We are a culture daily inundated with choices upon choices. All it takes is a trip to the supermarket to see this in action. Each aisle is brimming with products that are all essentially the same, save for a few variations: 10 types of milk, 200 different cereals, an entire row of salad dressings. If it takes someone five minutes to choose which peanut butter to purchase, then certainly making larger decisions has become deeply nuanced.
The pressure of choosing the right college is compounded by the fact that this decision is now likened to other life-altering decisions. Choices like where to live, who to marry and what career path to pursue have all been equated to the process of choosing a school.
This added pressure along with a flooded marketplace has made choosing a college all the more difficult. There are roughly 6,500 accredited institutions in the United States, so colleges and universities attempt to stand out from their competition by highlighting what makes them unique from all the rest. Beyond enrolling new students, admissions offices across the country work hard to promote their institution by showing students and families what makes them distinct from the pack.
Decision-making in general is difficult. Ideally, everyone would love to see a never-ending hallway with doors and doors of possibility ahead of them. Of course, this is practically impossible, but people still operate on this faulty foundation. This can lead to a fear of making decisions—opening any one door seemingly means the other doors are now closed. Executing a decision feels intrinsically bad, but we discount the good that comes from making an informed choice.
The unease students feel in this scenario is very real. Yes, the final decision to choose what school to attend can be tough. If you are like the majority of students, you could probably enroll in any of your top three (or five) schools and have a good experience, but is there a way to ensure a great experience? How do you discover that elusive “best fit”? And how do you make a decision with clarity and confidence?
The first step
This adventure starts with you. Knowing what you and your family are looking for is the most important part of the college search process. God has made you unique, so ask Him to show you where you would fit best. Everyone’s experience is different, and every student has a differing perspective to bring to the table. The events and ideas that have formed your person are specific to you alone. College marketing attempts to broadly show you where you can fit in and excel, but if you are uncertain about these issues yourself, your college search process will be frustrating. Coming back to the hallway analogy, not every door is a good option, and closing some (or many) is totally healthy. Although it feels best to have each and every one readily available, the fact of the matter is that not every door is meant for you as an individual.
Knowing what you are looking for is deep and wide. So think about the areas you excel in academically because this can be a good indicator of your gifts. Think about the activities you are passionate about: athletics, ministry work, community service, relationship building with peers, etc. Also, realize your undergraduate experience will be a time to grow and expand your horizons. Think about events and experiences you would like to get involved in that will help your personal, academic and spiritual growth: student government, studying abroad, Bible studies, Campus Crusade for Christ, etc. Visiting is the critical next step after determining what you want in a school. Try to spend as much time as you can “walking a mile” in a student’s shoes—this truly is the best way to determine how comfortable you feel on campus.
In regards to academics and choice of major, you will be asked what major you’re interested in, or what profession you hope to take part in beyond college. If you are absolutely certain where you want to end up or what you want to study, then feel free to go deep and ask questions about faculty credentials, class sizes and graduation rates. It is also fine to ask realistically about placement of graduates in specific programs and the services offered overall to students who are about to graduate and hit the job market.
Depending on your major, there may be chances for internships that will give you a running start in your chosen field and yield valuable connections. So inquire about these types of opportunities as well. This is your future, and inquiring about your potential for success is certainly appropriate. I discovered during an internship that I was not cut out to work in the television industry. It was valuable to know this while I still had the possibility of finding a new calling.
If you have divergent interests, inquire about the highlights of each program you’re interested in. Bat around the basics and most of the time, after hearing what is entailed in a specific major, you’ll be better able to find the program that fits you best and close a few of those pesky doors. Finally, if you are at the opposite end of the spectrum and have no clue where to even look, be honest about where you are in your journey and inquire as to what services the college has to offer to help you translate your strengths and passions into an academic pursuit.
Thinking through your activities is important as well. As you think about college life, what extracurricular activities could you just not live without? If athletics or healthy offerings of community service are important to you but are lacking at a certain school, that’s a great indicator that particular school may not be the best fit for you. Also, realize the adjustment from high school to higher education, regardless of your GPA, will be at least somewhat difficult. Because of this, it’s important to be honest with yourself and consider that although you were able to keep all the plates spinning before, you may have to retire some of your old routines. This makes room for focusing on more strenuous material and connecting to a new setting and new people.
The potential for growth at college is undeniable—and not just in schoolwork. Consider adding new elements to deepen your educational experience. Studying abroad is a great way to learn in a different cultural context and explore our incredible planet. Think through things you didn’t have the time or opportunity to do while in high school due to other commitments. Consider writing for the newspaper, running for office in the student government or playing an intramural sport.
Finally, think about the social atmosphere and environment you feel most comfortable in. For instance, if you come from a large public high school, consider whether you want to remain in a larger setting, or if you would feel more engaged in a smaller setting. Conversely, if you attended a small private school since kindergarten, maybe you feel it would be better to experience life at a large university.
