Choosing a College That Sparks Joy
One of the most important things my parents said to me during the college process was, “We want you to go where you will be happy.” This notion has stuck with me ever since, and meant a lot as someone who got into Harvard Early Action (humble brag?), but wasn’t sure that it was where I wanted to go. I ended up applying to another 10-plus schools on the regular decision timeline, which probably seemed crazy to my peers, because my parents never made me feel like just because I’d gotten in somewhere, I had to go there. I ended up choosing Harvard after going to a very rainy and cold Visitas and, despite feeling like a half-drowned cat the entire time, having so much fun that I knew it was the place for me.
I want to recognize the amount of privilege I had in being able to make a decision like that, and to even apply to as many schools as I did. I know that this is not everyone’s experience. I have helped a few of my younger friends from high school in their college processes, and would like to share what considerations I think are important to take into account when choosing your home for the next four years (not in any order of importance).
I would suggest writing out answers to the following questions, and then formulating a pro and con list with the information you find in your answers. These, plus your gut feeling, should help you make your decision.
1. Academics: What made you excited to apply in the first place? What are the drawbacks?
A. Yes, maybe the ranking matters to some extent, but do they have the kinds of majors/programs/professors you’re looking for? If you’re really interested in a niche aspect of biology, can your research and interests be supported at this institution? If not, is that something you’re willing to compromise?
B. What do the requirements look like? Are you going to receive AP/IB credit? Is there enough flexibility for what you’re looking for? Is there enough structure? How easy is it to shift between schools, if you start out in a Business program but decide you’d do better in Arts and Sciences? Do you see yourself having the space in your schedule to explore what interests you
C. What kind of cycle is the school on? Semester, quarter, or work-study?
2. Location: Will you love living there?
A. I always joke that I don’t know why I went to school in the Northeast when I hate the cold and want to always be in the sunshine. Does climate matter to you? Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and can be a struggle for a lot of students. Will you thrive somewhere that’s got extreme temperatures?
B. Are you choosing between a school like Harvard in the U.S. versus internationally? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each university, and would it matter what country you went to school in for your future career?
C. Do you like hustle and bustle, or are you someone who likes their own space/nature? The thing that really drew me to Harvard was that it has its own campus, but is also right in Cambridge with easy access to Boston. I knew I wouldn’t do well somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but that is not true for everyone. You’re going to be living there for four years. In what kind of place do you want to live?
3. Community: Do you see yourself blending well with the people who already go to school there?
A. Lots of people don’t get the opportunity to visit every school they apply to/to which they are accepted, and this could make answering this question difficult. Try to find students whose job it is to talk about the school with prospective students and see if you vibe with any of them. Ask them about their experiences making friends/finding the people who make their campus feel like home. Also try to find students through friends or from high school that go there and ask them for their takes!
B. How many people is too many people? Size matters. Are you comfortable in classes with hundreds of people? Do you like the idea of living with ten thousand (or more) other young adults? Or are you searching for a smaller community from the start? Somewhere in the middle? How will the number of people who attend this school impact your access to resources you will need and finding people you love?
C. Look into their extracurriculars! If you love to do creative writing, are there opportunities for you to do that at this institution? Can you try to walk onto the track team? Thinking about what matters to you outside of academics and seeing if that school has those things is essential.
D. How cutthroat is the school you’re looking at? Is that an environment in which you would thrive? Is the school’s reputation worse than its reality?
4. Resources: Can this school support you academically and as a human?
A. What are their Financial Aid resources? Did you earn scholarship money for this school? Does the school have scholarships to which you can still apply? Would you have to take out loans? How does the university take care of its FGLI students?
B. What are the resources for students of color? Immigrants? Students with disabilities? LGBTQ+ students? What kind of insurance does the school offer? Will you have access to mental health resources? How a university treats every member of its community is important. Look into these questions and let them play a factor in making your decision.
C. Can this school help you find internship opportunities/make connections for the future?
And finally: Does thinking about going here make you feel excited? Happy? The answer to this question should hopefully be “yes.”
I joke (to my parents’ horror) that college in many ways is summer camp with classes. Is this entirely accurate? No. There are jobs and stresses and responsibilities and the real world looming. But I like to think that in the most fun moments, college should feel that way. It should be a place that truly “sparks joy” — maybe not all the time, but enough that it’s worth the times that it doesn’t.
We hope these questions were helpful! We hope you find a place that makes you feel at home the way Harvard does for us, and that Harvard is that place for you.