Not Another Pros and Cons List: What’s Important to You in Choosing a College?

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The Pros and Cons of Pros and Cons

I’m a huge fan of pros and cons lists. As cliche as they may be (con), they do help me to organize my thoughts and feelings ahead of a big decision (pro), even if they don’t necessarily make the decision for me.

Unfortunately, decisions start to get a lot more complicated as you get older (or so you’ll be told, if you haven’t been told already). There’s a lot more information coming at you. It’s odd. At first I thought extraneous or fluffy details like a college’s Instagram bio were just distracting.

But distractions are really important, because eventually those distractions will make up your college experience. And so will the “important” things. The college experience is holistic, as is the admissions process, so I had to learn to appreciate every detail, large and small.

These details were a large part of what made schools difficult to compare quantitatively or with some sort of “objective” mechanism like a pros and cons list. That’s why doing a side-by-side comparison, while helpful, just scratches the surface.

A Colorful Solution

There are probably a lot of solutions to the problem of comparing apples to oranges when it comes to choosing a college (or at least narrowing down your list). I can’t say mine was the best, but it was sort of fun: I made a color-coded spreadsheet of every college I was considering cross-referenced with all my criteria.

It didn’t need to be color-coded, I guess. But it just felt right. (And paying attention to your gut instincts can be one of the best college choice strategies.)

I had a long list of criteria, so my next task was to order them all according to importance. Then I filled in the spreadsheet with the information regarding each criterion and ranked colleges according to each one.

Some criteria, of course, can’t exactly be quantified, like the specific extracurricular opportunities a college offers or how good their dining hall menus look. I found that it helped to make an all-pros list of these kinds of qualities and compare those once I finished my spreadsheet.

There were also a lot of criteria that could really only apply to me and would never be listed on any college ranking site, like average precipitation and temperature (ranked according to my own preferences) or distance from home.

Subjectivity: A Pro and a Con?

A quality like “distance from home” provides another interesting example of the need for personal subjectivity when evaluating colleges. For me, a college was ranked higher in this category if it was farther away, because I wanted to see more of the country. Some people, though, might rank closer schools higher because of cheaper and more frequent opportunities to see family and friends.

Although it was very subjective, what I did to figure out where I stood on my college options is not that different from the “objective” methodology of a ranking site such as US News. US News gives a detailed description of its methodology in which it defines the categories it uses for ranking and how it weights them.

While perusing their methodology guide doesn’t make their rankings any more subjective, it does make it a lot more transparent. Once you see how a ranking site has evaluated criteria, you can compare it with the way you would evaluate it.

Maybe student selectivity for the recent entering class is worth more than 12.5% to you. Maybe undergraduate academic reputation is worth less than 22.5%. You can take the objective criteria used in published rankings and use them to your own subjective ends.

Because yes, it’s important for a ranked college list to be as objective as possible. They offer information that you can use when making your decisions, and you want that information to be as valid as possible.

But after a few headaches from staring too long at a list of college rankings, I figured that it’s not my job to be objective. If anything, it’s my job to be subjective. It’s not like you’re going to go through college objectively; it’s going to be your experience, hopefully one of the best of your life! So why be objective in choosing that experience?

The Ultimate Pro: Listening to Yourself

Picking a college can be hard because people will ask, “Why did you choose this college over that one? Do you think your college is better?” Some people will ask these questions because they perceive that you are sending some sort of message with your college choice.

Really, though, choosing a college is about receiving a message, not sending one. I didn’t want to choose a college because it is objectively a better school than another. I wanted to choose a college because it was, almost completely subjectively, the best fit for me.

You might not need a color-coded spreadsheet to decide that for yourself. Maybe you’ll only need a pros and cons list or a US News ranking. But whatever you do, don’t feel like you have to explain yourself to anyone. Your methodology is unique to you, just like your college experience will be.

Story by Sarah Chandler originally published in CollegeVine’s Zen blog on August 23, 2016.