Originally Posted: Feb 10, 2017
Last Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Choosing your college can be exciting, scary, and overwhelming—often all at the same time. Unlike high school, which is usually determined by where you live, college is wide open. Deciding where you will spend four (or more) of the most important years of your life is a big (and expensive) decision. Although you may ask trusted family members or friends for their opinions, the final decision is up to you. Pretty intense, right? But don't worry. There are a few ways to tell if a college is right for you. Assuming you already have a good mix of safety, match, and reach/dream schools on your college list, start by asking yourself these five important questions. They’ll help you figure out if the college is really right for you and deserving of your application (and tuition dollars).
Does the college have your major and backups?
If you're already pretty sure of your intended major and career path, congratulations! That will help you narrow your choices. Larger universities have a wider range of programs, including some that are highly specialized and can include once-in-a-lifetime research, internship, or study abroad opportunities. Smaller schools may not have as many majors, but one of their biggest advantages is smaller classes and more individualized attention—students often get to know some of their professors personally. Another consideration is whether or not you can do an individualized major. If your areas of interest blur department lines, some schools offer the opportunity to essentially create your own program of study.
Related: The Truth About College Majors
How is their financial aid?
With 90% of college students receiving some type of financial aid, it's one of the most important factors when choosing a school (just ask your parents!). Your financial aid package might even determine which school you’ll attend. Of course, financial aid packages will vary a lot—seriously, a lot—from school to school and from student to student. But it’s helpful to gather as much information as possible about financial aid at your intended college(s). This includes things like average aid package, the number of students involved in work-study, average student debt, and even four- and six-year graduation rates. What do graduation rates have to do with financial aid? Well, a cheaper school might not be such a good deal if most students end up taking six years (or more) to graduate. Also, many financial awards run out after four years. The point is, the more you know, the smarter the choices you’ll make.
Is the campus the right size for you?
Are you looking for a small college where you know just about everyone? Or maybe you want a larger university where you’ll have hundreds of extracurriculars to choose from? Or perhaps something in between? It really depends on your personal preferences. If you come from a small high school, maybe you like the close-knit feeling of that type of campus. Or maybe you want to try something completely different. But before you make a decision, try to visit the colleges on your list; it is very hard to get a sense of a school’s true “vibe” without going there in person. After all, a big school might feel “small” and vice versa.
Do you feel comfortable with the distance from home?
For many students, college is the first time they've been away from home and essentially living on their own. If this sounds like you, how far do you want to jump into the self-sufficient world of adulthood? Would you rather be a car ride or flight away from your parents and the comforts of home? Will you have to commute to campus due to financial restrictions or other obligations?
Can you imagine the college as your home for the next few years?
Some things you just can’t put into words. No matter how many times you browse a school's website or read their marketing materials, the best way to determine if a college is right for you is to visit the campus. Practically every college offers Open Houses or specialized campus visit days where you can tour the buildings (including a dorm room!), speak with some of the faculty, and even sit in on a class. Look at other aspects of the school, as well. Does the school offer the sports that you play? Extracurricular activities that seem interesting? Academic support like tutoring (college classes aren't easy!) and an active career services office? The bottom line is to determine whether you feel like you would fit in and do well both academically and socially.
When it comes time to make your final college decision, develop a checklist of what you want in a college and see how each school you visit measures up. You'll be spending some of the most important years of your life on a college campus—make sure you choose the one that fits you and can help you reach your future goals.
What college search criteria are most important to you? You can filter your results by major, campus size, athletics, and more when you start your college search on CollegeXpress!