Knowing who you are and what you are looking for is integral when searching for the right school. That said, it shouldn’t be too difficult or take too long to assess those areas. They are your God-given essential values and gifts, so they should come pretty easily once you start to think about them. Think on these things, pray about them, then jot them down and know with confidence who the Lord has made you and what you need in a college that will encourage your desires the most. Know what is crucial and what is negotiable. There are points of connection that are more significant than others, so be willing to entertain the minimal loss of some wishes for the maximum gain in others.
A visit where you felt heard, understood and served is a huge indicator of what you will experience as a student on that particular campus. Take a tour, eat the food, sit in on a class, talk to faculty and, of course, talk to admissions. As you walk the campus, observe and interact with the people you see around you. Ask them about their college experience and how they have grown since they were a visitor themselves. Feeling comfortable is important—you could potentially call this place home for the next four years.
Christian schools vs. state schools
Now that you have some concrete components to determine what you want in a school, look at what type of school could serve you best. A dividing line gets drawn between Christian schools, and for our purposes let’s bundle the rest into the category of secular schools.
First off, there is no need to assume there is a large academic discrepancy between these two types of education. By and large, a Christian school is accredited by the same governing body that verifies academics at secular schools. Thus, you can get a quality education in either setting. Know that although the majority of Christian schools are accredited, not all Christian schools go through this rigorous process, so if that is something you are looking for, feel free to ask about it. However, if this is negotiable, then ask about their philosophy and perhaps what they say will harmonize with you.
The hallmark of most Christian schools is the integration of faith and learning. These institutions are private, meaning they can offer a special brand of education that is able to address spiritual and theological concerns in the classroom setting without government interference. This looks different at every school. As a general rule, you will most likely never hear one representative speak negatively about a competitor, but it is acceptable to ask what makes schools unique.
Some Christian schools require chapel attendance and theology classes, with a variance in the amount of each. Other Christian institutions require staff and faculty to be professing Christians, whereas some schools require everyone, including students, to be Christians. Missions and ministry are other highlights of a Christian education. Learning about theology, doctrine and the Gospel on deeper levels provides a firmer foundation for faith and inspires greater activity for God’s Kingdom while in school and in the future as a global citizen.
All in all, Christian schools offer great academics, but the classroom setting is where you will find major differences from the public sector. Private schools attempt to give personalized education. So you can expect to have brilliant professors teaching you day in, day out in smaller classes—most Christian schools offer a student-to-faculty ratio of 20:1 or below. The benefit is a better relationship with the person teaching you and greater inspiration to work diligently. Starting friendships with professors and interacting with them outside of class will prove to be infinitely valuable.
In hearing from former students, the recurring theme is that faculty are engaged and care about their students’ development. I think this trend translates to Christian education in general. Additionally, in this regard, for many students, a Christian college is also the first time the Bible is explored in an academic setting, so this affords incredible growth potential both intellectually and spiritually.
While Christian colleges and universities may suffer from a seeming lack of notoriety, I would retort, “What’s in a name?” It is true that name recognition is important, but even though Christian schools may sometimes lack in this, it is the essence of the education that matters. Without quality education, a name is just that: a name.
Realistically, there are a few other obstacles with attending a Christian school. Funding and cultural diversity are areas where Christian schools may lag behind. Private education does cost more than public, and private, Christian education is in the upper echelon of cost. But the benefit is the size and the willingness to entertain personal cases to make funding work. At this point, it is realistic to graduate from a Christian school with some debt, so be ready to potentially cross that bridge. Funding is probably the biggest obstacle for families. If you leave a visit without knowing the cost of education and basic financial aid numbers, you have been underserved.
For too many reasons to count, Christian schools also have trouble attracting and retaining students from culturally diverse backgrounds. However, large strides are being made to serve underrepresented populations because it is representative of God’s Kingdom.
Of course you should also consider public schools. Although the environment will not be spiritually motivated, there are many options to grow spiritually in secular schools. Start a Bible study, join Campus Crusade for Christ and, most importantly, find a local church to get active in. If a spiritual climate is a dominant factor, then you will probably be uncomfortable in a secular setting, but if the options mentioned above suffice, you can attain a secular education with your faith intact—it will just require more effort.
Although choosing one door can be scary, you will discover when you walk through it, you will be presented with yet another hallway and more doors. So whether you choose a Christian institution or a secular school, know the Lord is directing your path, and if you seek Him, you will serve Him wherever you end up. What a blessing our Creator, in His infinite wisdom, gave His people the faculty of the will and gift of choice.
Joshua D. Pardy lives with his wife, Emily, and daughter, Matilda, in Fullerton, CA. He has worked at Biola University for five years as a senior admissions counselor.