College: How to Decide

As the deadline for mailing in that deposit check approaches, here are some tips for making an informed choice

The deadline to decide which university to attend—and therefore which undergraduate business program—is quickly approaching. It's the biggest decision of your life so far, and you're feeling the pressure. You want to choose the right college, and your parents want to know where they'll be handing over their life savings.

Rather than flip a coin, make your decision by asking yourself these questions:

1. Which school will provide the coursework that interests me and will provide me with the skills necessary to get a job in my field of choice after graduation?

Most schools make their course books available online. Peruse each to see the specialties within the major and check out the core requirements and elective courses available to undergraduates. You should look for specializations and courses that appeal to you and will help you in the field you'd like to enter. If you're not yet sure what field you're interested in, come up with your top three choices and make sure all are pretty much covered among the available courses. Finding out about the professors you might have wouldn't hurt either.

2. Which school will help me the most when I'm ready to snag internships and jobs?

You're going to school to get a degree, so that you can eventually find a job in a field that interests you. Finding a job, however, is the hard part. It helps to go to a school that offers both advice in the way of mock interviews, workshops, and résumé critiques, and networking contacts in the form of alumni and recruiters. To get more information on campus recruiting, you should look at the career placement section of a school's Web site, or you can contact the office directly to ask questions about its services.

For business programs, you can also check out the BusinessWeek school rankings and profiles to get stats on career placement (not to mention admissions stats and student comments). Specifically, you should seek a program that demonstrates its career placement office helps students find internships and jobs in the line of work that is most appealing to them.

3. Where is the school located?

Aside from the obvious considerations such as weather and distance from home, geography also plays another important role in your decision. Many business schools offer more job opportunities in the community just outside their doors. In other words, if you want to work on Wall Street after you graduate, you might not want to go to school in the Midwest, unless you pick a school that has a strong connection with New York recruiters. Look at each program's career placement stats to see where their students usually end up.

4. What do students and alumni really think of the school?

You can start with the student comments and the rankings, which rely on student surveys, put out by BusinessWeek, as well as College Prowler's report cards. Then you should try to talk to students and alumni. The clock is ticking, so the Web would be best. Many student organizations at various universities post contact information, such as an e-mail address, on their Web sites. Find business-related groups at a particular school by searching for them on Google and drop an e-mail to the student leader associated with the group.

Read online articles the student newspaper has written about the business program because they often include quotes—or even accompanying editorials or letters to the editor—that are candid. Head to MySpace or Facebook to find groups associated with the business program at the school and start asking questions.

5. What does the business community say about the school?

From the business school's Web site, you should be able to see whether it has many speakers and programs from the business community. Use that information, and anything you can garner from a Google search, to get a feel for the type of relationship the school has with businesses. If you know anyone in the business community near the school, ask them about their experiences and the school's reputation with their colleagues and counterparts at other companies.

6. What is the culture like?

A big part of choosing the right school—and later the right job—is finding the right fit. You need a school with a student body to which you can relate. If you visited campus, consider what you observed about the students. Were they friendly and polite or arrogant and patronizing? Did they seem to help one another or stab each other in the back?

If you didn't head to campus, consider College Prowler's report cards, which give you some insight on each university in general and the business school specifically. You can also find accepted applicants and a few current students chatting at the Undergraduate Forum.

7. How much is this going to cost me and/or my parents, and what is the return on investment going to be?

Consider the loans, scholarships, and grants you received from each program. Then calculate how much you'll actually be spending, how much you'll owe, and what kind of return on investment you'll experience. To get an idea of the return on investment, think about the average starting salaries of graduates and how long it will take you to earn back the money spent on your college education.

8. What kind of network will I have when I graduate?

Find as much information on the alumni network as you can. You want to know if alumni from each program have a history of helping one another in professional circles. Strong alumni networks with many active participants and activities are a good indication that there is a history of alumni helping one another. You can get more information by visiting the Web site for alumni of that particular school, reading periodicals put out by alumni, which are often available online, and counting the number of regional alumni groups.

9. Where will I be happy?

While you should take practical information into consideration, you should also think about your own personality and which school's environment is most conducive to your happiness. If you're close to your sister and she goes to school X and you'd be happier if you were near her, then that's something to factor into your decision. If you love finance and consider yourself a math geek, then a school that has an active math club and strong finance program might be right for you.

10. What does my gut say?

Sometimes your body knows the right decision for you before your mind does. At least consider your gut's opinion as you weigh these other factors and make your final decision.

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