How to Choose a College: The Ultimate Guide

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Choosing where to go to college is a big life decision—and it’s a decision you have to make while you’re still a teenager. That can feel pretty overwhelming, especially when you consider that there are more than 5,300 colleges in the United States alone. So, how do you choose a college?

Where do you even begin? How do you know which school is right for you?

In this ultimate guide, we’ll answer these questions and many more. You have a big decision to make, but we’ve got your back!

Set Your Preferences and Priorities

Before you navigate to a college ranking site or pick up a college guidebook, consider your personal preferences and priorities. It’s important to be clear on what you want and what matters to you before you begin your search. Read through the questions and considerations below to get started.

What do you want to major in?

The purpose of college is to receive an education that will prepare you to succeed in your future career (and life in general). Finding a college that will help you achieve your career goals is key.

So, what are your career goals? If you haven’t decided on a specific job, what are some fields that interest you? What subjects do you enjoy and excel in at school? You don’t need to have your entire future mapped out yet, but you should have a few possibilities in mind.

Next, research college majors that will qualify you for your desired career or field. Navigate to a search engine and type “college majors for a career in [your field of interest].” Make a list of these majors, and be sure to find a school that offers your preferred major(s). Ideally, the school will be particularly strong in your chosen area.

You can always change your major later, but it may mean more time in college (and more money out of your pocket). Having a general idea of your areas of interest and some possible careers can help you make the most of your time and choose a school that will meet your needs.

What criteria matters to you?

Of course, choosing the right college is about more than academics. Sure, this is where you’ll be learning for the next four years. But it’s also where you’ll be socializing, volunteering, interning, and living. Think about qualities that matter to you in both a school and a home.

Some questions to consider include:

  • Do you want to attend school close to home or farther away?
  • Are you looking for a public school or a private school?
  • Would you like to live in a big city or a small town?
  • Would you be happier at a school with a large or small student population—or somewhere in between?
  • How about the weather? Do you want to go to school somewhere sunny? Is it OK if it snows a lot?
  • Do you want to be near mountains, beaches, places with lots of outdoor activities, etc.?
  • What sort of internships and job opportunities interest you? Are these interests location dependent, or are they available just about everywhere?
  • Are there any clubs or activities that are especially important to you?
  • What sort of social life are you looking for? Is an active Greek life (e.g. sororities and fraternities) something you’d like to participate in?
  • Do sports teams matter? Would you like to attend a spirited school with competitive athletics?
  • Are there any aspects of the student body that are important to you? For instance, do you want to go somewhere with a diverse student population? Would you like to attend a school with students that skew more liberal or more conservative? Or a school where most students are affiliated with a particular religion?

Some of these questions may seem insignificant to you, and it’s fine if you have no preference. But if reading other questions triggers a strong, immediate answer for you, write it down. If you know for sure that you’re most comfortable living in a big city or that you want to pledge a sorority, look for schools that will allow you to do just that.

What other stats should you look at?

Other factors and stats to keep in mind include:

  • College rankingsMany websites and publications rank colleges based on a variety of statistics. Although rankings shouldn’t be one of the most important factors, they do give you an idea of the school’s reputation and quality. You can also find rankings of various degree programs, plus everything from which schools have the happiest students to which universities boast the best dorm rooms or dining halls.
  • Student retention rate – A higher retention rate signifies that students are happy and satisfied with the school.
  • Tuition – You’ll want to have an idea of exactly how much each school will cost to attend. However, this shouldn’t be a deciding factor in whether or not you apply—more on that later.
  • Graduation rate – You can also look into how many students graduate on time. A high graduation rate may indicate that students receive quality instruction and adequate academic support.
  • Student-to-faculty ratio – If the school has a lower student-to-faculty ratio, you’ll receive more personalized attention in class. Getting help with course material is easier, and you’ll build connections with professors that can serve you well as you apply to graduate school, seek internships, or network in your future career.
  • Transportation How easy or difficult is it to get around campus and/or travel to and from off-campus activities? Are some forms of student/public transportation free or low cost? If you’re bringing a car, how is on-campus parking?
  • Meal plans What meal plans does the school offer? Are they affordable? Will you have access to food that you like and that meets any specific dietary needs?
  • Internships/job preparation Does the school have a career center? Do they help students find internships? What steps do they take to prepare you for life after college? You can also check statistics on career placement after graduation.
  • Alumni network – A school with a large and/or active alumni network can help you make valuable internship and career connections.
  • School safety – Of course, you want to feel safe on campus. Do current students report feeling safe at the school? Is the campus crime rate low? Are paths well-lit? What is campus police presence like?

