Your Guide to Choosing a College

Whether you're unsure which colleges to apply to or you've already received multiple acceptance letters and are struggling to pick the right school, reviewing this article can help you make an informed decision. By reading this page, you can develop a helpful checklist that you can compare against each school you research.

The following sections detail factors that may influence your college choice. You can also follow embedded links to find more information that all college applicants should know.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a College

With so many good colleges to look into, you need to determine the factors that will influence your decision. Some factors, such as cost, may not matter much if you earn scholarships or if your parents can pay for your schooling. Still, review the following sections, as they provide essential information that can help you get into college. Additionally, please consult these tips that outline the steps behind choosing a good college.

Cost

In 2019, many of the most expensive colleges in the United States charged more than $55,000 per year in tuition. Even less expensive public colleges and universities can put students and families in a financial bind. When considering cost, do not forget about fees, room and board, and transportation. Put together, these expenses can add thousands of dollars to your college costs.

Many students take advantage of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and loans, to finance a degree. Other ways to save money in college include creating a budget. A budget helps you keep track of money and feel more secure about your financial future. If you need help with budgeting, these student stories might help.

“I chose my school because it has one of the top journalism programs in the nation and because of the HOPE scholarship, which paid for 85% of my tuition!”

Margaret, University of Georgia

Location

When high school students ask themselves which college they should attend, they may not fully consider how a school's location can affect their educational experience and personal growth. Consider whether a small town or a large city better matches your personality. Ask yourself how far you want to move away from home. Some degree-seekers feel more comfortable when family members live nearby.

Additionally, research a college's climate and geography. Both can influence the school's extracurricular activities and your ability to socialize with peers. You can also look up how walkable the areas around campus are.

“I was undecided going into school, but I knew I wanted to pursue a degree in psychology or business. More importantly, I wanted to live in the mountains. The environment was just as much of a priority as the programs.”

Tyler, Appalachian State University

Size

The largest college in the United States enrolls about 65,000 on-campus students, while the smallest schools are home to just a few hundred degree-seekers. At a large school, you can still receive an individualized educational experience if the institution offers small class sizes. Additionally, even in classes with hundreds of learners, teaching assistants may meet with small groups of students weekly to answer questions and provide one-on-one assistance.

You can contact an admissions counselor or search for information on a college's website to learn more about the student-to-faculty ratio. Most schools post a page that covers this type of data, alongside the school's history, values, and other at-a-glance information.

Academic Programs

Many college students explore different majors during their first year, so it might be a good idea to select a school that offers multiple majors that interest you. This can give you options if your interests change over the first semester. You can consult an academic advisor if you need help selecting a major. You should also research academic minors at your potential schools.

In addition to majors and minors, most four-year colleges offer study abroad programs that can provide you with an invaluable experience. A school's website should offer information about study abroad placement, student experiences, and fees.

“I wanted to study environmental engineering and they had a program for undergrads, which was uncommon. I loved the fun, small college town vibe on the coast. I played in the band in high school, so I was very interested in joining the campus marching band and appreciated the level of school spirit the school had.”

Amara, California Polytechnic State University

Quality of Professors

To reduce costs, many colleges employ adjunct professors. Although these professionals possess a terminal degree, they receive a lower salary than tenured professors and usually teach a larger course load each semester. If overworked adjunct professors teach your classes, you may receive less individualized attention. Also, schools use teaching assistants — usually graduate students — to teach lower-division courses.

You can ask schools what percentage of their classes are taught by tenured professors, as well as how many professors hold a terminal degree in their field.

Housing Options

When comparing colleges, do not forget that housing represents more than just a dorm room and a roommate. Some schools require new students to live in special dormitories as part of the first-year experience. This helps introduce students to campus life and sets them up for academic and professional success.

As you research the unique ways each school uses dormitories to promote socialization, do not forget about housing fundamentals. Compare dorm room sizes, amenities, and quality against how much the college charges for housing. You may discover that off-campus apartments cost less while offering a better living space.

Social Activities

Many colleges offer fraternity and sorority houses where members live together and complete service projects. Other degree-seekers play a sport or join a club. If you enjoy your high school extracurricular activities, you should find out whether a college's social activities will allow you to pursue your passions.

Additionally, some colleges have a "party school" reputation. However, don't completely disregard a school based on how other students choose to spend their free time; that school may still offer excellent academic programs that can help you prepare for a successful career and life.

Diversity

A college that features a diverse student body can provide you with a valuable and new perspective, especially if you grew up in an area where the vast majority of people were of the same racial, cultural, or socioeconomic background. Also, research whether a school enrolls mainly in-state or out-of-state degree-seekers. All of these factors can influence your academic experience during the years you spend on campus.

In addition to a college's student body, explore the surrounding area's diversity. Towns and cities with a diverse population tend to offer a variety of cultural events, restaurants, museums, and other opportunities that promote personal growth.

Resources and Accommodations

Most degree-seekers need some form of support to succeed academically. One common struggle they face involves mental health. Living away from home, engaging in new social situations, and completing rigorous coursework can cause depression and other mental health issues. Fortunately, most colleges offer counseling services at no extra cost. Other common student services include academic tutors and experts who help learners hone writing skills.

Good colleges also provide accommodations to students with a physical or mental disability. If you have a disability, research the specific services and policies at a school before applying. Additionally, both secular and religious schools offer a mix of faith-based clubs and on-campus religious services.

Career Support

Although the beginning of your career may seem like a lifetime away, you should also look into career support services at your potential colleges. These services may include one-on-one advising sessions and career fairs. The latter represents an excellent opportunity to network with employers and find job offers before you graduate.

