Choosing a College: Gut Feelings and Pro/Con Lists

In many ways, the college you pick will determine the course of your life. I don’t mean to overstate or add pressure to an already intense process, but it can be true. Your college experience, from the friends you make and the place you live to your classroom and extracurricular choices add up to the bridge between childhood and the adult world. Where you make this transition will inevitably inform the full span of your life once you graduate and launch into the “real world.”

So this decision really could be the most important one you have ever made.

That being said, I am also of the opinion that most people can thrive at a whole range of colleges. I think you can happily settle into many different environments, pick from a variety of majors, and develop an active and satisfying undergraduate college experience. I don’t think there is one “perfect fit” for each student. But it is vastly helpful to find a perfect fit, based on all kinds of criteria and opportunities.

School choice was discussed briefly on the guest post “Small School, Small Town, Big Opportunities,” by my friend Rebecca Rothkopf. This blog post was eye-opening for me, since I knew that a rural setting would not be a good fit for me. But her advice also made sense to me: that a rural school would offer a different variety of opportunities and student life. And that I could possibly have thrived at some of the schools I had dismissed out of hand

Here is a quick description of my college selection process, which might hopefully illustrate that choice and possibly serve as an example of how college choice can work (not that I think my process was the ideal one)

My school choice process was a combination of gut instinct, geographic prejudice, research, and pro/con lists. I visited schools in the Pacific Northwest, which was where I thought I wanted to go to school (and which offered the Western Undergraduate Exchange scholarship, which meant I could go to these places for 150% of what I would have paid in my home state of Colorado). I toured the schools and wandered the local towns. I did research online and tried to get a sense of the types of classes and the basic profile of students. I wandered into the craft centers and gyms and local bookstores. I sat in on classes. I asked about extracurriculars and student organizations. I tried to get a sense of life in each location.

In the end, I went with my gut. And then I made a pro/con list to back my gut up.

I fell instantly in love with the University of Oregon, with the Honors College, and with Eugene. The whole place felt so alive and so dynamic. It was looking for the kind of student I wanted to be. It was the first stop of my Pacific Northwest tour (although I had looked at Colorado schools previously), and each new school only confirmed the “rightness” of the first.

I pretty much knew I wanted to go to the UO from my first step on campus. My “gut” said yes because:

  • It felt good to be on campus
  • I was inspired by posters/fliers/student activities
  • The Honors College curriculum impressed me
  • Campus was beautiful
  • The town was funky
  • There was a clear activist/social justice “vibe”
  • There were tons of events advertised in a plethora of topics 
  • There was a rock wall (I’m sure this detail features in many gut-level decisions, since there’s just something so cool about it)
  • There was an active outdoor pursuits center, full of opportunities I would love to take advantage of
  • The craft center was funky and busy
  • The students seemed upbeat and engaged
  • I felt I could “see myself” there

Even at the time, I recognized that these factors were largely irrational. The presence of a rock wall and craft center should not determine an academic/career selection criteria. And yet this felt compelling and inspiring to me. And it turns out that many of the “gut reaction” factors I listed here had to do with student life and the student experience. Whether or not I ever used the rock wall (which I did, eventually), I wanted to be part of a campus community with an active, outdoor vibe. I wanted to be part of a community of students who were actively engaged.

My gut was telling me that the UO was a place where I wanted to live, and which would nurture my academic interests (the vibe at the Honors College) and my general passions and extracurricular interests (the campus vibe in general).

But I’m far too “serious” to make a decision this big based on my gut. So I wrote a pro/con list.

A couple of schools were disqualified right away because they weren’t a good fit in some obvious and significant way. For the remaining schools, I set up a pro/con chart and traced out all the facts and figures.

Here were the general themes on my pro/con lists (and, as you’ll see, these are very unique to MY interests and needs, rather than universally good or bad college attributes):



  • Big fraternity/sorority presence
  • Big sports culture
  • Lots of introduction classes taught by graduate students
  • Cost

These lists will be unique to each person. I knew I didn’t want to be part of a sorority, and so I wanted to go to a school where social life wasn’t centered on Greek life. Other people might seek out a school—including the UO—for the quality and availability of fraternities and sororities. Similarly, I am not a sports fan, and I wanted to go to a school where that wouldn’t be a huge part of the student culture. But I chose to go to a school with a strong sports focus because of the factors that outweighed this aspect of campus life.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I made my initial college selection the second I set foot on the University of Oregon campus. But then I made a pro/con list and worked through my reasoning. I gave myself time to consider whether the academic opportunities I would have at the Honors College would outweigh some of the large introductory classes I would take elsewhere on campus. And whether the “pro” of student organizations and activism would out weigh the (for me) “con” of the sports culture. And when I lined up all my top university selections, the UO still won for me.

Research is important. Read up on your top choices. Give yourself the time to really think through what you want for your education as well as your non-academic life. What suits your personality? Your goals? Your learning style? Check out the college rankings and what various online resources can tell you about each school. Line up statistics and strengths. Compare and contrast each potential school and make a rational, reasoned decision about what will work for you.

But also get on campus and trust your gut. And if you get that sense of “yes,” then listen to that. In a perfect world, you’ll have a clear winner on your pros/cons list, and that will match your gut’s choice.

Best of luck with your school decision!


If you liked this post, you might also like “Location," "Selecting a College: Sitting in on Classes," and “Small Town, Small Schools, Big Opportunities.”

Do your pro/con lists match mine? What are important considerations I missed? What’s your balance of “gut” vs. “pro/con” rationality? Please share your college selection thoughts here!