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot to consider.” You’re right! But remember, it’s up to you to decide which factors you want to prioritize. Based on the factors listed above, create your own list of important criteria.

You may also want to write a list of questions you’d like to answer as you research schools (e.g., “How many students attend this school?” or, “What type of support will I have finding an internship/landing a job?” or even, “Is the food any good?”).

Creating a customized list of what matters to you provides an excellent starting point for your college search, making the whole process far less overwhelming. It also ensures that you choose a school for the right reason: because it’s a solid fit for your personality, interests, and goals.

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Build a Shortlist

Once you have your criteria, you’re ready to build a shortlist of schools that appeal to you. Start by finding colleges that match broad criteria, like location, major, public vs. private, and enrollment size.

Next, you’ll take a deeper dive into each of these colleges to determine if they meet your more specific preferences, such as student-faculty ratio, specific activities and opportunities, or other aspects of student life.

How to Research Colleges

Of course, you might feel like that’s easier said than done. How do you research colleges? Where do you find all of this information?

Luckily, you have a lot of helpful sources to browse. These include:

  • The official website of the college or university
  • College ranking lists
  • College guidebooks like Fiske
  • Transizion articles
  • The college’s newspaper
  • Online forums like Reddit

You’ll find statistics and helpful information on school websites, Transizion, ranking sites, and guidebooks. Meanwhile, sources like school newspapers and forums will give you a better idea of what day-to-day life is like at the university.

If you know any current or former students, it’s helpful to send a text or an Instagram DM and ask a few questions. If you’re comfortable with it, ask about getting together for lunch or coffee to discuss the university.

As you conduct your research, you’ll probably cross some schools off your initial list. You may also find some schools to add! Ultimately, your goal is to find the universities that most closely match your list of preferences and criteria.

How many colleges should I apply to?

You’ll hear varying answers to this question, but we recommend applying to at least six schools, and ideally no more than 15. If you go beyond 15, you’ll likely find it hard to juggle application requirements and deadlines, not to mention application fees.

If you’re struggling to narrow it down, keep researching. Watch Youtube videos, talk to more students, or take a few virtual tours. Which schools seem like the best fit for you? And don’t forget to consider your chances of acceptance as well.

You should divide the schools on your list into three categories: reach, target, and safety. To do so, you’ll need to know your SAT/ACT scores and GPA. Then, research the average SAT/ACT scores and GPA of admitted students. You can find this information on the school’s website, usually in the Admission section. If you don’t see it, try a Google search like “average GPA at [school]” or “average SAT score at [school].” Many websites compile these statistics.

Based on this info, you’ll determine whether the school is a reach (your numbers are at the low end of the school’s average or below average), target (your numbers are well within the school’s average), or safety (your numbers are above the school’s average). If you don’t have any safety schools on your list, backtrack to your broader list of criteria and find some options that meet most of your preferences.

Apply to 2-3 safety schools, 2-4 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. You might surprise yourself and get into the reach school of your dreams—but no matter what happens, you’ll have some great options to choose from. And remember: Your numbers are just one portion of a pretty big application, so don’t be discouraged!

Wait—what about tuition and financial aid?

We mentioned that you’ll want to know the cost of attendance at every school on your list, but that it shouldn’t be a deciding factor in whether or not you apply.

Why? Because financial aid and scholarships could significantly cut costs, bringing a seemingly unaffordable school into your price range. (Of course, there are also student loans, although loans must be paid back with interest. Turn to loans only as a last resort—and strongly consider attending more affordable schools before choosing that option.)

If a school fits all of your criteria, you should apply, even if it appears to be out of your price range. At the same time, make sure you apply to some schools that are firmly within your price range as well. It’s similar to having safety schools: Your dream school may be more within reach than you think, but you’ll have other options if it’s not.

