Choosing a Liberal Arts College
Choosing your university or college is a big decision-perhaps the biggest choice you've had to face so far. If you've decided you want to attend a liberal arts college, that's one choice made, but there are more to go. While you should choose carefully, the ultimate decision doesn't need to be overwhelming, especially if you break it down into smaller categories to help guide you, like the following:
Some people know right away what they want to do as a career, while others don't know what they want to do but know what they enjoy studying or are good at. Both of these senses of yourself can help decide the kind of education and the type of credential you might want to pursue--which, in turn, can influence your choice of liberal arts college.
The key to making choices is knowledge. So here is a brief introduction to the kinds of undergraduate credentials offered at Christian universities and colleges in the US.
Zooming in closer, knowing the kind of program area you are interested in will help you to find criteria to evaluate when looking at the different liberal arts college offerings. If you genuinely don't know what to study, scan an institution's list of programs to explore your options and stimulate your imagination!
Once you have a sense of your desired program, you can look at the department's or program's website to examine things like the size, options and level of specialization of the department. For instance, if you want to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, you might ask the following: How many professors are there in the department? (a larger department isn't necessarily better, but it does mean you will have more course choices.) Do any professors specialize in areas that are of interest to you? What kind of courses does the department offer? Is enrollment limited or will you end up in huge classes? Do the instructors seem credible? What credentials do they have? Have they published books and/or articles in their specialized areas? You may also want to investigate whether or not a co-op or practicum component exists in your desired program, since many students find these valuable for work experience, networking, and as a source of income. Other features such as specialized facilities, outreach activities, study abroad or exchange programs might also be factors in your choice: different liberal arts colleges have different projects on the go (particularly if they are Christian or catholic) as well as agreements with different organizations--both academic and non-academic--that provide opportunities for students locally and internationally.
Location is a huge factor in the choice of a liberal arts college because you are making a significant time commitment. The first factor you might consider is the college's proximity to home (whether distance or closeness is your ideal!). If you choose a school in another state, this will limit your visits home. Flights back are both costly and time-consuming, and you will have to budget for travel costs. This makes it difficult to get home for thanksgiving or other short holidays, so when selecting a school, consider how often you would like to visit home and the amount of time and cost it will take to do so.
Following that, you'll need to honestly evaluate your level of independence when choosing a liberal arts college. Some are "residential" and require that you live on campus, so you need to ask: are you ready to be on your own? Do you foresee homesickness being an issue for you? Everyone matures at different rates, and there is no law that says you have to be ready to leave home at any particular age. Sometimes maturity comes in the form of recognizing that you are not yet ready to be on your own and, therefore, choosing either to wait a year before leaving or going to a school in your hometown.
The decision of where to go also depends on whether you prefer small towns, medium sized cities, or large metropolises. You may prefer to choose a place similar to what you're used to, or you may be ready for a radical change in this next phase of your life. Also, bear in mind the climate of wherever you go, especially if it's dramatically different from what you're used to. Consider the pros and cons; for example, a long, harsh winter might be depressing if you are from a temperate, coastal climate, or it might be an opportunity to experience winter sports you haven't tried before! In any event, make sure you know what temperature and weather conditions to expect, and make sure you can live with them for the duration of your studies.
Size, Affiliation and Culture
When selecting a liberal arts college, you may want to think about its size. Usually, an institution's student population is indicative of its size, and you can find this out on the university's website. Consider things like class size, but also peak "around campus" situations such as lunchtime in the cafeteria or mid-afternoon in the library. Again, you should consider your personality and your personal preferences when choosing the size of your school. Are you a "people person"? Or do crowds and line-ups make you impatient? Do you want anonymity in the classroom (i.e. do you want to seem invisible in a sea of students)? Or would you rather participate in class discussion or ask questions in a more personal atmosphere? Consider what learning environment best suits your personality.
