The hardest part about the college search journey is getting started. When I started looking at colleges three years ago, I had no idea where to begin. Choosing your school and major seems daunting, but what I found to be most helpful was to start big, then narrow down your choices with some deciding factors such as location, size, majors that are offered, diversity on campus, and more. It’s good to be selective, but make sure you aren’t eliminating too many things from your list of choices with deciding factors that are too specific. Look within yourself and know what you’re willing to compromise and what you stand firm on. Here’s more advice to kick-off your college search!
Types of schools
The first thing to keep in mind is what type of school you’d like to go to. There are two-year community colleges, four-year universities, four-year liberal arts colleges, trade schools, and more. Every school choice is valid, but it’s good to be clear on what kind of education you want to receive.
Two-year colleges offer associate degrees as their highest level of education, and depending on the college, there are also specific career training tracks and certification programs that teach you specific skills. Four-year universities have students at varying levels of their education: bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and post-doctorate. Some colleges and universities even offer associate degrees and certificates in addition to their higher degrees. Universities typically have a large population of students, with many being both undergraduate and graduate, whereas liberal arts schools place a heavy emphasis on their undergraduate population—that is, students seeking a bachelor’s degree—and there aren’t usually graduate students attending. Unlike universities, the population size is much smaller, usually around a few thousand students total.
Related: Ask the Experts: Should I Go to a 2-Year or a 4-Year School?
Factors to consider when looking at colleges
Everyone’s needs are different when it comes to choosing a college, but there are some things that should factor more heavily into your choice than others. Here are some of the most important factors to consider:
Your college budget
Receiving a college education is expensive, and it’s crucial to know what you and your family are able and willing to pay for tuition, room and board, and other fees. For me, I knew I was going to stay in state and attend my flagship institution because my family could only afford to pay my tuition. In lieu of paying room and board, I lived with my family and commuted to campus for classes. Talk to your parents or guardians to find out what kind of money you all can contribute, if taking out loans is a good idea, or what kind of scholarship opportunities you may be able to find. Luckily, there are plenty of schools in the country to choose from, which means there are definitely schools within your budget. With the help of financial aid, you’ll be able to find a good school for you.
The school’s setting is another factor you have to deliberate. Do you want to live in an urban, suburban, or rural area? Do you want a small town in a big city feeling or simply a big city with shining lights? The last thing you want is to get to campus and realize you don’t want to be there because the area isn’t what you imagined. If it’s possible, take a tour of colleges you’re interested in. It’ll give you a sneak peek of what school will look and feel like for you.
Finally, take a look at the diversity quotas for the colleges you’re considering applying to. Check if they have multicultural offices and diversity and inclusivity programs in place. As an African American student, I knew I would only be confident in attending schools that had offices, mentors, and communities equipped specifically to attend to minority students.
There are many more factors to consider when looking at colleges, of course, but they will vary from student to student. Write down what’s important to you for a college or university to have and go from there.
Related: The Most Important Factors for Choosing a College
Organize your list of schools
Now let’s get to actually compiling your list of schools. The best way to go about it is to designate which colleges are your dream, target, and safety schools. Your dream college is exactly what it sounds like—the schools that tick all the boxes for your college goals. A good number of dream schools to apply to is three—shoot for the moon! Target schools are ones you’re interested in beyond your dream schools that you feel confident you could get accepted with your current high school transcript and test scores. The bullseye for these would be about four target schools. Safety schools are your backup choices if your other decision letters don’t turn out the way you hope—you should be pretty confident that you could get into these schools based on their average admitted student data. Put three safety schools on your list as well.
You can apply for more than the suggested number of schools, but keep in mind that most college applications come with a fee, and they can add up fast. I only applied to three schools, all in my home state, but the total amount of money I paid for application fees was nearly two hundred dollars.
Start thinking about the major factor
Another important factor of choosing a college is the majors. A general rule of thumb is that the bigger the school, the more majors and programs they’ll have to offer. I started college undecided because I didn’t know what I wanted to study. Because I didn’t know what major I wanted, it also factored into my choice to go to my state’s flagship institution. It was a big school and had plenty of majors to choose from, and I knew I’d get support from academic advisors.
If you’re in the same boat as me, don’t worry! It’s not expected that you’ll choose a major right away; you’ll usually have until you’ve reached 60 credit hours or the end of your sophomore year (whichever comes first) to decide. It’s better to be informed of all your options before coming to a decision—and remember, that decision won’t determine the fate of your future. The important thing about college is that you’ll have received a degree, which is what employers want, but most positions will accept degrees from a variety of fields.
Related: Why Picking a Major Isn't the Same as Choosing a Career
Explore your major options
Here are some ways you can narrow down your search to what field you want your major to be in:
- Think backwards. Perhaps you know what kind of environment you want to work in once you graduate. What major could land you those kinds of internships? If there’s a career that you’ve always wanted to pursue, find majors that could help you get there.
- Think about the subjects that you enjoy most. Those are the majors you’ll excel in. Again, major doesn’t necessarily equal career. Many majors can be applied to many different fields, and your experiences and skills are just as valuable as the degree you receive.
- Try out some introductory classes for the majors you’re interested in. If they capture your interest and you genuinely enjoy them, continue pursuing that major! If they don’t, that’s fine too. The important thing is you tested the waters.
Another great thing to do is talk to students in the majors you’re interested in. They’ll be able to tell you firsthand what the curriculum is like, how the professors are, and the resources available to guide you in your academic and professional career. And if that’s the major you end up declaring, you already have a connection to lean on.
Take a breath!
It’s scary having to make decisions like choosing your future academic institution, but you’ll get through it! Keeping these tips handy will ease the stress of compiling schools and majors, and hopefully you’ll learn more about yourself in the process. Good luck!
You can explore schools and majors using our Lists and Rankings or College Search tool—they’re both great places to start!