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4 Important Factors to Help Your Teen Choose a College

One of the biggest college search mistakes is doing it haphazardly. Here are four key areas to focus on when helping your teen find their best-fit college.

Your child has worked hard throughout high school. They got good grades, they have the SAT scores they want, they spent hours doing extracurricular activities and volunteer work outside of school, and now it's finally time to decide where to apply to college. At this point, the biggest mistake parents make is approaching their student’s college search process haphazardly—either resting on research done for an older child, listening to friends, or simply thinking back to when they were in school.

Think about it this way: If you and your spouse were contemplating switching careers, imagine the amount of time you would spend before choosing one over the other. Family relocation, salary, weather, friends, and personal happiness would all be factors in the decision. From your child's perspective, choosing the university they will attend for about half a decade is really no less severe. So here are the four most important factors to consider when helping your student choose a college.

1. Academic programs

Just because a college is ranked in the top 25 nationally does not mean their Engineering program is. If your child knows what they want to study, they should focus on the quality and ranking of their specific major as opposed to the overall ranking of the college. Not only will this behoove them in their future career, but oftentimes a college that's not quite as competitive may very well have a better program for your child's major, therefore making it the better fit. 

2. Location

Though college is a great time to explore the new and unknown, a drastically different environment can sometimes be jarring. For someone who's grown up in Southern California their whole life, spending four years on Lake Michigan is going to be a very trying experience. Students who enjoy nightlife, the arts, and big-city bustle will likely struggle living in a small town. One requisite for college success is that a student should feel comfortable where they live, and a large part of that is the weather and the type of town they are in.

Related: How Important Is Location in My College Decision?

3. Social atmosphere

Some students like to hang out all weekend. Some would prefer to study. Some like to do both. Some want to join a fraternity or sorority. Some want to join campus ministry. Every student has different social needs, and they should be a primary area of focus when looking into colleges as well. Again, though students can grow and change in good ways by exploring uncharted territory, a quiet bookworm might not enjoy attending a top party school. Likewise, a student who's ultra conservative may not enjoy their time at a left-leaning school. The bottom line is that your child needs an environment where they will feel socially comfortable and accepted.

4. Size and type of college

The most applied-to four-year college in the country is the University of California, Los Angeles; they had 149,700 students apply for the fall 2022 semester. But did you know that UCLA is primarily a research institution? For first- and second-year students, that means they go to lecture halls with 500 students and only get face time with a 25-year-old graduate student instead of their professor. It's important to know if your child will thrive in this type of situation. For students who are very independent and enjoy teaching themselves material, this would be a great fit. But a student who comes from a small private school and likes having close relationships with their teachers would find this a very difficult transition.

Where do you find this info?

One of the best ways to figure out all this information is by simply searching online. You can also use the CollegeXpress College Search tool, and the College Board has a fantastic free tool that will help you navigate some of this information as well. Another option is to read blogs like the ones in the Parents section of this site and peruse individual college websites. It's amazing how with 15 minutes of effort, you can figure out a tremendous amount about a college in terms of its potential fit for your student.

Related: The CollegeXpress Ultimate Guide to the College Search

As you can see, the college selection process is not just about choosing the school that's the highest ranked or least expensive. You also want to be sure to look at the big picture by figuring out—alongside your student—not just if a school is good, but—more importantly—if it's good for your teen.

We have a lot of different ways to search for best-fit colleges with your student! Check out our unique Lists & Rankings and our featured college lists to explore and connect with schools by location, major, and more.

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Sadie Hartmann

Sadie Hartmann

High School Class of 2021

I'm a senior in high school, and CollegeXpress has helped me in so many ways this year in trying to navigate the process of deciding and committing to a university. The COVID-19 Student Resource Center has helped me many times with the most up-to-date and accurate information, along with financial aid and student life [advice]. During these uncertain times, CollegeXpress has been a great recourse to relieve the stress as a senior. Along with the COVID-19 Student Resource Center, I'm constantly using the extremely helpful tools off the site to aid me during this stressful process. Tools like the lists and rankings of universities have been the most beneficial. I've also used the site to receive expert advice on topics like financial aid. Finally, CollegeXpress has helped me easily apply for several scholarships. I'm thankful to be given the chance to win a scholarship to lessen the burden of my college debt.

Maya Ingraham

Maya Ingraham

October 2021 Mini Scholarship Winner, Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has given me more confidence in my college process. With easy-to-access resources and guidance such as the CX Weekly Roundup, I have been able to find the best colleges for me. Most importantly, there’s a surplus of scholarship opportunities for every student to support their education.

Abhishek Kumar

Abhishek Kumar

High School Class of 2022

As a high schooler, I know how hard it is to plan for college. You have to consider a lot of factors: SAT/ACT scores, college searches, scholarships, and more. CollegeXpress has been a helpful resource that solves all these problems. One can easily create a free account and search away. They help you search for scholarships and colleges, they have graduate program search, they have lists and rankings, and so much more. CX also has a lot of articles and advice to read—whether it’s financial aid, test prep, campus visits, internships/careers, or anything. Not only that, CX gives out free scholarship money to students who sign up and create a free CX account. I love CX and will continue to use it! Thank you CollegeXpress for making my college journey easier!

Priscilla Yeboah

Priscilla Yeboah

High School Student

I was afraid and timid throughout my search for colleges, but I finally found the college that was fit for me and luckily I got accepted. One of the most influential things that helped me was the articles and advice on CollegeXpress. They've helped me a lot and benefited me as a senior to make the right choices in life. Thank you!

Jeff Parsons

Jeff Parsons


Thank you so much for this valuable information about these opportunities. I truly appreciate the CollegeXpress communications and use them to keep my high school seniors informed about their opportunities!

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