Author: Eileen Zander

Eileen Zander

I would give anything to be in your shoes right now. Or, more accurately, to have the privilege, the opportunity, and the challenge of trying on a variety of shoes (colleges) to see which fit the best.

You’ve probably been admitted to some stellar schools, waitlisted at others (maybe even this one), and perhaps also received some disappointing small envelopes.

The reality is that you won’t have every question answered before you matriculate—in fact, I guarantee that you’ll uncover a lot more questions before you graduate. But that’s what college is for! I’d encourage you to examine your values and interests in the following six areas to discern what is important to you and at which college you can best find it. Then, use these as talking points with your parents, school counselor, and other people you trust to narrow down which college fits you “just right” for the next four years and beyond.

I had a similar slate of options back in April 2005, when I was in your shoes. I also had a lot of questions. How am I supposed to choose? What happens if I pick the “wrong one?” While this April is full of similar questions for you, I challenge you to embrace this uncertainty as an opportunity for discernment and the first step in your college journey.

Academic Options

I’ll state the obvious: If you know exactly what you want to study, make sure your college choice offers the specific major in which you are interested. However, if you change your mind, will this school have enough options and flexibility to help you find another academic area that you are equally passionate about? Which leads me to the next point…


My own meandering academic path was guided by many sainted professors and advisors at Notre Dame, both formal and informal. Will you have access to academic support at your institution of choice? Will you be empowered to think creatively and learn outside the classroom through research and study abroad opportunities? Just as important, determine the quality of the alumni network and career center, both of which are major sources of support pre- and post-graduation.


Know yourself. If you are drawn to a large school with tens of thousands of peers, then a state university could be a better fit than a small liberal arts college. However, if you thrive in a more intimate environment where everyone says “hello” on your walk to class, then focus on smaller colleges. Similarly, consider if you want the dynamic pace of an urban environment or the close-knit community of a suburban or rural campus.


Much of your learning in college will occur outside the classroom with the peers whom you will soon call your roommates, teammates and friends. While it is important to find a community in which you feel comfortable, it is equally important to meet peers with different backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences who will challenge and stretch you. Diversity of every kind will be your most challenging and rewarding teacher that will best prepare you for life after graduation.

Financial Aid

This is certainly a major factor, one that heavily influenced my own decision ten years ago. My parents and I discussed my college education as an investment beyond the next four years. Like financing a new car or mortgaging a house, my specific educational options would involve responsibly assuming some reasonable debt.  As in any wise investment, you should weigh your various financial aid packages according to your family’s individual circumstances and your future educational aspirations. However, do not let the raw numbers distract you from the bigger picture: your overall return on investment and next best alternatives should also be considered.

The Intangibles

I knew Notre Dame fit me perfectly when I visited campus and immediately felt at home. I knew that whatever lay ahead, I would not only be able to find the answers but also learn to ask the right questions under the Dome. Your new college should feel like a family that will support you and inspire you through the next four years and beyond.

In other words, “try on” as many of your choices as possible before you make your college decision. If you can physically visit campuses, strike up conversations with current students, sit in on a class, visit the rec centers and eat in the dining halls. Don’t be afraid to ask current students not only what they love about their school, but also what they would like done differently on campus. If you can’t visit all your choices, get creative by taking a virtual tour, emailing a campus resource, and talking to local alumni about their experiences. Remember to select a college based on your goals and ideals, not someone else’s. And don’t compare your college choices to your classmates'.

I am confident that there are many places where you can be successful and, more importantly, happy and fulfilled. However, be sure not to settle for simply graduating in four years after you earn the minimum amount of credits. Ask more of yourself in college; start by truly discerning what you want during the next four years.

After all, deciding on a college is not just a four-year decision. College is the first step on your path into adulthood, and you want to make that step wearing the right shoes.