How to choose a college: Tips for high-achieving students

If you are a high-achieving student, you may have a lot of options when it comes to choosing a college. Admissions and Recruitment Manager Quentin Owens-Smith shares tips on finding a college that feels like home, without breaking the bank.

Three students pose for a selfie on the Quad at night in front of a lit-up Mackay Hall.

How to choose a college: Tips for high-achieving students

If you are a high-achieving student, you may have a lot of options when it comes to choosing a college. Admissions and Recruitment Manager Quentin Owens-Smith shares tips on finding a college that feels like home, without breaking the bank.

Three students pose for a selfie on the Quad at night in front of a lit-up Mackay Hall.

Feeling wanted and knowing you belong.

In my opinion, these two things are at the heart of deciding which college to attend.

I was chatting with a National Merit Finalist last week when she expressed that she had hit her breaking point of information overload. After receiving hefty amounts of college mail over the last few months she said, “Quentin, the 10 pounds of mail a week is getting excessive and the emails are getting worst. I have never even heard of these schools before. How do they know so much about me? I don’t know what to do.”

My response was simple. “Let’s be real, there is a thin line between being wanted and just being annoyed. Do not fall for the optics of mass produced 'personalized' mailings and emails. Colleges and universities usually do mass-produced mailings and emails to pique your interest. Everybody does it, even us. You can always opt-out. Simply say, ‘Thank you. But, no thank you.’”

But you are interested in some of the colleges sending you mail.

You have never gotten less than a B+. For the real ambitious, an A-. You have worked extremely hard busting your tail on every assignment. You have broken every exam bell curve known to humankind. You are actively involved at your school and the greater community you call home. You even managed to score in the top 1% of PSAT test takers, becoming a National Merit Semifinalist. Congrats! And, you are a really nice person that knows how to use the proper their, there, and they’re (a pet peeve of mine). You are a true scholar. You have applied to America’s top universities, according to some college guide. As a side note, I find it very odd that the “top” 20 universities are never public colleges (side-eye emoji) and lack diversity too. I digress, that is a blog article for another day.)

How to decide which college to attend

With a stellar record you have lots of options. So, as you continue to expand your college search, you go through the stack of brochures piling up on your desk.

You ask yourself, “What really matters?”

Location, location, location

I personally hate extreme cold weather, this is why I live in the state of Nevada. Find a college location that you can call “home” because you will be there for the next four years. But also, find a college environment that gives you a sense of belonging. It may be the sheer size of the school or the many communities within in it, but consider your place within that school.

Scholarship: Show me the money?

No, not that kind of scholarship. I will cover that in second. I am talking about Merriam-Webster’s second definition of scholarship defined as: “the character, qualities, activity, or attainments of a scholar: learning.”

We have established you are intelligent and love learning. Other people know it too, hence the 10 lbs of mail you are receiving each week. When we talk about scholarship, we are talking about something that goes beyond the degree or major. Scholarship is much more.

Does your university provide ample opportunities for undergraduate research and academic mentorship? Experiences such as these will propel you into new endeavors. Many National Merit Finalists and Presidential Scholars at the University of Nevada, Reno are competitive for international fellowships, internships, and academic conferences because of early exposure and experience within their fields of study. A hallmark of scholarship opportunities is the ability to be published. Access to undergraduate publication can be very rare, but at colleges that offer meaningful scholarship opportunities, like the University of Nevada, Reno, it is a real possibility.

Show me the money (yes, that kind of scholarship)

In the 21st century, you and your family should not be breaking the bank to attend a Tier One Research University, especially if you are taking challenging high school courses with an amazing grade point average and scoring in the top one percent of test takers. As the national student loan debt sits at 1.6 trillion dollars, more college students are taking a hard look at the realities of taking on college debt. I would argue that no college is worth slowing down your future dreams and personal ambitions because of incredible debt. “A borrower is a slave to the lender,” I learned that from my Jesuit College colleagues.

Do I matter?

That is how I initiated this conversation. Feeling wanted and knowing you belong. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Has an admissions representative reached out to you by email or text? If so, did you receive a generic reply from a chatbot? If it was in fact a chatbot that responded, sounds like it may not be the college for you.
  • Have you received an invitation to meet current students and teaching faculty? If yes, it is a good sign. Hearing from current students breeds lots of honesty. And, when a teaching or research faculty member contacts you directly, that is a really big deal. It shows two things. One, the university is interested in learning about you and the new freshman class (your future colleagues). And, two, the teaching faculty is accessible to undergraduate students. If teaching faculty are not accessible to undergraduates students, it is a no-go for me.

I did not cover everything you might be considering but, I hope you have gained some perspective in making this big decision. As we have gone through a global pandemic, I have personally reflected on what truly matters in this world for our applicants, and that is YOU. You matter, and don’t you forget it. Best of luck with your future endeavors.


Quentin Owens-SmithHi, I’m Quentin! I am the Manager of Scholar Admissions and Recruitment for the University of Nevada, Reno. If you have questions about becoming the next SCHOLAR at the University of Nevada, Reno, please text or email me. I look forward to meeting you!.

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