By George Zhu, ESM Mentor
My high school college counselor gave me a great piece of advice: go to Reed College, a tiny liberal arts institution in the Pacific Northwest with a faculty to student ratio of 1:10 and a reputation for academic rigor and iconoclasm. In late March, with my acceptance to Reed in hand, I sent in my enrollment paperwork to…UC Davis. I figured that a college degree was a college degree and that I would be happier near the Bay Area at a school that was demographically identical to my public high school in San Francisco. I based my decision – one of the most important decisions in my life – on not much more than a hunch; I made no college visits, talked to zero alumni, and never even bothered to compare academic offerings.
That fall, after a month at UC Davis, I realized I had made a mistake. UC Davis was suburban, sprawling, bureaucratic, and full of undergrads looking to make grades and move on to their professional lives. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it was not what I was looking for in a college experience. I wanted to live somewhere urban and culturally vibrant and I wanted to be intellectually challenged by my peers and professors. A year later, I applied to transfer to Reed and when I got there, it immediately felt right. I was in the epicenter of a kind of urban existence that would later be called “Portlandia,” debating literary theory at the student center pool hall at 1:00 AM, and playing basketball with my philosophy professors. I sent a long and very grateful letter to my old high school counselor: you were right. Thank you.
For seniors who are anxiously awaiting acceptance letters from colleges, there’s another decision looming that’s as important as any you’ve made so far. If you’ve been working with ESM on your college application process, you’ve probably already thought a lot about fit and your needs and expectations, which means you’re miles ahead of where I was as a high school graduate. But despite all the preparation and research, you’ll never quite know until you get there, which is why we reached out to two ESM alumni who are currently college students to ask about their selection process and what advice they would give high school seniors.
Aragon d’Harambure is a French citizen currently studying business at University of California, San Diego:
As an international student, the most important criteria when choosing colleges was the reputation. If I plan on working outside the US, I want employers or business partners to know what my education level represents.
When I was choosing between George Washington University, UC San Diego, and Northeastern, I compared the school brands. Northeastern was not as reputable as the other two, so that choice was eliminated. Then, the final decision was to be made between two equal schools with different assets. I chose California because of the fresh energy and innovative mindset of its people. San Diego, the campus, the ocean, and the weather also played a big role: you want to live in a place you can call home.
Looking back on my decision, there are some things I would have done differently. UCSD is indeed excellent in academics, with a wonderful campus and a reputable brand. However, I didn’t find the business-oriented community I was looking for. UCSD is primarily a scientific school. Hence, I would strongly advise you to research the community in addition to the institution. For that, you can ask ESM to help you; they can refer you to a large network of alumni who go to schools like mine.
If you have the choice, think about the reputation first, then about the community, and finally about the area. Once you are in college, get involved and plan for your future. Making plans and always staying active are what can make you a more competitive student, and ultimately a more interesting person.
Kyle Berger is an undergraduate at Santa Clara University:
I started out the college application process with no idea of where I wanted to go or what I wanted in a school – and I wasn’t very excited about the idea of leaving home, either. One day my parents stepped in and set up a meeting with ESM to help me get my act together, as parents do. I expressed a lot of the same feelings to Billy, my college coach. In response, he asked me 10 questions about myself and what I would potentially want out of a school. After he’d finished, he told me, “Okay, you’re going to go to Santa Clara.”
Today, as I write this, I am sitting in Santa Clara and I couldn’t be happier. Getting here took a lot of touring – and I would say that was the most important part of the process. It is crucial to get to know the school and get a feel for what life will be like to make sure it will be a good fit for you. I would say that as helpful as the school-sponsored campus tours are, it is very important that you get a feel for the campus on your own.
I actually really disliked the Santa Clara campus tour. If I was going off my gut reaction based upon the school-sponsored tours, I probably would have ended up at St. Mary’s or Gonzaga. However, right before it was time to make my decision, I came back to Santa Clara and just walked the grounds myself – and as corny as it sounds – it just felt right. Letting myself walk wherever my feet took me, like I would and do as an actual student, is an entirely different experience than the one you get from the tour guide, and I think it is something that everyone who is interested in a school should do. I’m not sure that there are many things that I would have done differently – Billy and everyone at ESM puts you on a pretty fair path to follow, one that I and my brother (who also worked with ESM) have found leads you to success.
Kyle and Aragon’s experiences offer great lessons that I wish I had as a naive graduating senior. Whether you’re considering a large campus like UCSD or a smaller school like Santa Clara University, there’s no replacement for getting to know life on campus. Get away from the tours and talks. Take time to walk the campus on your own. Talk to other students who are in your major or in the club or activity you’re interested in joining. Get a sense of not only what’s possible, but how vibrant and active that community is. Then ask yourself: is this what I picture when I imagined myself as a college student?