Liberal arts colleges may be faith-affiliated, which menas they may offer education within the context of a religious or faith worldview. Therefore, you might want to consider, for example, whether it's defined by a particular theological or denominational affiliation and how big a role that plays in the day-to-day operation and curriculum of the institution. Consider asking questions such as: What denominations are represented in their student body? Do applicants have to make or sign a personal statement of faith? Are courses in religion or Bible or theology required and, if so, how many? Does the university or college have particular guidelines for student conduct on campus? Are students required to attend faith services? The school community has to be a good fit for you, not just as a student, but as a person.
Other "culture" aspects of a university could be in terms of your peers. For instance, do you want to mix and meet with people from your own area or from other parts of the United States? Or maybe you want to go to a liberal arts college with a high percentage of international students for a more culturally diverse experience. Liberal arts colleges have different "vibes" which can affect your studies as much as size or location.
Cost and Housing Options
The three biggest university or college costs are basic living expenses, tuition fees and the cost of books and other supplies. Living at home, on-campus or away from home but off-campus are all choices you need to think about, since rent or student housing fees, groceries, meal plan, travel/ commuting expenses all add up. Finding a place to live can also involve differing amounts of time and energy, so you need to budget your money and your time. Be sure to explore your options for any scholarships and bursaries because every little bit helps-even if it is just $500 here, $300 there. Have you discussed finances with your parents? Maybe they plan to help pay. Where will you get money for added expenses, such as entertainment, clothes, cell phone bills, etc.? Will you need a student loan? A job? If you'll need to work, are part-time studies available? Are there added fees with certain institutions or particular programs (such as travel costs)? Make sure you know ahead of time what costs you will have to cover with each of your options, so that you can factor them into your selection process.
Make sure you know what the entry requirements are (and ensure that you meet them) for each of your potential liberal arts colleges. If your average falls below their required admission GPA, your chances of getting accepted are not good. Be realistic and strategic in your application process: if your grades are not competitive, you do not need to feel powerless and give up. You simply need to plan your attack. For instance, many students find it's easier to get into a community college, acquire some credits there, and then transfer to a liberal arts college to finish a bachelor's degree. Another option is to do upgrade classes to fulfill any course prerequisites you might have missed and/or boost your grades, and then (re)apply with improved chances of getting in. Also, if you wait a few years, you can apply as a "mature student," and you may find that the requirements are less strict. Research the options at the liberal arts colleges you're interested in, and make a plan.
Every student hopes to get a "good" education, so there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure "quality." Some of these have been touched on briefly, such as researching the instructors' backgrounds. Other aspects to investigate are accreditation (at the institutional and/or program levels--see the section on Liberal Arts College Accreditation for more details) and the resources available at the school. Does it have a good library? Does it have up-to-date computing facilities? What is their library collection like? Is there anything related to your specific program that you need? Do they have it? For instance, if you are doing a bachelor's degree in theatre, do they have venues for performances and technical equipment for their productions, etc.?
Extracurricular Activities and Student Support
If what you do outside of class matters as much as what you do in the classroom, then you may want to give considerable weight to the quality of the school's extracurricular scene. Yes, liberal arts colleges can have as much of a social scene as so-called "regular" universities and colleges! This could include sports teams, student clubs, church activities and general social activities on campus. For some students, participation in these kinds of activities defines their university or college experience.
As well, you should consider what resources the university or college maintains to help its students. These might include counselling, mentoring, medical assistance, academic tutoring, etc. How well a school takes care of its students outside the classroom is another measure of whether it's a good fit for you.
Your Gut Feeling
In addition to weighing the intellectual pros and cons and costs of each liberal arts college, put some stock in your gut feeling about each--especially if you can visit the campus. Sometimes your intuition or gut instinct about a school can assess it more accurately than a list of its facts and figures. See for yourself what the school is like before committing time and money to it.
So make the most of this time, wherever you choose to go. Don't fret or obsess about "what ifs" once you finally decide: if you ultimately find you are very unhappy with your decision, you can always transfer. Liberal arts colleges in the US are there for you!
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