It isn’t easy to figure out which one of the thousands of colleges all over the United States is the best option for you. College planning can be overwhelming! You want your college experience to be the best it can be. Community colleges, public colleges, and private schools can all offer a strong academic program.
Before you do a campus visit, our comprehensive guide can help prospective students identify which college is the right fit for them. Whether you are in your senior year or are just simply ready to become a college student, read on for tips and important details to consider.
Quick Tips for Finding the Best College
- Don’t procrastinate your search for the perfect college like many high school students do. Start early so you will be ready to apply before the deadlines pass.
- When looking at facts and figures on college rankings or college websites or doing a school search, pay attention to retention rates, graduation rates, and job placement rates.
- Try to free yourself from preconceived notions about college. No one college is perfect for every student, because each student has individual needs, wants, and preferences. It’s okay if you end up choosing a school that isn’t Ivy League or starting at community college, as long as you’ve thought through that decision.
- Remember that a college search—like a job interview—is less about getting accepted anywhere than it is about finding the right fit for you.
How to Start Choosing the Right College
Sometimes the hardest part of finding the perfect college for many students is getting started especially if you do not have a particular college in mind. The complicated and lengthy process of undertaking your college search can seem overwhelming. You want your college experience to be the best it can be!
Start by breaking down the process into smaller goals and steps. Instead of trying to make the decision all at once, work backward from the goal of having a shortlist of colleges to apply to. Splitting up the college search process into small, achievable steps—like researching schools that offer your major or scheduling tours of college campuses—can make it less intimidating. Other factors, do you want a big school or a small school?
The Most Important Factors to Consider When Choosing a College
There are many factors to think about during your college search, including:
Accreditation: Accreditation means that the school or program meets the standards set by an outside organization. Ideally, look for regional accreditation rather than national accreditation on the institutional level. If your field of study requires accreditation, such as for professional licensure, make sure the program is accredited by the right organizations.
Opportunities for hands-on education: Today’s employers want to know that you can do the job—and for that, you need hands-on experience. Consider the kind of lab and studio coursework, co-op programs, and internship placement opportunities available through the college degree program you’re considering. Give bonus points to schools on your list that emphasize hands-on education.
Cost of attendance and financial aid: In your college education, as in any investment, you want to make sure that the money you spend is likely to pay off in the future. It may not make sense to go deep into debt to attend one school if a more affordable option could prepare you equally well for your future. If you have your heart set on a pricy institution, explore financial aid packages that may be able to drastically reduce the cost of attendance. Most students will be looking for financial aid, so looking into this sooner rather than later is only to your benefit.
School reputation: Depending on your field of study, your school reputation may matter a lot or only a little. Keep in mind that a school doesn’t have to be Ivy League to have a great reputation. Check out the graduation rates for a glimpse into the school’s reputation.
Selectivity: A school’s selectivity sometimes goes hand-in-hand with its reputation, but that’s not always the case. Find out how selective a school on your list is and consider how likely you are to make the cut. If your application has some weaknesses, make sure you apply to some second-choice school options.
What Does It Mean for a College to Be Your “Best Fit”?
This nebulous notion of “best fit” can’t be easily quantified the way that cost of attendance or miles from home can. It’s also very individual. What makes a college a “good fit” or a “bad fit” differs from one student to another. Also, more than one college may have just what you are looking for. You want your college experience to be memorable!
If the physical environment is important to you, you might find that your best fit is in a bustling city or in a rural area. Ending up with the “wrong fit” environmentally could leave you feeling overloaded and claustrophobic or, conversely, bored.
The right fit might refer to your school’s values. If you’re a devout Christian, you may feel more comfortable and fulfilled at a Christian school than a school with no religious affiliation—but, if you’re an outspoken atheist, a school with core values based in any religious teaching is likely to feel like the wrong fit.
Consider what opportunities, like elective courses and extracurricular activities, different schools offer for your own personal enrichment. Small factors that can make a school feel like your best fit might include opportunities to play intramural basketball, the existence of a campus anime club, and classes in niche subjects like fandom rhetoric, the ice cream industry or the politics of Beyoncé.
Does the college offer your intended major that will prepare you for a successful career? Have you found the best school with a campus environment that makes you feel welcome and will set you up for academic achievement?
Finding a school that is a good fit isn’t a pass-fail test. Although a student who loves to volunteer may find a school that emphasizes service-learning to be a particularly good match, that doesn’t mean this student wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.
Instead of putting pressure on yourself to identify the school that is the single “best” fit for you, look instead at which schools could be a “good” fit and why. Campus visits can help many students narrow down their selection for college. Visiting the college campus may be a make-it-or-break-it deal for prospective students.
The demographic of the student body can influence your college planning. Many colleges will have information about their student body on their website. Your college experience can be shaped by the diversity on campus. Check out the information colleges offer on their website before you visit. Or ask current students on a campus tour during your visit.
As you look at different colleges you have to decide if you want to go to a public or a private school. Private colleges tend to be smaller than most public colleges. Because public colleges are funded through the government they usually offer a wider range of majors, offer lower tuition, and have more resources. Depending on which bachelor’s degree you desire, this might not affect your college decision.
Small colleges may be a better fit for some students. So, keep that in mind! Small class sizes may help students to focus and develop a closer relationship with faculty. Many schools offer a range of scholarships for students. An academic advisor may point you in the right direction to find out more about those opportunities.
