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5 Essential Keys in Your perfect college search - Tom McFadden

5 Essential Keys to Your Perfect College Search


Tom McFadden, homeschooling dad and Vice President for Enrollment at Christendom College, discusses how to keep priorities straight in the college search.

The whole college selection process can be a very daunting challenge for Catholic families, both to those searching for the first-time, and even to those who have gone through the process before.

Why is it such a challenge?

Simply put – going to college can change a person’s life forever, and I mean forever, including where he ends up for eternity.

The statistics of Catholic students graduating from college with their faith intact are not too promising. Over 80% of Catholics who leave the Faith do so between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three. What do many people do during those formative years?

They go to college. According to a popular saying, the most dangerous place for a baby is a mother’s womb.

Of course, this in reference to the horror of abortion that results in the slaughter of millions of babies yearly. I’d like to propose that the most dangerous place for a teenager is college.

Millions of souls are lost each year as the no longer practicing and believing Catholics walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, which are both materially and spiritually expensive.

For many of you parents reading this article, you have made the choice to homeschool your children – one of the greatest gifts you could ever give your them, in my opinion. Many of you have chosen to homeschool for the same reasons my wife and I have.

You want your children to be raised by you, the family, rather than the secular society. You want to ensure that they are learning the

Faith in a fully-Catholic environment, and you want to give them the most personalized attention you can so that they might succeed academically.

And now it is time to choose a college. After all those years of sacrificing to give their children the best possible Catholic education, many parents are confronted with a huge decision.

They ask themselves,

“What college can we send our children to where they will achieve their life-long goals of staying Catholic, delving deeper into the Faith, gaining wisdom and good friends, discerning their vocations, broadening their worldview, landing good jobs, and finding true happiness?”

I know this sounds like a tall order, but these are the goals I have for my eleven children, and these are the concerns that I have heard from thousands of parents over the past twelve years working in Christendom College’s admissions office. Thus, the advice I always give to prospective college students and their parents consists of the following five points.

1. Figure out what you are looking for in a college education.

It’s your life. It’s your future. It’s your soul. You need to figure out what you want, or need, in life. Don’t rely on what others tell you – except the advice of those who know you best (your parents and maybe your priest).

There are going to be a lot of people who have opinions about where you should go to college, what you should study, why this or that major is useless, what the best majors are for this job market, and so on. It’s all well-intentioned, I am sure, but you need to focus on your life goals.

It’s not all about the college major either, because people change their majors a lot in college, and then they even change careers a lot after college. So, in order to figure out what you want from a college, create a three-part list:

a. Must-have in college
b. Must-not-have in college
c. Would be nice if…

Some Catholics might include the following in their “must-have” list:

  • the academic courses are not taught in a manner contrary to Church teachings;
  • the academic program is rigorous and requires much study and hard work;
  • all professors are faithful Catholics and serve as good examples and mentors;
  • there are Catholic-friendly rules governing residence life (such as a modest dress code, alcohol policies, single-sex dormitories, intervisitation restrictions, internet filtering, etc.);
  • the Sacraments and other spiritual activities are amply available (daily Mass, adoration. Rosary, confession, spiritual direction, etc.);
  • the program is affordable, with opportunities for scholarships, loans, and grants.

Some might include these in their “must-not-have” list:

  • co-ed dormitories or intervisitation;
  • anti-Catholic speakers invited to campus;
  • liberal professors teaching courses from a secular or anti-Catholic point of view;
  • heretical theology departments;
  • crazy party dorm life;
  • Wi-Fi in residence hall rooms;
  • poor quality academics with little focus on rigor or high standards;
  • huge post-graduation student loans.

And some might include these items in their “would be nice if…” list:

  • a particular sport or extracurricular activity;
  • a beautiful rural or busy city setting;
  • organic food or fast food all the time;
  • free laptops or cars allowed on campus;
  • internship opportunities or career development assistance;
  • close to home or really far from home;
  • research opportunities or work-study positions;
  • this or that particular major.

See how easy that was? I know; I’m kidding. Figuring out your “must,” “must not,” and “would be nice” lists is not easy at all, but the process is most important. Students and their families should discuss these lists sometime in sophomore or junior year.

