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FastWeb Column: An Equation for Finding the Perfect School

This story was published in 2006 for FastWeb, an online education resource and scholarship search engine.

I am applying to journalism schools. One part of this pernicious process is taking the Graduate Record Exam. In an attempt to get GREady (Big laughs!), I’ve been diligently reviewing flashcards and steadily working math problem sets. The prep books say studiers should include learned material in daily life, so I’ve incorporated some rather outlandish words here which are, according to the GRE, quite germane.

My four college years add up to a positive experience. (Though if you multiplied them by a negative, they’d take the multiplying integer’s sign. College = -4x. Hah! Number jokes!) Undergraduate life has been happy, but there are aspects of college I wish someone would have addressed: here are my thoughts on how to choose a school that’s right for you and what to do if you find yourself in one that isn’t.

Everybody has low points – some would make my GRE math score look positively capacious. The first step in avoiding the doldrums is to apply to a variety of colleges for a variety of reasons. Give yourself options and space to breathe if you end up clutching rejection letters. When matriculation time comes, choose your school for the right rationale. Your priorities might lie in the social scene and that’s valid; sports and clubs have absolutely shaped my experience. Greek life, or its equally-prevalent path, Geek life, is another thing to keep in mind.

When it comes to academics, think broadly. If you know you want to major in business, see which schools offer interdisciplinary courses or cross-list classes. If you aren’t sure where your future lies, scope for a school curriculum with breadth and depth, so you can check out a variety of options. Don’t pigeonhole yourself before you even hang your posters.

Many students bristle at the idea of choosing a school based on its price tag, but I think of happiness on a spectrum: there are places where you will be absolutely unhappy, pretty unhappy, ok, fairly happy or blissfully halcyon. If you’re deciding between a school that costs $15,000 that will make you fairly happy and a school that costs $40,000 and will make you perfectly happy, take Aretha Franklin’s advice and think about it. Unlike student benefits and the copious freebies, debt extends past graduation. Nobody wants to go from pennies to penury.

If you’re unhappy a few semesters into the deal, try harder. Let me say that again, with emphasis. Try harder. It’s difficult to pinpoint the root (or square root) of the problem when you’re soaking in a sea of sadness, but make the effort to separate your school from your personal life. Your roommate bugs you – not a reason to transfer. Your parents are controlling and call you fifty times a day – not a reason to transfer. You don’t get along with anyone – not a reason to transfer. If it seems that no one likes you, you’re not looking hard enough for the right people or you should reexamine your own actions and motivations.

This week’s column seems like a downer and it is. But these are real problems that real students face, in both undergraduate and graduate studies. If you encounter tough times, making smart decisions and putting two and two together should get you out of it. (Thus, college + smart decisions = -4x +4.) And that’s no prevarication.

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