Picking a college is probably one of the most important choices you're going to make in your life. Besides the fact that you'll spend the next three to six years there, the education, experiences and brand name you get will follow you through most of your career. So on what criteria should you base your decision?
This will narrow your list immensely. Do you want a college near your house? Do you want a college that is at least in the same city as you are? Commuting time and convenience are important considerations. If you are leaving home or your city for a college in another university, this becomes less important, since you can choose a residence near your college instead of choosing a college near your residence.
Like it or not, what kind of brand your college has is important. "It's quite fashionable to say that a few years after you've left college, noone will ask you which college you went to: they're only interested in your work," says Sneha Palit, a third-year BA student at the Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. "But what determines the kind of company you join or work you do immediately after college? The reputation of the college you've just graduated from." Joining a college with a brand name saves you years of having to prove yourself.
How do you evaluate how highly a college is regarded? One quick (but very objective and surprisingly reliable) method is to look at the cut-offs which are usually available online or in the university prospectus. The higher the cut-offs, the more sought-after the college -- and the more "brand power" it commands. Cut-offs are the prices of the academic world: they tell what you can afford, and how much other people consider something to be worth.
One of the oldest debates -- should you choose a college you really want even if you don't get the subjects you do? Should you go to a college that you don't just because it gives you your desired course?
This is, of course, entirely for you to decide and no can choose for you. A good way of figuring out what you want is to ask yourself if you're clear about what kind of career you want. If you're absolutely determined to become a sociologist, you can simply run your finger down the list of colleges (ranked by their faculties or cut-offs) until you fine one that has sociology cut-offs low enough to accept you. If you aren't sure what you want, you can choose an "all-purpose" degree -- like Commerce, Economics etc -- at a good college.
Economists theorise that a large chunk of education is simply a way of signaling. Employers want highly capable, smart, hard-working employees. However, separating the capable from the incompetent -- specially among people who have freshly entered the workforce -- is difficult.
A college degree is a good way of doing this. A person who has managed to finish a college degree clearly has some kind of capability. And the brand of the college also plays an important role. A highly-sought after college chooses (theoretically) only the best and brightest.
Thus graduating from such a college is a good signal. Highly sought-after courses are signals for the same reason. The signal you finally send out is a combination of your college and course.
Also note that your degree can limit your future options.
"If you wish to be a financial analyst, a degree in anything other that Economics, Maths, Statistics or Commerce can stall you," says Kshitij Choudary, a second year student of economics. "However, if you want to be a cartoonist, it doesn't matter what course you take." So choose wisely.
Remember: a distinguished faculty doesn't necessarily translate into a good faculty. Knowing something well and teaching it well are two vastly different things. To find out which colleges have the best faculties, ask your seniors, who have taken courses under these teachers and probably know which other colleges have good faculties too. If a teacher is interesting as well as informed, it'll make your studies and college years much easier.
College can be expensive. 'Financial aid' and scholarships are not as common in India as other countries. If finances are tight at home or if you simply wish to enter the workforce without a huge loan hanging over your head, a government college is the best option for you. Even among private colleges, certain courses demand less as 'donations' than others. The 'donations' you have to pay also decrease if your marks are higher.
A college in interior Tamil Nadu will have very different students compared to those in a college in Tamil Nadu. Even within the same geographical area, some colleges have different rules than others and enforce them with varying degrees of severity. Find out about how liberal or strict a college is before your join it. Ask your seniors.
Some colleges have excellent sports facilities, auditoriums etc. Others don't. Besides the physical infrastructure, the organisations within the college vary in quality. A highly reputed college may have a debating society which is of low quality. So if you are very serious about debates in college, you may wish to be selective. If the debating society is inferior, you may not be trained well. This argument applies to everything from basketball to dramatics.
Other than this, rules and attitudes vary from college to college. "Some colleges even give you attendance to compensate for the classes you missed while rehearsing for a play," says Shwetab Singh, a student who is very involved with the Dramatics Society on his college. "Others may not even acknowledge your existence."
If you're serious about pursuing an ECA ask in advance. Ask your seniors, because they will be more aware of the ground realities than the administrators. Some colleges even have ECA quotas. This may permit you to enter a college of your choice even if you don't have the required marks.
Some colleges have generous quotas for certain communities (St Stephens' 50+per cent Christian quota is a well-known example). Some colleges are co-ed, while others are not. In the end, your tastes will play a big part in deciding if these -- or any of the above -- criteria are relevant and to what degree.
It's advisable to make a 'long list' of colleges that fulfill some simple criteria -- like location --and then a shortlist after eliminating colleges for various reasons. Investigate the colleges on this list till you've found one to your liking. Once done, apply to at least two colleges if not more, just to ensure you aren't left out in the cold for lack of a few percentage points.