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If you're reading a guide to the college admissions process (including ours!), you'll almost certainly encounter a step early in the application process where you are asked to research colleges and create a list of schools to which you plan to apply. But what does that really mean? How should you go about choosing the colleges to visit, to apply to, and, ultimately, to attend?
In truth, there's no one factor involved in finding the right college. Some students prioritize academics and ranking; others the campus social scene; others care about financial aid above all. But if you're just starting, casting a wide net can really help at the outset.
Whether you rely primarily on college websites, campus visits, discussions with current students, or (ideally) some combination thereof, learning about schools beyond their U.S. News and World Report ranking is crucial to creating a strong list of good-fit colleges.
Below, you'll find a list of the most common factors that influence prospective students' decisions about whether a school is the right fit for them. As you begin thinking about your college search, we suggest using these factors to guide you.
The first part of college planning is understanding your higher education goals. Many college-bound students opt for four-year universities, but others are interested in community colleges or trade schools. After that, you'll want to consider whether you prefer a public or private school. Public universities are state-funded and tend to be larger and more diverse. Private schools vary in size and are generally looking to create a cohesive student body.
Figuring out what you want to study in college is a process, and most universities have strengths in a variety of areas. Still, it's worth making sure schools have the program you need. Many small colleges don't have engineering or business programs, for example, while technical schools don't always have a range of humanities classes. Even if you don't know exactly what you want to study, it's worth investigating the options at different schools.
The next important factor to consider is: where do you want to be? Given that you have a nation (and world) full of colleges and universities from which to choose, thinking about location is a great way to begin narrowing down your college search. Do you want to be near or far from home? In the north, south, east, or west? Do you want to live in a city or in a more rural area? As you answer these questions, you'll see the best colleges for you come into focus.
Similarly, thinking about the size and composition of the student body is also a useful way to narrow your list of colleges. Some high school students want something much bigger than their current school; others prefer the intimacy of a small college campus. Additionally, ask yourself if the student body seems like one where you'd fit in. If you're able to do a campus tour, look around and see what the college's current students look like. You may also want to research the school's demographics as well as its on-campus spaces for diverse student identities.
Understanding what your college experience would really be like can also help you narrow your list. Talking to current students is a great way to do this, but you can also research online and talk to campus representatives or admissions experts. What do students do for fun? What kinds of extracurricular activities are popular on and off campus? Do a lot of students participate in fraternities and sororities? Do many students go home on the weekends?
Of course, your social life isn't the only facet of the college experience! Even beyond making sure the colleges on your list have the academic program(s) you want, it's also worth digging into schools' academic culture. Are students competitive or collaborative? Are most classes lectures or discussions, and are they taught by professors or teaching assistants? Sitting in on a class during a campus visit can be a great way to learn about a school's academic culture.
In addition to finding the best college for your academic and personal development, it's also important to find the right fit for your financial situation. As you narrow your schools, make sure to investigate their financial aid packages. Some private colleges offer an aid calculator on their websites to help you understand how much of the sticker price you can expect to pay, how much you might need in student loans, and how much might be made up in work study. In addition, be on the lookout for scholarships and other merit aid packages.
Ideally, college is both a great experience on its own and a springboard for whatever you decide to do next. So, as you consider your college choices, be sure to look at how well schools can help you find and prepare for a career path. Does the school have a robust alumni network? Do current students have interesting internships related to their areas of study? Consider visiting the career center on your campus visit to learn more about what it offers.
Another important factor in understanding what your life will be like on campus is room and board. What kinds of housing and dining options exist for students? Do they mainly eat in a dining hall, or do they buy their meals around campus? Are there four years of guaranteed housing, or do students move into off-campus rentals after their sophomore or junior years? Is there any kind of designated first-year or special interest housing? Answers to these questions can make a big impact on what your day-to-day college experience is like.
Many colleges and universities also offer their students the opportunity to learn abroad for a semester or a year of college. This option doesn't appeal to all students, but if it's one that might be of interest to you, it's worth looking into what kinds of opportunities exist at different schools for your intended major. As you research, ask questions like: what kinds of language requirements do you need? Will your credits transfer to your major? How much on-the-ground support does the school offer students who study abroad?
Another way to evaluate the suitability of a college is to make a note of its four-year graduation rates and its retention rates. If a significant number of students aren't graduating in four years, that's often a red flag that there's something amiss. And, if retention rates are not in the 80s or above, you'll know that a lot of students at that school end up transferring out before they finish, which is a sign that they're not happy with what the school can offer them.
It sounds a bit silly, but as you start to finalize your list, pay attention to acceptance rates! You might love a lot of Ivy League and other highly selective schools, but if every school on your list has an acceptance rate in the single digits, you're setting yourself up to be disappointed. Make sure you have a range of schools on your list, including some that are easier to get into. Pay particular attention to the average high school GPAs and test scores of admitted students to see how you measure up.
Not all schools have the same standardized testing requirements, so if you're someone who isn't a strong test-taker or who faces financial barriers to standardized testing, be sure to pay attention to these requirements as well. Some colleges and universities are completely test-optional, meaning you don't have to submit any SAT or ACT scores at all. Colleges also have a wide range of policies on SAT Subject Tests.
Ultimately, the more you learn about different colleges, the more you'll start to notice more and more detailed things that you might be looking for in the admissions process. As you start to know more, don't be afraid to reach out to an admissions office and ask questions! Doing so can get you a straight answer, and it can also show admissions officers that you're a serious applicant to their school.
Finding the right college is a long process. You need to interrogate your own aspirations, research schools online, visit multiple college campuses, and consider your financial needs. However, by considering factors like the ones outlined above, you will be able to find a handful schools to which you'll actually apply—and, eventually, the one you'll ultimately attend!