What factors should I consider when choosing colleges to which to apply, besides my chances?
Since I cannot visit schools physically (even without COVID-19, I was not interested in flying across America), how should I pick the schools to which I should apply, even if I know I'm applying to x safeties, y targets, and z reaches? How much do you recommend hard data, such as graduation rates and average salary, versus people's experiences at the school (i.e. school traditions, YouTube vlogs, subreddits)?
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Hi! Just to let you know, I am a senior in high school who has just been through the admissions process and is now trying to decide, so hopefully I can offer helpful insight. The first thing that I did when deciding on where to apply was make a list of things that were ideal in the college that I would eventually attend. For me, for example that was schools that were near a city, but had their own distinctive campus with less that 10k students, but for you that could be anything. Suggestions I have for getting started are thinking about the size of the school that you are looking for, where in the US you are interested in living, rural/urban, Division1, whatever floats your boat. After that you will still have big list of schools. This is where you start to look at how competitive they are and being realistic with where you could get in. Additionally if you have any idea of what you hope to major in, or what type of career you hope to have start looking at what schools have strong programs in X. I don't think there is any one factor that should be used to decide where you apply. YOUVISIT is a cool website that lets you virtually tour more than 600 colleges which I found helpful in getting a sense of a colleges campus when I was unable to visit.
In response to your second question, I again think that it takes a balance btwn hard data and personal experiences. Keep in mind that what you see on YouTube and Subreddits might not end up being your own personal experience at a University for a variety of reasons so I don't think you should apply to a school simply based on that. On the other side, while hard numbers can be helpful it doesn't matter what the average salary after graduation is if the school is such a bad fit that you end up transferring. I think that you should pick and choose what numbers you depend upon as you decide because you are your own person and somethings will be more important to you than the next person. To me small class sizes was really important, because I benefit more from discussions than from lectures, but that might not be a data point that is important to you.
I hope this long response helps you, I know that it was not a simple straight forward answer or formula, but that's not the college process. I will leave you with one last tip that I share with anyone who asks for advice, DO NOT apply to any school that you can't see yourself at. I don't mean this in the fact that if your dream since you were 5 was to go to NYU don't apply anywhere else. I mean if you really hate the University of X, don't apply there even as one of your safeties because as soon as you get in you would cross it off the list and if you HAD to go there you would likely dislike the experience.