What Do You Want and Need in a College?

Ready to make your perfect college list? It's time to identify your "wants" and "needs" so you can narrow down your college choices even further.

In my previous blog, I discussed the basics of how to start your college list. Now it’s time to go more in depth. Here are tips for making a checklist of characteristics you may want to consider in each schoolnbeyond the typical considerations that people around you might suggest. You can start by making a list of your “wants” and “needs” to help you narrow down your college choices even further.

What goes on this checklist?

Anything you want! But seriously…we all have different ideas of what we want to look for in a college, so just put whatever you think you might want or need in a school. The big thing on my “checklist” was definitely having a marching band. It’s been my dream to march in a college marching band for a very long time, so I for sure kept that at #1.

These lists don’t necessarily need to be prioritized, but it’s a good idea to have “must haves” and “wants” and some other categories in between. Some of the other things on my “wants” list were a non-major dance company, a ballroom dancing team, an Irish dancing club, an ice hockey team (bonus points for a hockey band), and a gymnastics team (since those would be the two sports I would most want to watch). These are far less mainstream than the typical things you'll hear about, like size, weather, location, rankings, etc. So let’s look at those things a little more closely.


It’s raining, it’s pouring…is that what you really want for four years? We all have preferences in weather, and I recommend this should play at least a small role in how you choose your colleges (though it shouldn’t be the most important thing!). Many search sites normally allow you to filter schools by region (i.e., Midwest, South, West, etc.), so that will give you a general idea of the weather of the schools you’re looking at.

I am not a geography expert, but here are some very general guidelines:

  • If you know you’re going to hate snow, don’t make schools in places such as Michigan, Minnesota, or Alberta, Canada, your first choice. Most places within those regions can get upwards of five feet of snow per year!
  • If you’re looking for a cooler, moderate climate, places such as the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, British Columbia) and the northern half of the East Coast (I’ve heard people suggest New York) may be a good match. Keep in mind that the East Coast gets a lot more snow than the West Coast. Places such as the San Francisco Bay Area may also be a good match; it’s normally around 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
  • If you’re thinking of sunny California (I’m a Californian myself), remember that mostly applies to southern California—regions such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. The northern part of the state can actually be pretty rainy (and even snowy up in the mountains).

These are just some of the climates I’ve personally encountered during my research. In short, look into the local climate of your colleges you’re considering. Some good search terms include: “Average temperature [city, state] [month]”; “How much snow does [city, state] get per year?”; and “How much rain does [city, state] get per year?”


Climate isn’t the only thing to consider about location. One of the other big things: how far away is it from home? Some of us want to live 3,000 miles away. Others want to travel just 15 minutes to get to school. Your parents may encourage you to study in Massachusetts, Toronto, Hong Kong, or some other place far from your hometown, or maybe they can’t bear being more than two hours away from you.

Distance is something to consider, but it should not be a limiting factor. It’s smart to have a few out-of-state options, even if tuition seems crazy expensive, because sometimes those schools give more scholarships than your in-state public schools and may actually be more affordable for you.

Type of campus

Do you want an urban, suburban, or rural campus? It’s really up to you, though it’s a good idea to apply to schools from each of the three categories. Some people prefer a college town close to a big city, such as Ann Arbor, Michigan (about an hour from Detroit); Berkeley, California (about 20 minutes from San Francisco); or Cambridge, Massachusetts (across the bridge from Boston). Others might choose a college town a little farther away but still with a substantial population. Some might want to be in the middle of nowhere, while others want to be right in the middle of the city at schools such at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver or the University of Chicago. Whatever environment and region you choose, you will surely find a few good matches!

Related: How Important Is Location in My College Decision?

Size of campus

Why is campus size so important? Well, here’s the thing…if you’re anything like me, living in a standard suburb, attending a pretty big public high school with just under 3,000 students, the idea of a school with 40,000 sounds strange and scary and big. But 1,500 people might be a little too small…I would suggest keeping a few different schools from “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “very large” categories, just to keep your options open, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your other wants.

Another tip: Have an outlier. It’s always a good idea to keep one college in mind that is completely different from every other school on your list. For example, you could apply to one big public school if all your other schools are small, private liberal arts colleges.

The surrounding area

Another thing to consider about your new home: what is the local community like? Though it may be a little difficult to figure out without visiting, it’s always good to read on crime rates and general attitudes (liberal/conservative, etc.) in the area. Do you want night life? Or do you prefer a quiet town? For a little bit of fun, Google places to eat in the city, and read some reviews on Google or Yelp. For me, having a decent amount of Asian food nearby was one of the things I wanted. I was raised in a very Asian family and can’t imagine not eating some sort of Asian food at least once in a while. I also wanted boba nearby and a pretty diverse population. I think we all have these little things we want to consider, even if they seem unimportant when actually choosing a school.


In terms of college rankings, we all want the best education we can get. Some of the sites I’ve used to look at college rankings include Times Higher Education World University Rankings (they include international schools), U.S. News & World Report, CollegeXpress, and Niche.

But just because a school isn’t on a “top 100” list doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. Some people want a “big name” school, but many people are happy and successful without attending the #1 best university in the world or country and have just as memorable and happy experiences—sometimes an even happier experience, according to people I have met personally. They may be fun to look at and can give a good starting point, but rankings shouldn’t determine everything. It’s up to you how much of a role they play in your final college decision, but do not choose a school simply because it’s the “best in the country” and has a less-than-10% acceptance rate.

Related: How to Use Lists and Rankings in Your College Search

Acceptance rates

You’ve probably heard people tell you to choose some safety, target, and reach schools. You should definitely have an idea of colleges you think you can get into (which is why average GPA and SAT/ACT scores should be on your college quick facts sheet), but if your “stats” don’t necessarily match up with your school’s averages, that shouldn’t be a reason to cross out a school either.

I know, acceptance rates can be scary—but they don’t mean everything. Each school has a different review process, and most have an essay portion, which gives them a chance to evaluate you beyond your scores (it’s extra work on both sides, but it’s definitely your chance to shine). Some people are rejected from 40% schools but accepted to 16% schools, if that gives hope to anybody out there.

Student reviews

One thing I highly recommend reading are student ratings and reviews. Check out the ones on Google Maps, which tend to be entertaining—especially the ones with lower stars (those are sometimes posted by people at rival schools and can be a funny read!)—but some of them offer helpful information as well. There are also other less official places to read reviews, such as College Confidential. Niche has reviews from alumni and current students at colleges as well. And if you have the chance to meet an alumni in person, don’t be shy to ask questions about their experience!

Related: Top Advice for Making Your Final College Decision

So, what will you look for while building your college lists? I hope these tips help with your college search and make the process more fun and personalized for you. Sending lots of love and support from California!

Start looking for schools to add to your big list with our College Search tool, and keep all your research nice and organized using our College Search Spreadsheet Template!  

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