In addition to career fairs, alumni networks help college seniors and recent graduates attain a job. A school may offer services through LinkedIn, Facebook, or a custom platform. Even if you plan to earn a degree on campus, your school may also provide excellent virtual resources, such as online webinars and job boards.

Consider Reputation

When researching a college's reputation, a good first step is to determine whether the school possesses regional accreditation. Regional accreditation agencies certify that an institution provides a quality education. Potential employers and graduate programs may not recognize the legitimacy of your degree if you attend a school without this accreditation.

Outside of accreditation, you can learn more about a college's reputation by consulting ranking lists. These lists highlight good schools for specific majors, as well as top institutions in each state. Additionally, you can learn a lot about a college's reputation by studying its history and faculty. A school that experienced a recent scandal should make you wary, even if it possesses other outstanding qualities.

“I chose the college that offered the best financial aid package. It was also known for being the best public university in the state.”

Jackie, University of Washington

However, understand that a school's reputation should only represent a small part of how to choose a college. Graduating from an expensive, beautiful school that employs brilliant professors does not guarantee a lucrative job or success in life. The effort you put into your coursework matters much more. As long as you attend an accredited college, you should be adequately prepared to find success after you graduate.


Determine Your Odds

Top private colleges in the United States often have an acceptance rate in the single digits. Many of the best public schools also turn away a large percentage of applicants. For these reasons, you should research ways to increase your college admission chances and seek out schools where you have the greatest odds of finding academic success.

Acceptance Rates

On average, colleges admit approximately two-thirds of all applicants. This figure takes into account extremely competitive private schools and community colleges that use open-enrollment policies. Most schools post admission rate data on their website. To determine your odds at any school, compare your academic performance against the average standardized test scores and high school GPAs of first-year students.

Even if your top-choice school has a low acceptance rate, keep in mind that this number does not necessarily represent your odds. Competitive applicants have a higher chance of being admitted than the typical prospective student.

Test Scores

Although many good colleges no longer require standardized test scores for admission purposes, you should still prepare for and take the ACT or the SAT. Some applicants take both, as the slight differences between them mean that test-takers may earn a significantly better score on one of the tests.

Even if you study for the ACT or SAT, you may still not earn a score that makes you a competitive application at your top-choice school. Although a disappointing outcome, remember that admissions offices use a holistic approach when reviewing an application. Your other merits — including good grades, AP courses, and extracurricular activities — may make you worthy of admission.

Retention Rates

A school's retention rate refers to the percentage of college students who do not drop out after their first year. This figure is a vital indicator; factors that influence retention include the quality of professors and support services, both of which are essential to learners' academic success and personal growth.

The typical postsecondary institution retains approximately three-quarters of its full-time, first-time students. Use this figure as a benchmark; schools with a higher rate likely invest more in student services. Additionally, note that the retention rate differs from the graduation rate; the former does not consider students who drop out in their sophomore, junior, or senior year.

Graduation Rates

First-time students who enrolled at a four-year institution on a full-time basis in 2011 had an average six-year graduation rate of around 56%. This number varied widely depending on the type of institution a student attended; the six-year graduation rate was 21% at private, for-profit schools; 60% at public schools; and 66% at private, nonprofit schools.

As you research public and private colleges, review each school's institutional effectiveness — most schools have a dedicated website for this — and compare your findings against average numbers. Schools with higher graduation rates tend to offer more effective student support services, such as better academic counselors and tutors.

Visit Campuses

College tours can help prospective degree-seekers see a school in a new light — it's hard to appreciate a campus based on a few photos or videos. You can gain a deeper sense of campus culture on a tour and imagine yourself as part of it. Also, some schools allow visitors to sit in on classes, which can be a valuable experience.

However, when you tour a college, remember that guides are like salespeople. They sell the school and try to make you believe it fits your needs perfectly. During the tour, view things with a critical eye and ask questions.

Regarding questions, have some ready before you visit campus. You can come up with a list while researching schools online. Do not feel afraid to ask questions that might seem a little critical. Also, feel free to ask the guide — typically a current student — about their experiences.


Compare and Decide

When creating a college shortlist, write down the positives and negatives of each school that interests you. Use the factors on this page as a guide. Also, as you compare schools, take your time. You do not want to make an uninformed decision. College finder websites help make the process easier by ranking schools according to cost and other criteria.

You may wonder which factors should take precedence over others. Many prospective degree-seekers prioritize and focus on cost. If this statement describes you, regard each school as an investment. Even if one college costs more than others, it may offer you an excellent return on investment. Research the school's graduate outcomes to help make this determination.

Finally, you may think the school you pick has little weight on your professional career. After all, many employers value professional experience over education. However, you still want to choose a school where you can hone in-demand and transferable skills that are essential for career success.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many colleges should I apply to?

You should aim to fill out 4-7 applications and include a mix of "safety" and "reach" colleges. Using this method, you should get at least one letter of acceptance, even if your top-choice school does not admit you.

How do you know if a college is a good fit?

If you feel unsure about a college after performing research and taking an on-campus tour, that school may not be a good fit. Each school you apply to should meet your interests and goals closely. With thousands of colleges in the United States, there's bound to be some schools that are a good fit.

How do you compare colleges?

You should compare colleges based on the criteria you find most important. For prospective students on a budget, use tuition and fees to compare colleges. Other college applicants may use schools' undergraduate majors as a means of comparison.

Can you accept more than one college offer?

Unfortunately, you cannot accept more than one college offer. However, colleges usually give admitted applicants 2-4 weeks to commit. During this time, make a final comparison between the schools that accepted you.

Can you change your mind after accepting a college offer?

No law prevents you from changing your mind, and numerous circumstances can prevent you from attending college. However, since many schools require a nonrefundable deposit, you risk losing hundreds of dollars that could go toward tuition, books, and other expenses.