5 Tips On How to Choose A College

by Elena Chen


I’ve studied at three universities in two different continents before graduating with my Bachelor’s degree. No, I was not on three different exchange programs. I was doing a dual degree in Psychology & Photography, then switched to Photography, and finally graduated in Social Anthropology. Currently, I’m applying for Master’s programs in Child Development & Counselling. I only wish I had come across this line in this Ted Talk sooner: “Even if you match your passion with your work, and you’re successful, you can still quite easily fail to have a fulfilling career. That’s because you might not find the work meaningful.”. I loved studying Psychology and Photography and felt I would be deeply interested in Anthropology. But “following my heart” didn’t concern itself much with fulfillment. What I have always found fulfilling was being in service of others. I felt fulfilled volunteering at animal shelters and staying on the phone with friends helping them feel listened to. In Psychology, Photography and Anthropology, I always felt I was studying people, not helping them. Now, the Master’s I will be attending is motivated by the goal of becoming a Child Psychologist; one day helping children become happier adults. Do the thing that grounds you; the thing that after hours of grunt work and physical labour you still find worth it. Spend the time deciphering between your sensations of meaningful fulfillment and of enthused accomplishment because the line between who you are and what you love will not always be obvious. You may love rock climbing but know you aren’t a rock climber. It is a job of constant physical strain, extreme self discipline, long and lonesome working hours, high risk and low job security. For Alex Honnold, that is who he is. Honour who you are and not just what you love.  


Having been the new kid at school a couple of times, there are few things as magical and important to me as friendship. They are the people who will have breakfast with you after a night out and the people who will have 4pm lunch with you after an all-nighter. One of the great things about college is that you’ll meet people who will show you sides of yourself that you never realized before. Realized in the sense of acknowledgement and also as manifestation. Be sure to look for a university that will best cater to the sense of community you are looking for. Will they have societies or clubs you find resonant? Will there be campus life? Is there even a campus? What about the religious leanings of the school? What about the political leanings of the school? It is pertinent to consider how these factors affect your friendships. I was at a very political university that was ideological to a large extent; which I, as a moderate and libra, found a hard time reconciling with my identity. The classmates I met wanted to go rally when I wanted to bake cookies. Often I found it hard to feel kinship because the political undertones ran so intensely that it was hard to have a light conversation. I met my people, luckily, but it was hard for me, as a very social person, to have had to struggle so long with my identity amongst a community so misaligned with mine. There will always be exceptions but it’s easier to start with more like-minded people and narrow in on your people than to hope you bump into them in the cafeteria line. 


A friend of mine is doing her Master’s as an online degree because she is a mom and because she loves the program but wasn’t sure about the religious affiliations of the institution. The education quality was reputable and she knew she wanted to be close to family so she chose distance learning. However, this limited her options with social life, campus facilities, professor interactions, and student engagements. How big your school is, the size of the campus/town/city it is in, its average class/seminar size and the majors offered will heavily impact the trajectory you could have at the institution. A university specialized in design will offer extremely advanced courses ranging from Screenprinting to Design Research but will barely have any option in sociology or biochemistry. An undeclared major at a comprehensive university will be able to try class in Art History and Statistics but may never see a photographic enlarger at use (although some universities have phenomenal facility budgets and do offer all three options). A small town college will have you feeling a part of a huge family in no time but the big city life will have rotating exhibitions, latest theatre performances and endless food spots. Being in a big city, in a small campus, with small class sizes, and many major possibilities, is a trajectory that a lot people would deem optimal. But as I’ve gotten to know who I am, I realised I don’t love the big city. It’s hectic, cold, usually dirty with very little sense of community. Big or small, know that the university experience is meant to make you more you --- there is more to you and you are being more of yourself. 


There will be a lot of things that are unexpected. The expected isn’t so, the unexpectedly good, the surprisingly unpleasant. College is about learning --- the material and the mediation of life. I won’t linger on this one too much except to say, I recommend everyone who goes to university begin meditating the same time they enroll. The mental stamina and clarity meditation strengthens will point north for anyone experiencing the rewarding and tumultuous journey of college. Brace for the surprised and brave the adventure.   


There’s something surreal about university life, especially influenced by the chick flicks of American pop culture, and that is not to be underestimated. However, when choosing a college, my last piece of advice is to remember to pick something just familiar enough to feel grounded but different enough to fulfill potential. When I was 17, I left the country I grew up in to go to New York City with no phone sim, no bank card, no sheets, no friends, and no Google Maps. I now love Google Maps. That being said, English was my first language and before long I made a friend who lived in the same estate as I did back home! People can travel across the world to attend college whilst some people will stay in their home state; but whichever you choose choose what feels right to you. If you’ve always been someone who’s had a lot of hobbies, don’t go to a university with not societies or clubs. In fact, go to one with societies and clubs that coincide with you already know and ones that sound exciting but never got to try. Maybe, choose a university based in a different country than yours but is still taught in the same language. Or go to a university based in a city if you’ve felt you’d like a change from the suburbs. Attend a campus with a student population in the tens of thousands but where you know some friends from home. You need the familiarity to stay grounded and the unfamiliar to imagine, both very useful qualities to have during college, where many of your beliefs are likely to be overturned, and many new ideas take root. You will emerge from university, one way or another, same, same, but different. 

*illustrations by Laura Callaghan