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Published: May 16, 2022 9 min read
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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. 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.

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How to pick a college

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.

What to look for in colleges

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 most 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.

Acceptance rate

Some colleges — especially small schools — 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.

Testing requirements

Some colleges require 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.

Academic specialties

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.

Student life

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 life

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.

Study abroad

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.

Graduation rates

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.

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When planning for college, you should consider:

Location

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.

Size

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.

Cost

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 that your school might offer outside of the financial aid office, or about the cost of living in your new city.

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.

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How to Choose a College FAQs

Why is college important?

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Higher education can help you achieve your personal and professional goals over the course of your life. It can boost your earning potential, open the door to new career opportunities and expand your network of peers and friends. Several research studies have shown bachelor's degree holders have higher lifetime earnings and far lower rates of unemployment than those without a college degree.

How many colleges should I apply to?

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It's a good idea to apply to a mix of different colleges so you have options when it's time to make a decision. That mix should include schools you're confident will admit you as well as "reach" schools that are more selective. If you're applying to more selective schools, it's worth applying to a larger number of schools (some students apply to 10 or more) because the odds of acceptance at more competitive colleges are difficult to predict. If you're applying mainly to schools that have higher acceptance rates, you shouldn't feel like you need to apply to that many.

What college should I go to?

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There is not one "best college" for every student. You should go to the college that fits your interests, goals, budget and lifestyle. The college decision process is different for everyone, so make sure you pay attention to the criteria that you think are most important, whether that's location, a specific degree program, financial aid, campus life or other factors.

How to make a college list?

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It's a good idea during high school to make a list of colleges you're interested in to help you during the application and decision process. Start with a big list — you can look at college rankings to get ideas — and then you can narrow it down as you decide on the criteria that are most important to you, from cost to location to extracurricular activities to academic programs.

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.

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