Graduation season has come and gone and many new grads will be off to college this fall. For newly minted seniors who will soon rule their high schools, it might be tempting to relax now that you’re at the top of the food chain, but there’s actually no time to waste. College application deadlines will approach faster than you know it, and it won’t be long before you’re off to college.
Summer vacation is the perfect time to research and visit potential schools. Here are four tips to keep in mind while you’re navigating the daunting application process, so you don’t waste thousands on the wrong college.
1. Seek results.
Try to look past a school’s prestige or sports reputation for a solid indication that the students are better prepared for their futures after graduation by examining what students do when they graduate. Compare colleges and analyze which schools have high success rates—whether it’s high employment or graduate school success. Once you’ve put in four or more years of hard work, you’ll want to expect that your degree will position you well for your next step. As such, it’s important to factor in post-college results as early as the application and school selection stage.
2. Narrow your focus.
If you already have a good idea of your academic interests or potential career path, consider them as you decide what schools to apply to. Many universities have specialty undergraduate programs specifically designed for certain fields. Thinking about becoming a nurse? Look into undergrad programs like the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing or the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing. For techies, check out Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology or Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science. Focused programs have more in-depth and specialized curriculum while still being part of a larger university and wider community. Furthermore, many such specialized undergrad programs have long-standing relationships with top employers in the field, so you’ll likely be better positioned to land that coveted job. Lastly, to sweeten the case for specializing early on, NerdWallet’s study found that grads of specialty undergrad programs earned the highest reported salaries.
3. Weigh the costs and benefits.
We all know you can’t put a value on a good education. But your crushing student debt may beg to differ. Unfortunately, this is often where a big-name, top-tier institution or a technical field of study like engineering or business will pay higher dividends. While going to Harvard or majoring in computer science is not the best fit for everyone, it is still important to do the math and think about how both your choice of college and your major will affect your ability to pay off your student loans. Before you decide to major in philosophy and take out $200,000 in student loans, examine what philosophy graduates do out of college, and map out how you would actually have to manage your student debt once you graduate.
4. Work backwards to find a job after college.
Who do you want to work for? A financial conglomerate? A small business on Main Street? Yourself? This isn’t just a hypothetical question—it’s also fairly actionable. Find a handful of companies across diverse interest areas that might seem like a good fit and do some research on which colleges they hire from the most. Some digging might reveal that the companies attend regular career fairs at a particular college or hire a large portion of their employees from a small handful of schools. Enroll at that institution and your ability to network for your dream job will be significantly greater. Teach for America is one example of an organization with virtuous goals and a large hiring footprint. If you start investigating early, you’ll have the leg up on your competition come senior year of college.
Joseph Audette is the VP of Education and Financial Literacy for NerdWallet, a consumer centric personal finance portal and resource. Check out the NerdWallet college comparison tool to help simplify your college search process.