12 Important Things to Look for in Your Colleges

In searching for colleges, here are 12 important things to consider. Hopefully, this checklist will help you discover your needs and goals for the right school.

Choosing which college to attend can be a tricky thing. You want find a college that fits you, speaks to you, and just feels right. The first tip I have for all students is to make a checklist of things you are looking for in a college and write out why they are important to you. This will help you collect your thoughts and remember these things later. When I was conducting my college search, these were the 12 things I kept in mind and made sure I asked questions about when I went on campus visits and spoke with my admission counselors. Hopefully, my checklist will give you an idea of what to look for when choosing a college too and some ideas for questions to help you along the way.

1. Academic fit

When looking at a college, it’s always wise to see what their average student looks like, and college websites and pamphlets will contain this kind of information. How do you compare to their students? Is the college a reach, safety, or match school for you? Most colleges will also have a list of admission requirements when it comes to your high school classes: they want you to have so many years of English, math, science, social studies, foreign language, and other electives. A word to the wise: keep your eyes open for what colleges want. Also look into what major the school offers—even if you don’t know yet what you want to major in. Obviously, you're going to college to get a degree and studying something you care about (right?!). The colleges and universities on your list should have a few majors of interest as potential options. 

Questions to ask yourself

  • Do my GPA, admission test scores, and classes match up with what the college is looking for in prospective students? 
  • Does this school have the major (majors) that I want?
  • Does this school have opportunities to challenge me academically?

2. Campus location

Some students like large campuses, and some prefer small. Some like urban areas, and some prefer rural. I come from a small school in a small town surrounded by farms, but I was only interested in bigger colleges and bigger cities than where I am now. When looking at a college’s location, think about what makes you happy and comfortable. Will you be okay in a big city and finding your way around, or would you prefer a quaint small town? Pick a location that suits you.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Is the college in an area I prefer? 
  • Is this college the right size for what I want in a school community?
  • Do I want to be close to home or far away?

Related: How Important Is Location in My College Decision?

3. Class sizes

Do you want your professors to know me? For me, the answer was yes. This is a good idea in general. But I also have this strange fear that if I end up in huge classes and don’t know my professors, I might not hold myself accountable or not put my all into my college work. (I'm a goody-two-shoes kid, but you start wondering after hearing so many stories about students skipping big lecture halls…) Look up the average class sizes and student-faculty ratios for your colleges online, or if you can’t find them, ask your admission counselors. Ideally, you’ll find these stats for your intended major as well as the college as a whole, because they can differ a lot. Thankfully, the average class size at my future college is just 15 students, so I will be noticed! I have been told my professors will know who I am and talk to me every day. This makes me happy (and assuages my fear of slipping up at college!).

Questions to ask yourself

  • How accessible do I want my professors to be?
  • Do I care about developing solid student-teacher relationships?
  • Do I want the opportunity for my professors to really get to know me?

4. Campus safety

Everyone wants to feel safe when on a college campus, and campus crime statistics are always worth looking up. Colleges will not necessarily highlight this information, so it may come down to you using the power of Google to find out. Campus crime mattered to me, and I kept it in mind when talking with admission counselors. I asked them straight up, and in my experience, some of them would skirt around the issue or just say to avoid certain crowds and situations on campus. The first thing they tell you is to avoid parties on campus (which is fine advice if you don’t want to go to parties, but that may not be right for you either). This is why I recommend researching campus crime statistics yourself.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Is there a high crime rate on campus or in the surrounding area?
  • Does the school seem to have reliable campus security?
  • Does the campus offer resources for student safety and wellbeing?

Related: 5 Smart Personal Safety Tips for Students

5. Partying and alcohol

You’ll find in your college search references to dry and wet campuses. A “dry campus” means alcohol isn’t allowed on college grounds. A “wet campus” allows alcohol on campus, as long as the students drinking are of legal age; those colleges have different rules for where you can drink on campus too. But here’s some advice from one of my trusted adult friends: “Just because it says it is a dry campus does not mean alcohol will not show up somewhere at some time.” Personally, I went for a dry campus, because I wanted to lower my chances of finding myself in situations with alcohol. But this can be another thing to add to your college checklist, so don’t count it out. The party scene at your school can affect your studies and your social circle, so it’s good to know what you’re looking for.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Do I want a dry or wet campus? 
  • Do I want a college with a big party scene, a laid-back party scene, or something in between?
  • Is partying going to be too distracting for me in relation to my studies?

6. Staff and students

Obviously, everyone’s is different but you can find similar folks attracted to similar colleges. One of the professors at the college I am attending in the fall wore purple shoes to the Preview Day I was at—and he was rockin' those shoes. He was all bubbly, radiated enthusiasm, and spoke highly of the university and how much of a home it is. The other professors and students at the Preview Day spoke highly of it too. Of course, that is what they are supposed to do, so I made sure I watched their body language and spoke with other students we met on campus, and it all aligned: this is a good place. Do you see that in the colleges you are looking at? Do you see genuine enthusiasm? Do you find other students interested in similar things as you?

Questions to ask yourself

  • What does the student body look like? Is this diverse enough for me?
  • Do I want a school with a large or more tight-knight community?
  • Do I want a large faulty or a small but focused one?