How to Pick the Right College in 9 Steps
Ready to get started? Here are nine steps to help you begin the college selection process:
Step 1: Make a List
Making a list of everything you expect out of a college will help narrow down your search. Write down all of the factors you want to consider when looking for the right college. In this brainstorming phase, include in your list every criterion that might matter to you, from whether the school offers your major to whether you can have a car on campus as a freshman.
Step 2: Rank Your Priorities
Now it’s time to prioritize the factors on your list. Think about what really matters to you, and rank these factors from most important to least important. The criteria that are not as important can be left as options, but you still may not want to count them out completely.
Step 3: Focus on a Goal
When selecting the perfect college, so many factors compete for your attention—cost, campus life, academics, and more. Don’t lose track of the goal of going to college in the first place. What do you want to do with your college education, and which degree will get you there?
If you haven’t chosen a specific degree or career goal yet, at least think about a general direction. It is difficult to narrow down your college search if there are no goals to follow. Think about your strengths and your interests, and spend some time researching potential career options in these areas so that you have some sort of a goal to guide your college search.
Step 4: Research Colleges
Look up general and major-specific school rankings, and explore the schools that have a lot to offer. Delve into the degrees, areas of concentration, and educational philosophy each college offers. Check out reviews online, but don’t limit your search to the internet. Speaking with faculty members and current or prior students will help you get a clearer and more comprehensive picture of which schools may best fit your expectations.
As you get into your research, refer back to that list you made and prioritized in steps one and two to assess which schools include the factors that are most important to you. By deleting from your list of potential schools any colleges that don’t match these criteria, you can start focusing on the schools that are a better fit.
Step 5: Check Out the Job Connections
Now that you have begun to narrow down a list of prospective colleges, dig deeper into how each of the schools on your list would help you achieve your personal and professional goals. College students often don’t think about job connections until they’re getting ready to graduate, but this may be a mistake.
Focusing on career resources now can put you in a better position to benefit from the career services any school offers, including on-campus or online career centers, job fairs, and other recruitment activities offered at a school.
Step 6: Take a Campus Tour
You’ve done as much research as you can from a distance. It’s time to tour the campus, get a glimpse of the dorms, observe campus life, and really become immersed in the experience of what life would be like if you chose each school on your shortlist. The admissions office should offer a wealth of information for prospective students. Ask an admissions advisor about appointments and scheduled tours of the campus. Bring a list of any questions you may have.
Step 7: Compare Financial Aid Packages
Calculating college costs is a mystery. Not only are there thousands of dollars of fees beyond tuition, but also, not every student actually pays those costs. Depending on your financial aid package, the price of attending a school can be tens of thousands of dollars cheaper. In the rare instances that the scholarship package amounts to a “full ride,” your education could be free.
At this stage of your college search, it’s time to look closer at schools’ financial aid packages. Talk to an admissions counselor or a financial aid officer about the grants, loans, and scholarships you may qualify for. Although you should not choose a college based on tuition alone, you should consider how much you’re going to pay for your education.
Step 8: Be Prepared Before Deadlines Draw Near
Different schools have different application deadlines, especially when it comes to rolling admissions and early action and early decision admissions programs. Check the admission process and take note of those deadlines. Some application materials, like standardized test scores and letters of recommendation, can take time to secure. Start gathering those materials early.
Step 9: Check Your Finalist Schools Against the List You Made in Step 1
You’ve gathered information on your finalist schools from all angles, including online research and in-person exposure. You have quantitative data, like financial costs, to weigh along with qualitative data, like how you felt visiting the campuses. After narrowing down the list of colleges you’re interested in attending, revisit your list of factors that matter most.
If your priorities have shifted as you learned more about each school (and yourself) through the college search process, adjust that list as needed. Compare how each school stacks up regarding the top factors on your list.
If you’re still deciding which of the institutions on your shortlist to apply to, apply to all of the schools you feel you would be happy attending (the exception being if you are applying as part of an early decision program). You can make your final decision once you see where you have been accepted.
If you were accepted to the schools on your list by the time you reach this step, taking one last opportunity to go over the factors on your list from Step 1 can help you make a final decision and confirm that you have selected the perfect college for you.
Which College Is Right for You?
As you’re weighing pros and cons, keep in mind that the sheer number of criteria an option meets is less important than the significance of those criteria.
A school that checks off a lot of little factors, like niche clubs on campus and close proximity to your favorite pizza joint, may still not be right for you if it misses the big factors, like regional accreditation. You might end up choosing a school that falls short on less important criteria but outshines all others with the curriculum and research opportunities in your field.
Choosing the right college is an art, not a science, and it’s subjective. Not everyone has to agree with your decision for it to be the right choice. And, if you ultimately decide that a school isn’t the right choice, you’re not stuck there permanently. Transferring schools is always an option. If this is the case, check out the transition support many colleges offer.
- Are college counselors available if needed?
- What do current students have to say about their experience?
- Does the school offer higher education if you choose to continue your education?
- Do ACT scores influence your acceptance rate?
- Does the student body reflect a diverse population?
- If you can’t find the answer to a specific question consider contacting the college admissions offices.
- Online students should consider checking the student support services. Most colleges have online or hybrid courses to consider.
Our Favorite Resources for Choosing a College
- Picking which college is right for you is subjective, but it’s always a good idea to consult rankings of schools based on objective methodologies, such as our list of The 25 Best Online Colleges.
- The Princeton Review has a great resource for exploring college major options.
- To learn more about the FAFSA and apply for financial aid, visit the official Federal Student Aid website.
- Check out our Scholarships Resources for help paying for your education.