How to Choose a College If You’ve Never Visited One

For some students, the college application and admissions season is filled with family college road trips, school-sponsored tours, and overnight stays with current students. Many high school seniors consider these experiences to be the most valuable resource in finalizing college decisions. I, on the other hand, never set foot on campus until freshman orientation. Coming from Hawaii, college tours on the mainland simply weren’t feasible when Google searches were much cheaper and quicker than crossing the Pacific Ocean. The summer before my senior year, I was tasked with narrowing down a list of 50 schools that I knew little about other than the recommendations from my peers, relatives, and college counselor. My only tools were a laptop and a Word doc.

I set up my workstation in bed—two pillows to prop up my head, charger on hand, the few college brochures that I hadn’t thrown away, and a bowl of popcorn—and began my quest. I started with the more scientific college search engine provided to me by my college counselor, but quickly devolved into Google searches of “best liberal arts colleges,” “best small east coast colleges,” and “best colleges for English majors.” I spent hours wandering among arbitrary rankings of schools before realizing that this vague notion of “best” when comparing colleges simply didn’t exist. Google could not tell me which college was the best, let alone the best for me.

image source: U.S. News and World Report

I’m assuming most high schoolers have heard that you should choose a college that will be a “good fit.” For me, that meant a small liberal arts school on the east coast (as a baseline requirement). Unfortunately, these specifications did not narrow down my search very much, because there are a lot of small liberal arts schools on the east coast, and most of their Google images feature pretty brick buildings, autumn foliage, and well-manicured lawns. Even once I had gathered some semblance of a list of what I considered to be the most rigorous schools, further research didn’t always help distinguish one school from another, and soon my notes were filled with the same descriptions of small class sizes, personalized attention, and challenging academics.

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To be completely honest, I was influenced some by those U.S. News, Niche, and College Confidential rankings. Once you see them, it’s hard to forget their viewpoints. I narrowed down my list mostly based on more concrete comparisons such as cost, course listings, and travel abroad programs, but I was also just as swayed by stories from my friends’ college visits, opinions from family members, and online rankings—all factors that my college counselor advised against using. Once I heard back from the schools I had applied to, and was deciding between Swarthmore and two other colleges, the differences really came down to details like proximity to an airport, winter temperatures, and which school had given me slightly more financial aid.

Looking back on my decision process, these seemingly insignificant factors were valid things to consider when choosing a school. At a certain point, those details form the main distinctions between equally rigorous and acclaimed colleges. I have no doubt that I would have been happy at any of the schools I considered on my final list. There is no singular “perfect fit” when determining your education and home for the next four years. You will find friends, intellectual stimulation, and a sense of belonging at many places and adapt to find comfort in a variety of environments. In the end, trust your gut instincts, and if you don’t have any, then trust that there is no wrong answer. I had moments of panic and doubt after I chose Swarthmore, and flip-flopped endlessly between my other options, fearing that I would be condemning myself to an imperfect match by finalizing any decision. In the end, my mom reassured me and convinced me that Swarthmore was the right choice. (I later found out that this was in part because she had already ordered me a Swarthmore t-shirt).

After my first year here, I can say without a doubt that Swarthmore was the right choice for me, but it was one of several right choices that I could have made. I’ve learned that it is much more important to seize opportunities upon arrival at the school, because there will be opportunities wherever you decide to go and people who will make you feel at home. I have no way of knowing what my life at the other two schools would have been like, but I wouldn’t change my decision even if I could. I can tell my reader, presumably a bemused and stressed high-schooler, that Swarthmore students are characterized by intellectual curiosity, a propensity for collaboration, and absolute nerdiness (all things that I had heard and that ultimately caused me to enroll here), but if you can’t visit the school, you’ll never know for sure if this is true. Even if you do visit, you can’t know what the college will truly be like until you experience it for yourself as a student. Making a college decision requires an inescapable leap of faith—just trust that the risk will be well worth the reward.

However, if you don’t trust your instincts completely (probably smart), here is a list of valuable resources in comparing colleges when you can’t make a campus visit.

  1. Course catalogs—do the classes look interesting? Can you find four (or, in my case, twenty) classes that you would want to take?
  2. Email a current student—I never did this, but I received an email during my freshman year from a high school senior asking for information about Swarthmore and apologizing for the strangeness of her request. I thought it was a brilliant idea and proceeded to draft several pages in response (I may have scared her off, but don’t ask a Swattie if you don’t want a thorough answer).
  3. Talk to alums—I was lucky enough to have a Swarthmore alum as a high school teacher, and he shared his experiences there struggling with the workload. I also asked my alumni interviewer about the school and got two hours of enthused description over coffee in Starbucks. Both accounts contributed towards my decision to enroll.
  4. Visit college fairs in your area—this may not be an option for everyone, but my high school put on a college fair each winter break for juniors and seniors to talk to current college students at various schools. I was the lone Swarthmore representative this past year and gave extremely honest and detailed descriptions of my freshman year to anyone who wanted to listen (in my mind, I was a helpful resource, but maybe the helpless bystanders roped into my spiel would disagree).
  5. Watch YouTube—this is a great way to find out what the college’s sense of humor is like! Most schools have YouTube pages or funny videos produced by their students as projects for various classes. Definitely don’t base your decision on this alone, but watching videos like “Swarthmore Professors Read Mean Course Evaluations” helped me get a sense of the witty quirkiness that defines Swarthmore students.
  6. This goes along with #2, but feel free to email current students with any questions about Swarthmore, applications, college, or life in general (although I can’t guarantee we’ll have good answers for that last one). Good luck!


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