnt be your main concern when looking at college ranking reports. That being said, there are indeed some useful facts you can glean from the report we are discussing in this section.
Each and every year, U.S. News publishes their report ranking Americas best colleges. This annual report has a separate list of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. The report gives information as to the schools graduation and retention ranks, average freshman retention ranks, the percentage of a schools classes with fewer than 20 students, the percentage of a schools classes with more than 50 students, the percentage of faculty who work at the school full time, the schools acceptance rank, and other valuable information.
Where a school ranks on this list should not be used to determine whether or not the school is a good educational institution. The report can, however, provide you with valuable research information, such as the data we mentioned above. By looking at the research data the report provides, you can glean some very valuable knowledge about a school you may be interested in.
Make A Few Trips
While educational excellence, curricular strengths and graduation rates all play an important role in your college decision, you also need to make sure youll be comfortable at the college you attend. This means making sure the environment at the school is a good match for your needs and your personality.
Once you have your choice of schools narrowed down to four or five, make a few visits to each of the schools and make arrangements to spend a day or two at each one of them. Talk to the students on campus and get the scoop on what its really like to live and go to school there.
A schools students can be a very valuable source of information when it comes to researching which college you should attend. For instance, if you love to study and the students you talk to keep telling you about the great parties that are thrown at every dorm on campus, you may want to choose a quieter school. On the other hand, if you love to have a good time and the most exciting thing the students you talk to mention is the championship chess club, you probably need a more casual and laid back environment.
Once youve determined which schools you seriously want to consider, its time to narrow down the list. An easy way to do this is to considering what area of the country youd like to live in. If you want to stay within a few-hours drive of home or if you want to be on the opposite end of the country from where you grew up, youll have immediately narrowed down your selection of liberal arts colleges to choose from.
When choosing a location, you should also consider what type of climate you prefer and what type of weather you can endure. If you absolutely hate the cold and need to be in the sun, youre going to want to stay away from areas with harsh winters like Chicago and Madison. On the other hand, if you dont mind winter weather but just cant take the heat, colleges in Arizona or Texas probably shouldnt make it onto your list of schools to choose from. The climate of an area can also affect which athletic programs youll have available to you. For instance, if youre serious about cross-country skiing, a school in Louisiana isnt going to serve your needs.
Cost of Living
Cost of living is another important factor to consider. You can live a lot cheaper in Milwaukee, Wisconsin than you can in Los Angeles, California. Make sure you keep your eye on locations that can accommodate your budgetary needs.
If youre not going to have your own personal transportation when attending college, you need to be located in an urban area with various means of public transportation. If you head out to a rural college campus without a car, youre going to have to rely on friends for rides or youll be stuck in your dorm or apartment everyday. While it may not seem like a critical decision-making factor at first, transportation is an important thing to consider when deciding which school youd like to go to.
Meeting the Criteria
By August, when you are entering your senior year of high school, you should have a pretty good idea of where you want to go to school and you should have your top choices narrowed down and picked out. It is now time to categorize these choices into safeties, likelies, and reaches. To determine which categories the schools on your list are going to fall into, you will need the admission requirements for each of the schools on your list. Once you have this information, categorize the schools according to the following information.
Safeties are colleges that you shouldnt have any problem getting into. For instance, if you readily meet or exceed a schools admission criteria (e.g., scoring higher than the average GPA or SAT of accepted students there), you will want to add that school to your safeties list since the chances of you getting in are strong.
Likelies are colleges that you determine you are likely to get into when comparing your qualifications to their admission criteria, but youre not absolutely positive you will make the cut.
Reaches are colleges that you may be able to get into, but its probably not likely. If youre lucky, you wont have many reaches on your list.
While youre questioning the colleges admissions office regarding their admission criteria and requirements, ask them if they accept the Common Application. If they dont, request that they send you a copy of their application in the mail.
During the process of contacting colleges to inquire about admission criteria, you may be surprised to find out that some colleges dont want to see your SAT scores. In high school, emphasis has historically been placed on getting great SAT scores and because of this, students naturally think SAT scores are the key to getting into the college of their dreams. When some of these students apply to a liberal arts college that doesnt even look at SAT scores, they are more than just a little befuddled.
If you think its rare for colleges to exclude SAT scores from their admission criteria, you should really think again. Remember when we talked about that list of top liberal arts colleges published by U.S. News? According to Robert A. Schaeffer of FairTest, twenty-four of the top-100 schools on that list no longer require SAT scores for admission purposes.
What Rules Do They Play By?
When it comes to whether or not to accept any particular student, there is no standard set of criteria that all schools uniformly follow. Each college establishes their own criteria, although almost all schools look at grades, interests, accomplishments and extra-curricular activities in addition to involvement in school and the community. Before applying to a college, make sure you are familiar with the admission criteria the college adheres to. You can usually get this information directly from the admissions office.
When youre ready to send in applications, apply to at least three or four of your top college choices, even if you meet the criteria for every one of them. There is no guarantee youll get into the college thats first on your list, especially if there are hordes of students competing to get into the school.
When to Apply
So now you know which schools you want to apply to but do you know when youre supposed to apply?
Traditionally, you should really start filling out your college applications during the fall of your senior year and make sure youve sent all applications in no later than the end of your winter break. At that time, youll also want to complete the FASFA application if youre going to need financial assistance to help with your educational expenses, which brings us to our next topic.
By now you have your list of potential colleges narrowed down to just a few and its time to focus on money.
Without questions, college costs can be very high. The good news is in the case of a college education when theres a will, theres usually a way.
Start researching the costs involved with attending of each of the schools on your list. This step of the process isnt really an elimination step, but rather a research step. If the college on the top of your list is also the cheapest, youre in good shape. However, that isnt always the way it happens.
Once you know how much it costs to attend the colleges of your choice, compare the costs of those colleges with the funds you have available. If you dont have enough money available to cover the costs of that school, contact the school and inquire about financial assistance opportunities. There are literally thousands of financial opportunities for students who are serious about their college education.
To get information on financial assistance and government grants, visit FAFSA.ed.gov and Ed.gov.
Between your own funds, financial assistance, scholarship opportunities and student loans, getting the money you need for a good college education is definitely possible.
While selecting the right liberal arts college will take dedication, time and research, it is very important to thoroughly examine all of your available options. The choice of which college to attend is a decision that will impact the rest of your life. By carefully looking at the different aspects of each college you are interested in, you can make sure your final decision is the right one.
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