You’ve been preparing for this. You got the grades and have an idea of what you want to do for the rest of your life. Or maybe you don’t, and you’re winging it. Either scenario is ok. Leaving the comfort of high school is a big step. College comes in many forms, but the most critical thing you can consider right now is: where should I apply to?

Rushing to get into a good school doesn’t have to be a torturous process. It’s supposed to be as easy as making a list of colleges that look cool and apply, right? Well, it can be, but there’s a little bit more work involved than that. There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re studying brochures or obsessing about compiling every link ever to your top 50 colleges to check out.

First, you have to ask yourself: is college right for me? Societally, we’ve adopted a point of view that life begins and ends with a four-year degree. This is just wrong. There are a lot of talented, smart people who work in the trades and make a fantastic living doing so. If your idea of a great day is being outside and working with your hands, sitting in a classroom for four more years may not be the best use of time. Trade school or getting an apprenticeship with a union could be precisely what you need. Plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters make great livings. If framing a house or running conduit seems like fun, save yourself and your parents some cash and don’t try to cram that passion into getting a psychology degree that you won’t use.

If working with your hands isn’t your bag, that’s cool, too. There are a lot of jobs out there. One of the biggest mistakes a new student can make is center in on an area of study they have no intention of actually finding a career in. Students who get an obscure degree with a subject they can’t use in the real world are the ones that end up with mountains of student debt because typically they can’t find jobs to correspond with their skill set. It’s a vicious cycle, and no one in higher education is trying to stop it. If you’re not expecting to move to fill in the one job in 1840’s Russian art, what exactly are you planning to do with that degree? Be wise about what you want to major in. Take the classes and harvest a love for whatever lights your world up, but getting a job is the whole endgame of the exercise.

BUSTING MAJOR COLLEGE MYTHS

After you’ve faced a lot of existential questions and centered yourself, it’s time to pick a school. It’s not all just ACTs or SATs and GPAs – you need to attend a school that fortifies who you are as a person, or at least provides the kind of personal growth you’re after. There’s a college for everyone. There are over 4000 colleges in America. Do you want to learn in a high-pressure situation or at a place that’s laid back?

Don’t try to oversell yourself on one idea or the other. Go with your gut. If you’re a little high strung and need to have constant deadlines, you may want the kind of environment that an intense school schedule demands. If you’re low key and like a less stressful schedule, maybe an art school is what you need. Listen to what your gut tells you. Don’t let mom, dad or a friend pressure you into attending a school because they think it’s what’s best for you.

If you check out the stats on a school and don’t get that immediate “yeah, this is me” feeling, move on. They’ll never have your heart. Instead, you’ll always be wondering what other schools are like. Listen to that internal voice because usually, it knows best.

GO TO THE PLACE THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU

Keep culture in mind. If you’re a progressive liberal, going to a conservative school won’t be four years of perfect harmony. If you’re deeply religious, a secular college may be a great idea. Every community, no matter the makeup, has a set of values they uphold, and the college you pick should reflect yours. Some schools are way invested in their traditions while others… not so much. If there are things you aren’t personally into, don’t force yourself to adapt for the sake of a program. College is about enjoying the experience, not enduring the time because a few classes are interesting. Compile your choices into immediate Yes or No groups.

Stick to your guns. If you’ve got a college on your mind, go for it. Everyone feels inadequate at one point or another. No one is perfect, and no one has always batted .1000 in life. Don’t get lost in your fears about school to apply to the places you want to go. You’re cool enough. You’re smart enough, and you’ll find a place.

Don’t obsess. It’s not worth it. There’s always some movie where the kid is freaking out over getting into the school of their dreams. Take the journey one step at a time. Research a new school each day. If the school appeals to you, write it down and move on. Once you’ve compiled a few, start building out a plan. There are a lot of schools and a lot of amazing teachers. If you don’t have the grades for MIT but still want to work in the space, there are plenty of schools who’d love to have you on their team.

GET THE SUPPORT YOU NEED

Speaking of teams, don’t forget to lean on your people. Ask for help. Talk to your parents. See what’s up with your guidance counselor at your high school, or just grab a teacher to get an opinion on your goals. If you’ve got a question, call the college admissions office. Let them help you. You’re not in this alone. People want you to succeed.

That said, don’t rely on your friends. They mean well, but their goals aren’t your goals. Your friends are flying blind just the same as you are.

Keep costs in mind. There are a lot of grants, scholarships, and opportunities for students out there. There are grants specifically for left-handed people. There’s no excuse for you not to fire up the Google and look to see what kind of money you can save. College is expensive. You want to minimize the amount you’ll be spending. Student loans can rack up and guess who’ll be left holding the debt? You will.

Think long and hard about what goals you want to achieve with college. Can you attend a community college for two years to knock out your basics for a quarter of the price? Making sure you’re planning within a budget is essential. There’s an adage of not putting an amount on an education, but that’s not entirely fair. There is most definitely a price tag that comes with college.

Now that you’ve been briefed on the basics of prepping for college, are you ready to apply? We’re waiting for y’all to change the world.

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