Attending college can help you build a great career and boost your earning potential over the course of your life. College can also help you create a robust network of peers and introduce you to lifelong friends.
But with thousands of colleges to choose from in the United States, it’s important to do your research to figure out which one is right for you before you apply. There’s no one-size-fits-all college that works for everyone, and it’s up to you to decide what’s most important as you narrow down your list of schools.
Table of Contents:
- Factors to consider when looking for colleges
- Weigh your priorities before you choose a college
- Tips to help you choose a college
- How to choose a college FAQs
12 factors to consider when looking for colleges
In this section, you’ll find information about what to look for to help you decide what you’re interested in as well as information about the factors you should consider when you’re planning for college.
For many students, the cost of attending college is one of the most important factors in choosing the right school — if not the number one most important factor. Note that after grants and scholarships, most students actually pay way less than the "sticker price" that colleges advertise. That’s why it’s crucial to look up colleges’ financial aid policies when you’re making a list of schools. When you’re ready to pick a college, be sure to have a good understanding of your financial aid package (especially if that package includes student loans) before you sign on the dotted line. And don’t forget about other grants and scholarships from sources beyond your college, like state programs or local organizations.
The town or city where you attend college will have a big impact on your experience, whether you choose to stick close to home and commute, stay in your home state and qualify for in-state tuition, or travel across the country for a new experience. Would a big city or a small town be the best fit for you? Will you have a car, or are you looking for a walkable campus? A big city means you’ll have access to more internships during the school year, while a rural location might foster a more close-knit campus community or give you better access to outdoor activities. Keep in mind that the cost of living where the campus is located should also factor into your total cost of attendance.
If you have specific academic or career goals, these can help you narrow down your college search. Students interested in engineering or science might be better served at a larger research institution, while students with a passion for literature might be more attracted to a liberal arts college. If you know you want to attend graduate school, check whether a college has a good record of sending grads on to master’s degree and PhD programs. At a minimum, you should look for the college major or majors you’re interested in at any schools on your list.
Type of school
At a major research university, you might find yourself taking classes with hundreds of other students in big lecture halls each week. At a small liberal arts school, on the other hand, you might take seminar-style classes and have met everyone on the college campus by the time you graduate. Two-year and vocational schools typically don’t offer on-campus housing, while many freshmen at four-year universities live in dorms with other students. Think about what kind of experience you’re looking for as you begin your search for the right college. Later on in the process, a campus tour will give you a good idea of what daily life looks like at the colleges you’re interested in.
Colleges in the United States come in all sizes, from just a few hundred students at the smallest colleges to tens of thousands of students at the largest universities and everything in between. Consider whether you’re looking to join a student body where you’ll see familiar faces every day, or whether you’d prefer a larger school with more opportunities to meet new people. At many larger schools with big class sizes, some courses or discussions may be taught by graduate students — especially in your first year.
Some colleges are more selective than others. In fact, many of the colleges you’ve probably heard of, like the Ivy League or nationally known public colleges, will have an extremely competitive admissions process. As you create your college list, make sure you know what portion of applicants are actually accepted to the schools you’re pursuing. It’s a good idea to add at least a few schools with higher acceptance rates to your list.
Some colleges require high school students to take a standardized test like the SAT or ACT and submit their scores as part of the application process. Others don’t require any standardized tests at all. If there’s a test that you prefer, if you have lower test scores, or if you don’t want to take a test at all, you should tailor your search to schools that match your specific situation.
Early decision programs
More and more students are opting to apply “early decision” to their first choice college. A successful early decision application is usually binding, but it can yield a better chance of admission for students who are sure of their number one pick.
You may think that everyone who enrolls in college earns a college degree. But that’s not true. The average graduation rate at four-year colleges is about 63%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Be sure to check out the graduation rates for the colleges you’re considering. Look for freshman retention rates, too. Those measure how many first-year students return for their sophomore year. You can usually find both of these statistics on college websites, but you can also look them up at the Education Department’s College Scorecard website.
Campus culture is a major part of the college experience. Does the school offer activities that interest you? Do your peers hang out in the student center, or do they frequent spots off-campus? One of the best ways to get a taste of a school's social scene is to talk with current students during a campus visit.
Greek organizations can play a big role in campus life. Some college campuses have vibrant Greeks scenes, some have a small number of students involved in Greek organizations, while others have no Greek life at all. If you’ve been dreaming about joining a sorority or fraternity, you can factor that into your decision when you choose a college.
Want to study art in Paris, or Chinese in Hong Kong? Study abroad offerings vary by school, as do requirements (like course prerequisites or language proficiency) for certain programs. Some colleges, too, may make it easier to participate with specific financial aid or academic advising for students who want to pursue study abroad.
Think about your priorities before choosing a college
As you begin planning for college, identifying what’s important to you will help you narrow down your options. Keep in mind that these priorities will vary from person to person.
“People go to college for the education,” Ron Lieber, personal finance expert and author of The Price You Pay for College, previously told Money. “People go to college for the kinship, and they go to college for the credential. There’s no right answer to that question. The only wrong answer is to not have considered it.”
For students who want to stay close to home (or study far away), location might be the most important factor. For students preparing for relatively low-paying careers, financial aid — and the ability to graduate without debt — might be more important. Other students who aspire to professional degrees like medicine or law might value the reputation of their school (or the reputation of certain academic programs within the school), while those who aspire to meet a wide variety of new people might prefer a large university to a small private college.
Tips to help you choose a college
As you navigate the college decision process, here are a few strategies to help you get a sense of what your top schools will be like.
Visit the campus
Campus life is a huge part of the college experience. If you can, it’s a great idea to visit the campus in person to see if you can picture yourself there. Walk around classrooms (and sit in on a class or two!), visit the dorms, and check out the student center and dining halls. Do you like the feel of an urban campus, or a suburban one?
Talk to current students and alumni
Another way to learn about a college is to talk to current students and alumni. Ask them about their experience: What did they like most, and what did they dislike? What surprised them? Where did they live? What kind of extracurricular activities did they pursue? Would they recommend the college to a new student? This is also a great way to find out about support programs like career services. Do current and former students say the college helped them get to where they wanted to be, either in the job market or otherwise?
For many students, price is the most important factor when it comes to choosing a college. Comparing prices can help you narrow down your list — but make sure you’re taking note of the net price of attendance, not the published tuition. The net price is what you owe after subtracting grants and scholarships, aka money that doesn't need to be paid back.
Very few students actually end up paying a college’s “official” tuition price. But you generally won’t know the exact prices you can expect to pay until after you go through the college admissions process and receive your financial aid letters. To make sure you're applying to colleges you can actually afford, look for tools that can help you get a reliable estimate of the cost of college before you start applying.
How to Choose a College FAQs
Why is college important?
How many colleges should I apply to?
What college should I go to?
How to make a college list?
Summary of Money’s How to Choose a College
- The college decision-making process is different for everyone.
- Think about what’s most important to you as you narrow down your list of schools, whether that’s academics, campus life or financial aid.