Finding the Perfect College: The Odds Are Ever in Your Favor!

Director of Admissions, University of Idaho

The author of The Hunger Games will likely hunt me down for using part of her trademark phrase, so I am definitely looking over my shoulder as I write this. But considering how there are nearly 5,000 colleges and universities (just over 4,700, to be specific) in the United States to choose from, the odds of finding your right-fit college are definitely stacked in your favor! And, thankfully, that’s where the similarities between the college search process and that dystopic (SAT word for you!) series end.

Of course, you won’t be relying on luck of the draw to find the right college among those 4,700 schools. But if the odds are already in your favor, following this advice will make college search success a near certainty.

Cast a wide net

Students often tell me they are playing it safe and sticking to well-known names in their college search, be it the school closest to home or universities that are featured on football Saturdays every fall. This is a huge mistake. There are hundreds of publications and websites (like this one!) that can introduce you to institutions you have never considered before.

Sometimes life presents us with wonderful surprises when we take a little risk and branch out. For example, I have a 13-year-old son who, just a few months ago, tried mustard for the first time and liked it. “Wow . . . I should have tried this a long time ago,” he said. Okay, not an SAT-worthy analogy—and the college search process isn’t exactly like trying a new food—but you get the point.

Branching out beyond your comfort zone can bring new and exciting experiences. Your late teens and early 20s are times where you may have the first opportunity to do something totally different and unexpected, and it can be exciting to consider all the possibilities among those 4,700 colleges and universities.

Explore the dimensions of “best-fit college”

To be sure, the words “4,700 colleges and universities” can seem overwhelming. Several psychological experiments have suggested that the more choices we are presented with actually prevent us from making decisions about those choices. When choosing the best-fit college, I like to present students with a few “filters” they can use to bring the number down to a more manageable figure: academic programs, admission selectivity, affordability, support and enrichment programs, and location and community.

Essentially, students and their families want to know the answers to four questions:

  • Does the school have the major(s) I want?
  • Will I be admitted?
  • Can we as a family afford it?
  • Will I fit in on campus?

Keep in mind you can easily add other elements to the list of filters; it is not meant to be all encompassing. Maybe your favorite activity, whether it’s a sport, music group, or other extracurricular, is actually a non-negotiable part of your college search. That’s okay. There are many resources to help you explore the large number of institutions through the “filters” that are most important to you. 

Academic programs

You are enrolling in college to eventually get a degree. It should come as no surprise that this is one of the most important dimensions when exploring an institution. But I know there are also many of you who are not sure what you want to study in college. That is perfectly fine. In fact, many institutions want you to spend the first year or two exploring a range of options. However, I suggest you think about academic programs in a slightly broader way. In addition to eventually declaring a major, you should also consider what a school offers in terms of honors programs, the mentoring provided by professors, how distinguished the academic departments are, the opportunities for research and internships, the success of the school’s graduates, and what the overall learning environment is like.

Admission selectivity

Highly selective schools get a lot of attention for their single-digit admit rates, but here is the great news about admission selectivity: the vast majority of colleges and universities accept well over 50% of their applicants, and they offer academic and lifestyle experiences that are high quality and enriching. So, once again, the odds are hugely in your favor in identifying a handful of schools that are very likely to admit you. I suggest students do some research on how their own grade point average, test scores (ACT or SAT), and high school curriculum (International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, or honors) measure up against the “average” incoming first-year class of the schools they’re looking at. Additionally, most universities will consider your involvement in extracurricular activities, including any positions of leadership you’ve held, engagement in community service, or part-time employment. Your school’s counseling office or admission representatives from the colleges you are considering can help give you a fair assessment of how good a “fit” you are for a particular institution. 


I always caution students who start their college search by thinking they cannot afford to go to school or excluding certain institutions from their list because they see an expensive price tag. However, I know that for most students and their families, the affordability part of the equation will weigh heavily on their decision-making process. First things first: remember that the initial “sticker price” you see (tuition, fees, room, board, books, etc.) will seldom be the final price you will actually pay. Most colleges and universities realize they need to help students afford the college experience. Many students receive financial support through a wide range of awards: academic scholarships, special ability awards (such as music, athletics, and leadership), diversity grants (multicultural, ethnic background), or on-campus employment (work-study). Students can also receive money based on information provided in the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or CSS/PROFILE (College Scholarship Service by the College Board).

I strongly encourage you and your family to participate in “scholarship nights” hosted by high schools, community colleges, or local universities. They will help you understand the process of applying for different kinds of financial aid. Additionally, you will have a better understanding about your own contribution to the affordability equation through work, savings, gifts, or loans that can be repaid later. 

Support and enrichment programs

Much of your college experience will be spent in the classroom or tending to academic matters (homework, labs, papers, projects, study sessions, etc.). But a lot of your time will be occupied by a variety of other activities outside the classroom as well. These extracurriculars exist to make sure you are successful, supported, and having fun!

For some students, success may mean tutoring help to address a learning deficiency. Support might mean counseling for dealing with being homesick or other emotional issues. And having fun—well, it can mean a lot! You might try whitewater rafting, volunteering as a mentor for elementary school students, or perhaps studying abroad. College and university websites are full of information for you and your family to learn more about their support and enrichment offerings in more detail.

Location and community

When you think about it, a college or university is like a small city where everything is there for you. Each campus feels like its own little world, with its own sense of identity and community. However, your college experience hardly stops at the edge of campus. Colleges and universities are inextricably (another SAT word for you) linked to the towns and cities they call home. For that reason, I decided to lump location and community together. In addition to a school’s sense of place (such as rural, urban, suburban) and campus size, you should also think about the people who live and work there and how they interact. For example, does the campus community embrace its hometown? Conversely, how do residents feel about their local college or university? If you are able to live off campus, what will it be like? What opportunities for recreation, employment, or internships are available both on and off campus and in the region? How do you feel about the local weather? What is the transportation system like for students who do not plan to have a car on campus?

As you might imagine, some of these questions may best be answered during a campus visit. Actually being there, experiencing a school in person, is something that no publication or website can duplicate. Visiting the campus is ultimately the best “filter” for your college search. You will start your senior year of high school with a number of colleges that make your “short list,” and you will visit several of them. When you do make it to campus, allow time to listen to yourself and get a sense of how you feel as you meet with admission officers, financial aid advisors, professors, and college students. If a campus visit is truly not an option (always check with your admission counselor first to see if they can help you get to campus), take advantage of the videos, photos, and even virtual tours available online. Also, call the admission office and ask to speak with an admission officer and a current student—ideally from your home state—who can give you an “unfiltered” flavor of what life on campus is really like.

In the end . . .

Through preparation and planning, your college search will be an exciting journey. Remember, there are many people who are there along the way who want to see you succeed as you start your college career. As you explore your options, know this: after we admit you, we hope you will enroll in our college, major in something you care about, graduate, and go on to be happy and successful, however you define happiness and success. In the end, make sure you also rely on your intuition—your “gut feeling”—when choosing a college or university that, ultimately, feels like home. Truly, the odds of finding that best-fit college are ever in your favor.

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