Most of us have a picture of how it will work. First, determine your life’s passion, then get accepted to the perfect college, graduate in four years and finally, score that perfect job and live happily ever after.

That ideal scenario is often unrealistic and creates massive amounts of pressure, leaving high school students totally overwhelmed, says Marty O’Connell, executive director of Colleges that Change Lives, a nonprofit group dedicated to the advancement and support of a student-centered college search process.

The true goal of your college years is to gain the skills needed to succeed in today’s jobs and those in future industries.

“We are no longer in a society where you get a degree, get a job and then retire in that job,” says Andy Roop, executive director of recruitment services with the University of Oklahoma. “You want a degree that can move with you.”    

Successful college graduates come from a diverse background. They must be creative, critical thinkers and excellent communicators, shares O’Connell.

“This idea that you have to find the right college couldn’t be further from the truth,” says O’Connell. “There are probably several colleges that can help you achieve your goals.”

Focus instead on finding a good fit, a place where you can succeed, says Bruce Perkins, dean of enrollment management at Oklahoma Baptist University.  

“Motivation is a very strong factor in a student’s success,” explains Perkins. “If a student is in a place they want to be and where they feel they belong academically, economically, socially and spiritually it is quite conducive for success.”

Many students and their parents base their college search on national rankings. Yet, these rankings provide a limited picture, say Roop and O’Connell.

“Rankings shouldn’t be the only thing making your decision,” says Roop. “Use them as a guide.”     

“Instead, rank colleges based on you and your needs,” advises O’Connell. 

Another common misnomer is that size matters.

“Students think they have to go to a college bigger than their high school,” shares O’Connell. “Colleges tend to be very diverse with students from all around the world. A small school can feel very different than the numbers might seem.”

It’s also important to have a realistic and accurate view of your financial situation and the out of pocket costs involved.  

“Be real about what you can do financially,” shares O’Connell. “Use real time financial information to help you accurately plan.”

“Take a hard look at those expenses you are responsible for and the payment plan options available so there are no surprises later,” offers Perkins. “    

The federal Department of Education website offers a school-to-school comparison worksheet to help you fully understand the varying costs.    

“This guide helps you compare apples to apples,” says Roop.

Once you have narrowed down your search to a few good options, take the time to visit the campus.  

“There is only so much you can understand from a website or publication,” explains Perkins. “How many of us would buy a house sight unseen? It’s going to be for home for a few years so you need to get a true feel. You need to interact with the campus, the students and the teachers.”

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