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Articles / Applying to College / Which of Two (Opposite) Colleges Should I Choose?

Which of Two (Opposite) Colleges Should I Choose?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Jan. 24, 2022
Student in bed on computer in dimly room
Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Should I Choose a More Prestigious School Over One With a Program For My Interests?

Question: I'm trying to decide between 2 schools that at first seem very similar: Both are small, private liberal arts colleges that, although having an extremely expensive sticker price, would cost me virtually nothing to attend thanks to generous merit scholarships. (I scored a 35 on my ACT.)

However, they are complete opposites with regards to what's good and bad about them.

School #1

What's good:

  1. It's a prestigious school known for its academics and well-respected (though not Ivy League), and I'll admit, I like the idea of being surrounded by other smart, motivated students
  2. I visited campus during an overnight program and truly fell in love with the campus culture and all the ways to get involved
  3. All the students seem really excited and honored to go there. I talked to maybe 30 different students, and there was not one who was anything less than enthusiastic

What's bad:

  1. Won't accept my 29 hours of concurrent enrollment transfer credit
  2. Has unconventional General Education requirements that really don't interest me and would feel like a waste of time
  3. Their programs in both my areas of interest are acceptable at best (the more important one only recently became a major instead of just a minor, so they don't offer a wide variety of classes in it yet)
  4. Seems to prioritize theoretical/practical discussions rather than practical, hands-on experience, which is not my preference
  5. Is less than 30 minutes away from home so I wouldn't get the feeling of independence

School #2

What's good:

  1. Would accept all my transfer credit such that I would only have to take 12 hours per semester for 6 of the 8 semesters and still be able to graduate on time--or I could potentially double major instead of having a major and minor
  2. My transfer credit takes care of most of the Gen Eds such that every. single. class I'd be taking there is one that I actually really want to take
  3. Has absolutely outstanding programs in both my areas of interest
  4. Seems to prioritize practical, hands-on experience over theoretical/philosophical discussions, which is my preference
  5. Is the perfect distance from home: It's far, but within driving distance

What's bad:

  1. They accept virtually everyone who applies. Ergo, the students who go there are kind of dumb, and one of the things I'd been looking forward to in college was finally being around people who were as smart and driven as I am
  2. I visited campus, and I just couldn't picture myself there. Everything felt kind of lame. It's even smaller than School #1, and I got the impression that there's not much going on. Yes, clubs exist, but students mostly just study
  3. All the students I've been in contact with have had only a marginally good experience there. The best part of their college experience seems to be LEAVING campus to study abroad

I know my parents would support me wherever I go, but they both advise me against opposite schools!

My mom, who has been more involved in this whole process, does not think School #1 is right for me because I would be taking a lot of classes I don't want and not many that I do.

My dad, who loved his years at his ginormous state school, wants to make sure I get the "college experience," i.e. he wants me to have lots of opportunities to have fun. He knows I'm kind of a homebody who can get sucked into the habit of doing nothing but study, and he wants my college years to be ones I enjoy. Ergo, he is not too keen on School #2, which has the least active campus that we have visited. (And we've visited A LOT of schools.) It would kind of be sad to go to the ONE school that doesn't have things to do (events, speakers, sports, concerts, etc.).

And yes, I do have other options, but I would have to go into debt for those. I'm not too keen on that, especially since my prospective major is not known for being very lucrative.

Which would you advise me to choose:

School #1, an amazing school & campus environment with bad classes –

Or School #2, a boring/lame school with amazing classes?

And if I go to School #1, what would you advise me to do to make the most of that situation?

And if I go to School #2, what would you advise me to do to make the most of that situation?

The Dean's Answer:

Your query reminds me of those House Hunters television shows where frazzled buyers are forced to choose among three homes ... the one on a busy street that would put their toddler in peril, the one with just a single tiny bathroom and no tub (to bathe the aforementioned toddler), and the one that's an hour's drive to daycare. My husband always scoffs at the TV and asks, "Are there only three houses for sale in Atlanta this year?"

Likewise, it seems that you have narrowed your choices to two rather unsuitable schools. If you had to choose one of them, I'd vote firmly for the first. Did you know that 80 percent of all undergraduates change their major at least once? So picking an otherwise mediocre college because of its programs in your field doesn't sound like a smart choice. (And if the students aren't bright and motivated, how great will the classes be, even their titles sound enticing?) At least the first school will offer a stimulating academic climate and satisfied students. If the first college won't accept your dual-enrollment credits but is allowing you to attend for nearly free, that's good news. It will give you extra time ... at little or no cost ... to experience new academic areas, and you won't be booted out after two years due to advanced standing. If you don't like the theoretical approach, get an internship to complement your studies. That's common practice at most colleges these days.

If you choose College #2, you want to make sure you're a star. Seek out professors early on and ask about research opportunities. If there's not a club on campus that excites you, start one ... or get an internship in the community.

However, your best bet is to go back to the drawing board. Although it may be a little late to be completely retooling your college list, it seems that—if your GPA is as good as your ACT—you might want to look into additional options that will fire on all cylinders.

The University of Alabama, for example, offers automatic full-tuition scholarships to all students with high grades and test scores. There are many pre-professional programs there that emphasize real-world work. 'Bama has made a concerted effort in recent years to draw top students from out-of-state and the result is that more than half of the undergrads today are NOT from Alabama. Many bond in the Honors program, which also helps the “ginormous" public university to feel more intimate. Although you might still have to pay room & board at 'Bama, those costs are not high when compared to many schools elsewhere, and there are also some additional scholarships available that might make a dent in the bottom line.

University of Miami is another college with strong merit aid and many pre-professional programs. The top students at U of Miami are exempt from academic requirements outside of their majors.

Tulane University also offers outstanding merit scholarships. Although these scholarships cover tuition only, if your family qualifies for need-based aid as well then you will probably receive some assistance for your room & board, and you will never be lacking in activities on campus or in New Orleans beyond.

All of these schools would give you the “real" college experiences that your father is seeking for you as well as the chance to take classes that excite you and challenge you, which your mom should applaud. And these are just a few of the many options out there that should tick more of your boxes than your current two finalists do. Here is a helpful thread on the College Confidential discussion forum that may offer some additional suggestions: http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/financial-aid-scholarships/1461983-competitive-full-tuition-full-ride-scholarships-p1.html

While it's tough to start from scratch in December, I do think that you can still find affordable options that are more suited to all of your needs. You've done a good job of analyzing the pros and cons of both of your finalist colleges, but–like those flummoxed folks on TV–you shouldn't have to make a choice that doesn't excite you.

A version of this Ask the Dean previously appeared in 2016.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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