Related: How to Find a Great College With Amazing Professors

7. Extracurricular activities

I like extracurricular activities; they keep me busy, and you can learn a lot. I think everyone likes them now, mostly because there is something for everyone to be a part of. When speaking with a college admission counselor, you can find out what the extracurricular “scene” is like on campus. And you can usually look online to see if the college has clubs or activities you like. Another cool thing: you can find out if they have scholarships for it. If you like to debate, volunteer, sing, play an instrument, play a sport, etc., there can be free money waiting for you. When I got accepted to my college, I e-mailed the volleyball coach and told her about how I have managed volleyball throughout middle school and high school. I was brought in, met the coach, interviewed with the Athletic Director, and was ultimately given a scholarship to work with the school’s volleyball teams. (See? Free money is calling you!)

Questions to ask yourself

  • What campus activities are there? 
  • What campus activities are most important to me for my school to have?
  • If a school doesn’t have a club I want, is it easy to start one?

8. College cost/price

When looking at colleges, people stress over the cost to attend, understandably. I used to stress about it too, until I realized top choice might not be the cheapest but it’s not the most expensive college out there, plus I really want to go there. So, sometimes it involves shoving the thought of the price out of the window to get what you want. I am a cheap person, so, trust me, this is a hard thing to do, but it can be done. Besides, your financial aid can totally change the price of the school. You get your financial aid award after you’re accepted, but you can look up average financial aid packages before you apply to get an idea of what you might get. I do not want to go into serious debt over college, so I don't mind being constantly on the hunt for scholarships (although, I do miss my old friend sleep…). Like I mentioned above: the things you are interested in (extracurriculars, majors, etc.) can have scholarships, so keep your eyes and ears open. Talk with everyone you know about scholarships, because you never know what you will find. Your college admission counselor and school counselor can also help direct you when looking for scholarships or use scholarship search engines like on CollegeXpress.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What’s the total cost?
  • What are the potential hidden costs that can wrack up my bill?
  • What will the school offer me for financial aid?

Related: How to Figure Out Your College Costs

9. Housing options

When it comes to living on campus, schools typically have a few options—but often not until you’re through freshman year. Dorms are small, just FYI. Suites are often much bigger but more expensive and, at some campuses, nonexistent. There may be on-campus apartments available, but those are usually for the older students. So where do you fall? Well, as a freshman you will likely be placed in the dorms, and there is nothing wrong with that. Just make sure you pack what you need for your dorm room. Also, dorm bathrooms can be a major thing for some people, especially if they’re shared—and co-ed. Will your bathroom be in your dorm room, in between two dorm rooms, or shared by the whole dorm floor? If the bathroom is shared, ask if it is co-ed or not. You can also ask if your bathroom preferences can change your housing options.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Do I like the college’s housing options? 
  • Am I willing to live in freshman housing and wait for better housing later?
  • How expensive are the school’s housing options?

10. Food options

Again, as a freshman you’ll probably live on campus, and the food matters because you will be eating it every day. (You may even be required to get a meal plan.) Try to eat in the dining hall when you visit campus and/or look up reviews for the school’s food only. Luckily, colleges usually offer a nice variety of tasty foods and unique cuisines. Eat your heart out, gross high school cafeteria food.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What is the food like? 
  • Is there only a college cafeteria or are there cafés and other restaurants too?
  • Are the food options on campus expensive?

Related: What You Need to Know About College Meal Plans

11. How you feel

So, I spoke of how everyone called my future campus a “home.” When I first stepped on the campus, I was nervous, but I could also feel the love. I felt it radiate off everything and everyone. What is your first feeling when on the campus, besides nervousness or excitement? I like feeling at home at college, but I also felt safe and secure. This is why going on college tours is so important. You can get a lot of information about a school online, but you can’t get a tone and feel for the actual atmosphere without visiting it and getting to experience it for yourself.

Questions to ask yourself

  • How does the college or university make me feel? 
  • Do you feel at home, comfortable, accepted?
  • Do I feel like I can succeed at this school?

12. What you want

When it is all said and done, what you want in a college matters. It all comes down to your choices, your needs, your gut feelings. Look to the future: Do you see yourself growing in that environment? Can you even picture yourself there at all? If not, cross the college off your list and do not apply to it. Keep looking for new colleges and new opportunities that provide the higher education you seek. Because when it comes down to it what you want is the most important factor of them all.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What do I want? 
  • Can I get a quality education and achieve my goals here?
  • Will I look back on this experience feeling like I made the right decision?

Related: What Do You Want and Need in a College?

The college search process can be… a lot, to say the least, but it only takes a lot of work to ensure that you’re picking the right school for your goals, needs, and happiness. Use this checklist and guiding questions to help you find the right school to take you on your college journey.

Need more guidance on searching for colleges? Check out our College Admission section! 

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About Emily Barylske

Emily Barylske

First things first: I'm on the hunt currently to pay for my college in free money, and I'm a huge supporter of getting all of the college scholarships you can before taking out student loans. I love taking photos, reading, and writing in my free time. I am currently involved in school clubs such as FCA, choir, and yearbook. I hope to help you and encourage you in your college and scholarship search process.


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