As a high school senior getting ready to apply to colleges, I have to be honest: I am not all that excited. Many wise heads told me to start working on my college applications this past summer. But as I sat down at my computer, ready to open the Common App, I realized I didn’t even know what colleges I wanted to apply to. (Yikes.) And thus began my college search. But my stress is your gain! Below I have compiled a nice list of factors you should consider during your college search. Look over them carefully—you know I did. Happy college (re)search!
Basic college facts and stats
- Admitted student GPA and SAT/ACT scores: What is the average GPA and standardized tests scores of the applicants accepted in recent years? Comparing your GPA with the school’s average should give you a general clue as to where you stand in the pool of applicants. Then compare your standardized test scores with the school’s average too. If your GPA and test scores are above average, you can consider the college a “safety school.” On the other hand, if your numbers don’t quite match up to the school’s, then it’s probably a “reach school.”
- Freshman retention rate: This is the percentage of first-year undergraduates who choose to continue their education the following year at that school. High retention rates mean that many freshmen enjoyed their first year on campus and saw the school as a good fit. (It’s no guarantee it’ll be a good fit for you, of course, because everyone’s different, but a high freshman retention rate is usually a good sign.)
- Acceptance rate: How selective is the college? Remember, you should have a variety of reach, safety, and match schools. If your list is all schools with low acceptance rates, consider applying to schools that are willing to take in more students per year.
- Six-year graduation rate: Just about everyone graduates high school in four years, but that might not necessarily be the case in college. Take a look at the percentage of students who graduate within their first six years on campus—it might be lower than you think. (The national average is around 60%.) The graduation rate is important, because every year you’re in college is another year of tuition and living costs. Plus, not all financial aid extends beyond four years. Again, your time to graduation might be totally different, but this can be a good measure of how effective a college is at getting students through successfully.
- Size: Are you a crowd-loving person? Or are you someone who prefers a smaller, maybe even family-like environment? The size of the school is a big factor in answering these questions!
- Student-faculty ratio: Typically, the smaller the student-faculty ratio, the better. Students may receive more individual attention when there are more professors and other faculty members available for support.
- High school credit transfers: For some of you, the number of high school credits that transfer might not be a big deal. But if you’re concerned about how your high school efforts (like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits) will be acknowledged by the college, check out the school’s policy on the number of credit transfers.
Related: College Search Spreadsheet Template
- Socioeconomics: College costs can lead to some pretty steep economic divides. But you may find some schools make a greater effort to enroll more economically diverse classes than others. In fact, applying to a rich kid school as a not-so-rich kid may give you an advantage, since you’ll increase the diversity of their student population. ;)
- Racial/ethnic diversity: Check out the school’s statistics on student population. Some schools are more diverse than others. Maybe you want a school where you get to interact with people from lots of different backgrounds different from your own. Maybe you want to make sure historically underrepresented backgrounds are well represented, perhaps through lots of campus extracurricular groups, events, and curriculum to match. Or maybe both!
- Male-female ratio: The male-female ratio may not be your top factor when choosing a college, but think about your preferences and what type of environment you’d like to call home.
- Religion: Some schools have a dominant religious on campus, which can sometimes even impact student life and academic requirements. Other schools have very little religious life to be found. What type of religious environment do you see yourself living in on a daily basis?
- Total cost: We’re talking the full amount it costs to attend a school each year: tuition, room, board, fees, books, health insurance, and any other expenses. Obviously, cost is one of the biggest considerations in choosing a college. Especially for students whose parents aren’t Bill Gates, skyrocketing college tuitions can be an extremely discouraging factor. But just remember, the sticker price isn’t the full story…
- Financial aid: Don’t let huge dollar signs scare you away from your dreams! Remember that the first numbers you see are sticker prices, and financial aid is available for almost all students. For example, students at Stanford University received a total of $144 million in scholarships and grants during the 2015–2016 school year alone!
- Graduating class indebtedness: Financial aid and scholarships most likely will not cover 100% of your college expenses, and some of the money will have to come out of your family’s pocket or be borrowed in loans. Though it is common for college students to graduate in debt, the extent of the students’ indebtedness varies by college, and this can be another indicator as to how financially supportive the college is.
- Distance from home: College might be the first time you live away from your parents, and this can definitely be a nerve-wracking experience! If you want to be able to visit your family regularly, look into colleges within driving distance from home. If you’re fine with keeping a little distance, find out how many miles the schools is from where your family lives and what traveling to and from typically costs so you can plan ahead.
- Annual weather: If you love the sun and nothing else (hello, my fellow Californians!), consider colleges and universities that have a fairly consistent annual weather report. On the other hand, if you actually appreciate the snow, rain, and a thunderstorm here and there, look for schools located in a region with more dynamic forecasts.
- Safety and security: How safe is the school campus? What about the surrounding areas? How many cases of robbery happened in the past five years? What security measures are in place, like dorm security checkpoints or emergency alert systems? Don’t forget what your parents have told you: safety first!
Student life facts
- Housing: Some schools require freshmen to live in dorms, but each college has its own campus housings policies. Carefully look over the figures, and see if you can find a pattern. Do most students choose to live in dorms after their first year? Or do they move out on their own? If the latter is true, is there a particular reason?
- Age: Not all students on campus will be between the ages of 18 and 22. Different student populations bring different dynamics to the college environment, so it might be a good idea to check out the exact statistics on your potential colleges’ websites.
- Greek life: How many students on campus participate in Greek life? A high participation rate can suggest an actively social atmosphere on campus.
Related: The Do's and Don'ts of Campus Life
Opportunities beyond campus
- Study abroad: College life isn’t never restricted to the perimeters of the school campus. Do some research to see what percentage of students at the college choose to study abroad—or anywhere beyond their own lecture halls, really.
- Employment and internships: The next milestone in life after college is getting your first “real” job…but it doesn’t hurt to start early. The more students who get jobs or internships as undergraduates, the more likely it means that the college has well established connections and is able to offer many work opportunities for its students.
- Co-ops: Cooperative education allows a unique opportunity to gauge whether or not a specific field of study is right for you. Even if you decide that a field or role isn't what you want to pursue, the experience you gain is invaluable none the less.
One last cool fact: Almost all of the statistics described above can be found in what’s called the Common Data Set (CDS) for each college. Just type in the name of the schools and “CDS” into a search engine, and all the data should pop right up. So don’t be intimidated by the college search process—just be excited to begin your search for a new home.
For more helpful guidance from students and experts alike, visit our College Admission section!