And remember that focusing on a particular college mainly because it has the specific major that you want to study because you want to work in that field post-graduation is not your best bet, in my opinion, and based on the fact that only 27% of people end up working in the field in which they majored.

2. Research

Look up the colleges/universities on the internet, thoroughly review their missions, programs, and overall purposes, and refer to the Newman Guide for Choosing a Catholic College.

It is very important to do your research. Don’t just jump on a plane and visit ten schools – you’ll go broke, and secondly, you might find that what they are offering is completely contrary to your “must have” list. Instead, spend time looking at college websites.

It’s important to remember that colleges spend a lot of time updating their websites, choosing text, content, pictures, videos, and stories which they believe will give you a better understanding of their unique schools.

Oh, you didn’t know that each college was unique? Yes, each one is different in the particular way that it does what it does.

Even the colleges in the Newman Guide might seem similar, but each one has its own “signature dish,” so to speak.

It’s up to you to find out from the college what that is – if you haven’t already come to an understanding of it on your own.

This topic leads us to point number three.

3. Ask questions of the admissions office.

Every college admissions office is staffed with very knowledgeable and helpful people. The job of the various admissions office personnel is not to force you to attend their college by beating you into submission.

Their job is to give you as much information as possible about their college, and to give you any insights they might have about the differences between their institution and another one in which you have expressed interest.

All of this is in the hope of helping you to make the best, most informed decision when it comes to choosing a college. They can normally be reached by email, by phone, or online via webchat or social media.

As an admissions counselor, I loved talking to students and their parents about the unique educational experience that Christendom offers. So, please, rely on the admissions staff and ask them hundreds of questions!

4. Visit your short list of schools.

OK. You’ve made your lists. You’ve talked to your parents and priests. You’ve done your research online and by reading through the various college guides. You’ve talked to admissions office personnel.

And now, after all that, you’ve narrowed your options down to three or five schools that seem to meet the requirements of your various lists. Now it is time to go and make an official college visit.

When visiting, bring a list of prepared questions to ask the admissions director or counselor with whom you will meet. Maybe talk about finances, scholarships, and the application process timeline.

It is advisable to ask about the college’s alumni, since they are the actual product of the school. What do they do with their lives? Are they still Catholic? Are they happy? Are they successful? Are they in good vocations?

Remember, always focus on your main priorities.

Make sure you ask about the college’s “signature dish” by asking, “what will I get at this college or university that I won’t be able to get anywhere else?”

5. Pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance to make the right decision.

Finally, you must pray about your decision. Going to this or that college will change your life forever, either for good or for bad.

Many Catholics leave the Faith during their college years; some “survive college” and keep the Faith; others grow and mature in their Faith.

Much of this depends on where you go to school, who you hang out with, and what you are studying. Should you be in a place that offers a particular degree in a not-so-Catholic environment? Or are you more concerned with being in a Catholic environment with a limited number of degrees?

Do you want to get out of college debt-free after having paid the least amount out of pocket, even if it means sacrificing a Catholic education? Or are you willing to accumulate some debt and pay some money out of pocket to get the education you want?

In the end, there is only one job we are all called to do, and that is to become saints. Going to college can help or deter us from doing this, and it is only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we can know that we have made the right choice.

As an anecdote (and a shameless plug for Christendom), my parents sent all six of their children to Christendom College.

Two of us graduated from there, while the other four spent the first two years getting solidified in the liberal arts before transferring to state colleges to study engineering and computer science.

To this day, my mom and dad say that sending their children to Christendom was the best decision they ever made as parents. Why? Because we are all still Catholic, we are all in good marriages, we are all successful professionally and financially, and we are all happy. Unfortunately, this is not commonplace amongst families today.

As my liberal arts educated mother always quoted to my electrical engineer father,

“But seek ye first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Matt. 6:33)

Header photo CC VadimGuzhva | adobestock.com

About Tom McFadden

Tom McFadden
Tom McFadden holds a BA and MA in Theology and has worked at Christendom College since 2000, serving first as the Director of Admissions and most recently as the Vice President for Enrollment. He and his wife Amanda are the proud parents of eleven children.

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