For most students, choosing a college is the first big decision you'll have to make, and it’s not something you want to rush into. Some students start looking at colleges (even casually) when they’re sophomores. For others, it’s understood that they’ll apply to a certain school that’s near and dear to their family’s heart.
Once junior year rolls around, it’s time to get serious about your college search. Give yourself enough time to learn about the schools that interest you so you’re not sending out a bunch of applications at random—but don’t put it off too long. Ideally, you should have your list of schools narrowed down to your top three or five by your senior year.
If you feel overwhelmed by the whole process, you’re not alone. You’ll have so many questions: How do you choose a college? How will you know if a school is “right” for you? A big part of it is a gut feeling—you’ll just know. Although that's important, don’t base such a big decision on instinct alone. There are a few other factors to consider as you learn more about each school and schedule your campus visits. Here are the most important things to consider during your college search.
If you’ve decided on your major, narrowing down your list of potential schools should be easier. Learn as much as you can about the program before you apply to the school. For instance, if you know you want to be a music teacher, look at each school’s Music programs—required courses, proficiency tests, specializations, performance opportunities, student teaching requirements, and job placement rate. Also look at the resources available for Music students, from practice rooms to private lessons. Schools invest millions in their facilities, so take advantage of what they have to offer.
If you’re less sure of your academic path, you should still look at each school’s majors to see if anything catches your interest. Schedule campus visits if you’re unsure about your potential major. See what the schools have available for each program, ask a lot of questions, and be open-minded. Plenty of students start college without a clear end goal in mind and eventually figure it out, but the more you know at the beginning of your search, the better.
Related: How to Choose Your Major (or Not)
Approximately 90% of college students receive financial aid of some kind, whether in the form of grants, scholarships, or loans. College is expensive, and sometimes the financial aid package determines which school a student attends. Of course, it helps if you love the campus and are excited about going. However, if your second- or third-choice school offers more financial assistance than your top pick, you have a big decision to make. Talk it over with your parents, but sometimes the numbers decide for you.
Closeness to home and comfort level
College is probably the first time you’ll be living away from home. How do you feel about that? Do you want to be a comfortable drive or plane ride away? Or will you have to commute due to financial need or employment obligations? Homesickness is normal no matter how close you are to home, but distance can influence your final decision (for example, you’d have a higher tuition rate as an out-of-state student).
Your college will be your home away from home for at least four years, so you want to feel comfortable at the school you choose. This is why visiting is important—you’ll know if it’s a mutual fit the moment you set foot on campus. You can schedule visits anytime, but most schools hold open houses or special visitation days to give potential students a firsthand look at their academic buildings, residence halls, athletic facilities, and more. Bring your parents—after all, your leaving for college will affect them too!
Related: Ask the Experts: How Important Is Location in My College Decision?
If you know your personality and goals, you’ll know what kind of school you’re looking for. Do you want a smaller school where you’ll know other students—even faculty—by name and vice versa or a larger school where you’re a face in the crowd or lecture hall? Are there leadership opportunities with the school’s extracurricular activities? Is studying abroad a possibility? Be sure to ask a lot of questions during your tour. Make a list of what you’re looking for in a college and rate each school after your visit. College is a big step toward adulthood, not to mention a big investment, so it’s important to take your time and make the right decision.
Related: Campus Visit Checklist: Where to Go and What to Ask
Sometimes, no matter how much you like a college at first, it might not be as good a fit as you first thought. You could always transfer—however, this should be a last resort. Switching schools could delay your graduation if your credits don’t transfer, and the expense of transferring and paying additional tuition if you have to attend another semester can be a large financial burden. Do all you can to pick the best school for you on your first try!
Looking for more advice on how to choose a college? Check out our College Admission section!