Beginning the college search process can be overwhelming. There are so many variables to consider, such as location, degree programs, cost, financial aid, extracurriculars, and more. And with more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the US alone, you'll probably find there's more than one best-fit college for you—and that can be stressful too!
But you can start narrowing down all your options by knowing what you want in a school. Every student will have different priorities and preferences, of course, but there are a few basic aspects that influence college choice the most. Here are four important aspects to consider as you conduct your college search.
1. Potential majors
One of the first things to consider when looking for colleges is what major you might want to study, not to mention other academic opportunities you want, like student-faculty research. Looking at schools with the specific program(s) you want will narrow down your options by a lot. However, you'll probably find several schools you like that all have the same type of program you’re looking for, so you’ll need to research further into each degree program.
What’s the major’s—not just the overall college’s—reputation like? Has the department won any awards? Will you start classes in your major right away, or will you need to wait through a year or two of gen eds and prerequisites? (I had a good idea of what I wanted to study, so I decided to look for schools that allowed me to get right into my major.) Could you add a minor or double-major if you wanted to? Also, if a school you like has several specific programs or concentrations within one area of study, make sure to compare your options and look into the details so you know exactly which program will help you get where you want to go. At my school, we have two main programs in the Communications department, and before I registered for classes I had to figure out which one was more focused on what I wanted to study. These are all things to consider if you have to compare several similar programs.
Now, if you don’t necessarily know what you want to study, you should look at schools with a lot of potential majors you could choose from, like those that are grounded in the liberal arts. The liberal arts will let you take lots of broad-based classes, so you’ll get a more well-rounded education (which is a good thing) that will let you explore your options until you figure out the right major for you.
Related: How to Choose Your Major (or Not)
2. School location
Another important aspect to consider when looking for schools is location. Do you want to stay close to home, go out of state, or go so far away you won’t be tempted to go home every weekend? It's usually less expensive to stay in state (you could even go to a school close enough that you could commute from home!). On the other hand, you may be ready to get out on your own and move to a place you’ve never been to before. You may also get as much—or more—financial aid at an out-of-state school, making it cost the same or less than your in-state options.
It's always good to branch out, meet new people, and try new things; that’s what college is all about, after all. You just don’t want to push yourself so far out of your comfort zone to the point where you’re homesick all the time or at a school in an area that just doesn’t fit your personality at all. (A life-long SoCal beach kid might love going to college in the mountains of Colorado—or they might hate all that snow. This is part of the reason why campus visits are so important!)
But considering your college location means more than thinking about the distance from home. You need to think about the college town itself too. Do you want a small-town school? A big city? Or are you more comfortable with something in between? You might be surprised by the kinds of schools you find in each location, like small tight-knit schools in the middle of big cities or giant state campuses that make rural areas seem not so rural after all. If you want to try lots of new things (especially off campus), you might want to look at schools in the city. However, if you're more comfortable with a low-key environment, you might want to look at smaller towns. Coming from a small town, I've always had to travel at least half an hour to just find a mall, something that hasn’t changed since I moved to a similarly small college town—but it was a sacrifice I was still willing to make for the hometown feel.
3. College costs
The next big factor to consider when selecting schools is cost. College is one of the first big decisions that a young adult makes mostly on their own. However, you’ll need to include your parents in the discussion of cost (unless you’re a legally independent student, which you probably aren’t), because you need their financial info to file the FAFSA, aka the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
When looking at overall cost, you'll need to consider not only tuition but room, board (your meal plan), books, and school fees, not to mention other living expenses. To help offset these costs, there’s federal financial aid as well as scholarships you can get through your school or outside organizations. Big-time national scholarships tend to be more competitive and are given to fewer applicants, but another scholarship source to consider are organizations and businesses in your community such as your church or insurance providers, plus organizations to which you or your parents belong.
Related: How to Pay for College, Step-by-Step
4. Size of campus
One last important aspect to consider when it comes to looking at colleges is size. Some students want a bigger school with lots of different academic options and activities to get involved in, while others prefer smaller schools for their intimate class sizes and the feeling of being more of a name than a number. Size also has a lot to do with the extracurricular options available at a school (which is arguably the fifth foundation of your college search, but we’re rolling it into “size” for now!).
As the saying goes, there are two sides to every story. For example, those large (often public) schools tend to have bigger class sizes, but they may also have more organizations and activities to get involved with in your free time and on the weekends. Smaller schools may have a lower student-faculty ratio with more chances to get to know your professors, but there may not be as many sororities or fraternities, sports teams, or extracurriculars to choose from. As you start to get into your college search, you need to decide what’s important to you, make some lists (hello, spreadsheets), and consider your options in different scenarios.
Overall, one factor may not make or break your college decision, but a combination of several—once you’ve assessed what’s most important to you—will help you narrow down your list and find the school that’s the best fit for you. Good luck in your search!
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