How to Narrow Down Your College Choices to a Top Handful

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 facet of the school that you should consider is 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 get jobs/are accepted to graduate school?

Related: How to Build the Perfect College List in High School

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 into, 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 into. 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 into, 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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