Once you begin to receive acceptance letters, some schools may also send you financial aid award letters. You’ll be able to compare the offers from various schools—and consider how any other financial aid/scholarships will offset costs—before making your choice.

Visit Campus

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, it’s helpful to visit your top choices in person. There’s nothing like seeing the university for yourself and getting a “feel” for campus life. Take a guided tour, but make time for some independent exploration too. Visit the library and the dining halls, peek into some classrooms and dorm rooms if you can, and try to talk to a few students about their experiences.

Walk around and try to imagine yourself living and learning on campus for the next four years. Does the idea excite you? Does it feel “right?” It may sound strange, but you’ll likely find that being physically present at the schools on your list will guide you in the right direction. Don’t underestimate the power of a campus visit.

If you can’t visit before applying (or if there are just too many schools on your list), we highly recommend visiting the schools that send you acceptance letters before you make your final decision. Sometimes, a school that seems right on paper is clearly not the right fit in person, and sometimes a school may pleasantly surprise you.

What NOT to Do When Choosing a College

If you’ve made it to this point in our guide, it’s probably clear that choosing a college is all about finding the right fit for you. That being said, here are some factors you should NOT consider when choosing a college:

  • Prestige and name recognition: Sure, saying you went to Harvard sounds awesome. Or, if you’re a college football fan, you might get a kick out of bragging on the Alabama Crimson Tide. But if those schools aren’t right for you, you’re unlikely to thrive. The best school for you may be one you haven’t even heard of yet, so start researching, and be open to the possibilities!
  • The opinions of other people: If your entire family graduated from the University of Florida, you might feel some pressure to follow in their footsteps, even if you privately think you’d prefer something smaller. Or maybe your grandparents are swept up in the name game and urging you to go to Yale, even if you’d prefer somewhere more social. If your family is helping you pay for college, they’ll have some say in where you end up. But be sure to voice your opinions. Explain what you’re looking for in a school and why.
  • Following friends or significant others: It may be tempting to go to the same school as all of your friends, but remember that college is a time to spread your wings. You’ll meet so many new and interesting people. If the school your friends like isn’t the one you like, that’s OK. The same goes for a significant other. And while your current S/O may not be around forever, your degree isn’t going anywhere.

What if I get rejected?

In any form, rejection stings. Reading anything other than “Congratulations!” from a school you really loved isn’t ideal. If you’ve followed this guide, however, know that you’ll have other awesome options that closely fit your passions and preferences.

Let yourself feel sad for a day or two if needed. Talk to family members or close friends about how you’re feeling. Eat some of your favorite ice cream. Watch the funniest movie you know. Whatever normally cheers you up when you’re down, do it.

Then, pick yourself up and remember the reasons you applied to those other schools (the ones that were wise enough to accept your application). What did you like about those universities? Remember the interesting opportunities, cool location, or unique aspects of the school that caught your attention.

Browse the course catalog or the school’s list of extracurricular activities and start imagining what you’ll be doing in the fall. Research the city or town that the school is located in—what fun things will you do there?

Watch videos, take the campus tour (or a virtual one) if you haven’t already, reach out to current students and ask what they love about the school, etc. Let yourself get excited about the possibilities. One day, you might look back and be grateful that you didn’t get accepted to that other school after all.

Final Thoughts: How to Choose a College

Choosing a college is an interesting combination of logic and following your heart. Start by making a list of all the factors that matter most to you. These may include various metrics of academic success, lists of programs you’re interested in, criteria for student life, and some ideas about your perfect location.

Next, do your research. Build a list, then narrow it down. Remember to think about your chances of acceptance, categorizing your list according to reach, target, and safety schools.

Once you’re accepted, it’s time to take final campus visits and compare financial aid offers. At this point, you’ve carefully outlined your criteria, conducted thorough research, and evaluated your options. You know just about everything there is to know about these schools.

Now, it’s time to follow your heart: Where do you see yourself happily making friends, acing exams, and growing into an adult who’s ready to take on the world? Congratulations, you’ve chosen your college.

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