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Narrow Down Your College Choices

So you're looking at colleges, but how do you know which is the right one for you? Here's some of our best advice for narrowing down your college options.

So you're looking at colleges. You want a school that's fun, affordable, and gives you the best education possible. But there's just one problem. Every college advertises itself as "Fun, affordable, and the best education." How do you know which is the right one for you? The first step is to take a breath. Done that? Okay, now we can talk about the best ways to narrow down your college options to find the colleges best suited to your needs.

Start by making a list of college preferences

Start by making a list of your preferences. What do you want to major in? Do you want a big, medium, or small? Where do you want to go—East Coast, West Coast, international? What is your price range? How high do you value the student-faculty ratio? Do you want a party school or someplace more stoic? Next, you will want to seek out potential schools that fit your preferences. This will probably give you a large chunk of schools that sound like a good fit for you. You’ll need to whittle these down to the ones you actually want to apply to. To do so, you’ll need to know the overall strategy for applying.

Categorize your list

Most students apply to three to seven schools. You’ll want to arrange your schools into three categories: Sure Bet, 50-50, and Long Shot. For the Sure Bet, you want to select one school you are absolutely certain you can get in to, fits your other preferences, and has a good program for your major. State schools are often a good choice for this, and they are usually cheaper than out-of-state schools too. You only need one Sure Bet because it is a sure thing—you are guaranteed to get into this college, and if all else fails, you can attend it and be successful.

The last facets of the school that you should consider are its statistics. What is the graduation rate? What percentage of students come back after their freshman year? What is the alumni giving rate? Do they accept AP credit or credit for classes that you have taken in high school? What percentage of graduates gets jobs/are accepted to graduate school?

Related: How to Build the Perfect College List

Pick a handful of schools from each category

Next, you’ll want to select two to three 50-50 schools. These are schools that you are pretty sure you will be able to get in to, and that perhaps provide you with more opportunities than the Sure Bet school. Finally, you will want to pick one to three Long Shot schools—schools that are really selective and that you have a not-so-great chance of getting in to. However, there is always a chance, which is why you still want to pick a few Long Shots and apply to them.

With this in mind, you can sift through the schools accordingly. For many students, tuition and other costs are the biggest factor. Cost can help you narrow down the Sure Bet and the 50-50 schools. However, most highly selective schools are expensive, and narrowing down this category to inexpensive colleges would throw out every school. Fortunately, the highly selective colleges tend to offer generous financial aid packages if you do get into them.

Research each school’s program options

Another criterion that can help you narrow down your schools is the strength of the major or majors that interest you. Some schools are well known for their computer science programs, while others are known for their anthropology departments. Do some research on the schools that you are pretty sure you can get in to, and see which ones have the best programs in the area of study that you are considering. You can check the school websites, the U.S.News & World Report rankings, or ask your counselor if he or she can provide more detailed information. Check to see if the schools offer any special programs that are particularly interesting to you.

Related: 5 Websites to Help You Choose a College Major

In the end, choosing a college is all up to you. Make sure you know what you want from a college or university, and that the school you choose offers what you want before you apply. Take into consideration all the factors that are important to you—cost, location, size, reputation—and narrow down the field to a few colleges that fit what you are looking for in an education. A little bit of planning can save you from making a big mistake in applying to and perhaps enrolling in a college that is not right for you.

Use our College Search tool to learn more about your schools of interest and narrow down your list.

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Kayla

Kayla

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress helped me organize the schools I wanted to choose from in one place, which then I could easily compare and find the school that was right for me!

Michael

Michael

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress showed me that Western New England University was a great match for me both with curriculum and location. CollegeXpress is an excellent resource both future and current college students.

Ariyane

Ariyane

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress really helped me by letting me know the colleges ratings and placements. They gave me accurate information on my colleges tuition rates and acceptance. They even let me know the ration between students and faculty and the diversity of the college. Overall they told me everything I needed and things I didnt even think I needed to know about my college and other colleges I applied for.

Sadie Hartmann

Sadie Hartmann

High School Class of 2021

I'm a senior in high school, and CollegeXpress has helped me in so many ways this year in trying to navigate the process of deciding and committing to a university. The COVID-19 Student Resource Center has helped me many times with the most up-to-date and accurate information, along with financial aid and student life [advice]. During these uncertain times, CollegeXpress has been a great recourse to relieve the stress as a senior. Along with the COVID-19 Student Resource Center, I'm constantly using the extremely helpful tools off the site to aid me during this stressful process. Tools like the lists and rankings of universities have been the most beneficial. I've also used the site to receive expert advice on topics like financial aid. Finally, CollegeXpress has helped me easily apply for several scholarships. I'm thankful to be given the chance to win a scholarship to lessen the burden of my college debt.

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Farrah Macci

High School Class of 2016

CollegeXpress has helped me in many ways. For one, online searches are more organized and refined by filtering scholarships through by my personal and academic interests. Due to this, it has made searching for colleges and scholarships significantly less stressful. As a student, life can already get stressful pretty quickly. For me, it’s been helpful to utilize CollegeXpress since it keeps all of my searches and likes together, so I don’t have to branch out on multiple websites just to explore scholarship options.

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