ACADEMICS: There’s undoubtedly a top 5% of colleges and a bottom 5% of colleges. For the remaining 90% in between, there’s very little discernible difference between them despite what all those goofy rankings tell you. What makes the difference in that 90% is how well a particular institution fits you; that’s what makes one “better” than the other. Even at that, what makes the top 5% the top 5% isn’t what they teach, it’s who they let in. I’ve long held the hypothesis that if you took Harvard, Yale or Stanford’s incoming freshman class, split it in half randomly, left one half there, sent the other half to a garden variety state university and could test them upon graduation, you wouldn’t see a statistically significant difference between the two groups. Smart, motivated people grow where ever they’re planted.
However, (and this is significant), what that top 5% gives you isn’t so much a better education but better access. It opens doors simply because of the name on the diploma. I turned down a Tier One (and those rankings are a joke, IMHO) law school to go to a Tier Three law school. I graded on to law journal by being in the top 10% of my class after first semester and never looked back. I had plenty of opportunities, but there were undoubtedly a few doors that would never be open to me because I didn’t have a brand name on my diploma. And I wouldn’t change my decision even today, twenty years later.
So, what to do:
Find the colleges at which you feel the most comfortable. The ones that make you feel like you belong, that inspire you, with which you feel a connection. The places you feel like you’d grow and learn and want to be even if you weren’t running. Places that are good in the areas you want to study. If you want to be an engineer, who cares how good their journalism school is? Look for places that act like they actually want you there instead of doing you a favor by letting you in.
Once you have this list, THEN consider the relative “quality”, to the extent that can even be measured accurately.
Then, and only then, proceed to the next step.
RUNNING: First, be very cautious about going someplace because of the coach. Coaches sometimes leave, and if you’re recruited, you sign a letter of intent with the school, not the coach. If the coach leaves, you still have a commitment to the school.
Second, pay more attention to your potential future teammates than the coach. You’ll spend far more time with them and be influenced as much or more by them than you will the coach. These will be your comrades in arms, the ones that will either help make you better or try to destroy you or not give a damn about you. Choose them carefully.
Third, look for trends in their athletes. Trends and patterns are much more important than individual results. Do they keep running after college? Do they get better as the years go by or are they cooked by their senior year? It looks like you haven’t been running long; do they have a history of developing undeveloped talent? What will you be expected to be able to do the day you hit campus?
Now, take the list from Step One and match it with the list from Step Two. Where they intersect, that’s the school(s) you want to go to.