When you were a kid, the biggest stress you ever experienced was when the ice cream man pulled up and you had no idea whether you were going to get a Spongebob popsicle or a Powerpuff Girls one. Fast forward ten years, and suddenly you're applying to colleges, a decision every bit as important as ice cream (okay, maybe nothing is that important, but college comes close), but so much more overwhelming to make. The options are seemingly infinite – terrifyingly infinite. How the hell are you supposed to make such a momentous decision?
If you're very lucky, you have a very clear idea of what you want to study, which can narrow things down a little. Even then, there is a tremendous amount of unwarranted pressure that factors into picking a school. Maybe a relative wants you to go to the college they attended back in the day; perhaps you're dead set on heading to a big city; maybe your friends are all attending a particular school and want you to jump on the bandwagon. There are a staggering number of options, and no one universally accepted set of correct criteria by which to weigh them against each other.
Luckily, there are college visits and tours and very informative brochures; you have all kinds of information available to you. But of the million qualities that each educational environment possesses, the true challenge is discerning which things about a college are actually worth considering, and which parts don't really matter in the long run.
What Does Matter: How Big The School Is
This is especially dependent on what you're used to, and what you're expecting out of your college experience. If you came from a smaller high school, maybe you'll be perfectly comfortable and even prefer a smaller college. But even then there are factors to consider — one small school I got into told me that I might have to stay an extra year to finish, because classes were so small that people were struggling to get into them.
A larger school, on the other hand, means less face time with your professors and a strong possibility that you will get swallowed up by crazy football fans on Saturdays. It will also mean a much larger and more diverse selection of clubs, activities, and new people in general. In the end, the "right" answer as far as school size is entirely a matter of personal preference, but no matter which side you fall on, size definitely matters.
What Doesn't Matter: If Your Friends Are Going There
This is your decision. Not your friend's decision, or your partner's decision. Ultimately you have to go wherever feels right for you. If you end up going to the same college as your friends because that's the college that you think is your best match, that's great — but if you're solely choosing a college because you're afraid of getting split up from your friends, you're only cheating yourself in the long run.
Here's the thing about college: you will make new friends. Everybody is every bit as terrified as you are, even if they don't seem that way. And if you're relying on old friends from the moment you get there, you'll never branch out and meet all the insanely awesome people that you can meet in college.
What Does Matter: How Far From Home It Is
Family is different. This might be the first time you've ever been away from home before. There is no shame at all in wanting to be a driving distance away from your family. There is also no shame in moving across the coast or even out of the country, if you feel like you need the space. But take a moment to consider how you're going to feel a month into college, or a semester, or even after the first year. You might not be quite as ready to take the plunge away from home as you think.
What Doesn't Matter: What Your Parents Think
Now, I'm not telling you to go get several back tattoos that say "TAKE THAT, MOM AND DAD" in various languages. Picking a college that your parents don't approve of is by no means an act of rebellion. The fact that you are going to college in the first place is amazing, so pat yourself on the back.
You've had eighteen years of your parents deciding what is best for you, and now it's your turn. You love them. They love you. If they're mad about what school you decide, once they see how much you belong there and how happy it makes you, they will get over it.
What Does Matter: If They Offer What You Want To Study
Or, more to the point, if they offer the variety of things you might want to study. You could reasonably leave high school with as many as five or six possible majors you might want to pursue, and that is completely fine. Actually, it's amazing to not be exclusively committed to one particular thing, opting rather to keep your options open. The beauty of that first year of college is that you have no obligation to declare just yet. But make sure that you are keeping your options open, and that the school you choose offers every course of study that you might want to take. Because trust me, you will change you mind.
What Doesn't Matter: The Party Scene
No judgment if this happens to be important to you. I am a lazy bones myself, but I know that partying is part of the college experience. Which is why I bring this up: it doesn't really matter what school you attend, because no matter where you are, whether it be a podunk town or a big city, there will be partying. It is just a cardinal rule of college. So never fear. Even if you don't find the party, the party will find you.
What Does Matter: The Vibe When You Get There
The first time I set foot on my college campus, I was sixteen, and was on a road trip helping my older brother look at schools. It wasn't love at first sight. It wasn't the prettiest place I'd ever seen, or the most exciting. But I remember walking around and feeling so at ease, as if I could already see myself there and know that I belonged. It was a school I hadn't even planned on considering, but that day changed everything for me. It might not be the most logical way to make a decision, but trust me on this: go with your gut.
What Doesn't Matter: The Prestige of the School
Everybody at my high school worked themselves into a big old sweat over whether or not they were going to get into a "brand name" school. But here's a little secret nobody tells you when you're choosing schools: the prestige of the school has almost no bearing on your future career plans. Some kids I know who went to community colleges have gone on to law school or landed awesome jobs in big cities. Other kids I know who went to Ivy Leagues are sitting at home with no idea what to do with their lives.
What really matters in the end is your ambition and your ability to make things happen for yourself. If you have those things, you're going to get a quality education no matter where you end up.
Images: Getty, Giphy (12)