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As a high school senior, you’re beginning to make big decisions that will influence the rest of your life. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and a little lost, especially when it comes to choosing a college. There are thousands of degree-granting institutions to choose from, and the one you pick will determine your college experience and could influence where you end up in your career. 

Although this decision holds a lot of weight, we have a few tips for picking colleges that are best suited to your circumstances and interests. As you navigate the waters of post-high school life, refer to this guide on how to choose colleges as a reference.

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Because each student’s situation is different, there is no set number of schools they should apply to that will guarantee admission. There is, however, an appropriate range; it is suggested that prospective students apply to anywhere between five and eight schools of different institutional types to increase their odds of acceptance. Experts suggest applying to three target schools, two reach schools, and two safety schools. 

  • Target schools are schools that are highly likely to accept the applicant based on their typical admission standards
  • Reach schools are competitive and selective institutions that may be more difficult for the applicant to get in to, but where there is still a chance
  • Safety schools are usually guaranteed to accept the applicant based on their qualifications

So, even if you don’t make it into your reach schools, you could get into one of your next choices. Keep in mind that many institutions have application fees, so you’ll need to have some cash on hand when the time comes to complete these applications.

Ways to Compare to Institutions and Shorten Your List

If you’re currently in the research phase of choosing a college, looking into the various programs offered by different universities as well as their associated tuition costs and merits, you might feel like there are lots of schools that could be a good fit for you. Here are some tips for cutting that list down to the ones that will meet your unique needs.

1. Start applying early

Early application planning is critical to school admissions. It takes significant time to complete application essays, save money for fees, take the required tests, and obtain recommendation letters from your references. Give yourself the best chance by starting your preparations early and following through by applying early. 

Most academic institutions have their own deadline for application. Make sure you know thedue dates for your preferred schools so you don’t miss them! If you procrastinate, you may find that the deadline has already passed when you’re ready to submit the application. Fall admissions are usually considered in January of the same year. 

2. Rank your priorities 

If you’re struggling to know how to decide what college to go to, take a moment to think about the factors that are most important to you in a school. Is it the affordability? The academic prestige? The social life? The diversity? Whatever you value most, make a list of those things in order of most to least important and eliminate the schools that have the fewest of your top priorities. 

3. Distinguish wants versus needs

When picking colleges to apply to, make sure you separate your wants from your needs in deciding. For example, an all-star football team might be fun, but it likely doesn’t take precedence over the quality of the business program you’re seeking out. Likewise, the off-campus nightlife wouldn’t supersede the importance of the school’s affordability. Separating your non-negotiables from your “nice to haves” will make choosing a college much easier.

4. Visit campuses virtually or in-person

If you want to know how to find the right college, visit the ones you’re interested in. Campuses each have their own distinct environment, values, and vibes. One may be quiet, green, and spacious, while another may be buzzing, modern, and eclectic. That’s why, if you plan to attend college in person, getting a campus tour (whether digitally or physically) is so important. It will be crucial in helping you get a feel for the school and its energy, which may make your decision clearer. 

5. Compare the pros and cons

If you ask an academic counselor how to decide what college to go to, they will most likely tell you to make lists of pros and cons. It’s not likely that any one college is going to check all of your boxes. However, as you weigh the pros and cons of each institution, it may become clear which one meets most of your criteria. Make a list so you can visibly see which school is stacking up in your favor. 

6. Look into job connections

The purpose of college is to kickstart your professional career and equip yourself with the skills needed to succeed in the workforce. This is why you need to make sure your preferred schools have employment resources that will help you launch into the professional world seamlessly. This includes internship opportunities, career centers, classes, and so forth. The internet even has data on the employment rates of a particular school’s alumni, so you can see how well certain colleges and universities set their students up for future success.

7. Compare financial aid offers

Through the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), students can apply for college grants and loans. Schools can also supplement this financial assistance with grants and loans of their own. Perhaps you were accepted to your top school of choice, but your third choice is offering you a full-ride scholarship. Even though your top choice is a viable option, you’ll need to decide whether or not it’s worth taking on debt to attend or whether you would rather be debt-free and give up your preferred institution. 

Items to Consider When Picking Colleges

In the application process, there is a tendency for students to develop tunnel vision and fixate on one aspect of a college. There are so many factors to take into consideration that can all have an impact on a student’s educational future. Here are some you should think about as you research different universities. 

Academic Quality

Academic quality refers to the effectiveness of a school’s education methods, faculty members, resources, programs, and other opportunities. It is measured by the student-to-faculty ratio, average class size, graduation/retention rates, course grades, post-graduation earnings, and other related factors. 

Not all colleges are created equal; some schools have better reputations than others in terms of the quality of their output. Your education will pave the way for the rest of your life, so this should be one of your top considerations when choosing a college. To make your research easier, the U.S. Department of Education has provided a College Scorecard that allows you to compare aspects of academic quality from school to school.

Tuition and Other Costs

Academic quality won’t matter, however, if a college is unaffordable. Tuition costs and fees are on the rise, and they play a huge part in a student’s college decisions. If you have to take out loans to afford the school, consider whether you’re willing to have loan payments for the foreseeable future. 

Costs vary by institution, so if affordable tuition is your greatest priority, look into schools that have plentiful scholarship and grant opportunities as well as competitive tuition costs. If you decide to attend a school within your own state, you’ll usually be offered a lower tuition rate than you would at an out-of-state school for tax reasons.

Available Programs

One of the most vital parts in determining how to decide where to go to college is if a school has your intended major. Students attend colleges and universities to become experts in the field they intend to pursue, so make sure that your intended major is offered by your top school choices and that their programs have a good reputation. You can contact the department offering your program for more detailed information, such as program entrance requirements, coursework, and so forth. Use this information to compare programs between colleges.

Culture and Environment

The environment and culture of a school can help you grow and develop as a person, and they may even impact your enjoyment of the student experience. For example, if you’re majoring in art, seek out schools that foster a culture of creativity and an environment conducive to artwork with things like museums. On the other hand, if your goal is to get involved in many extracurricular activities and make friends, look for schools with offerings such as intramural sports and academic clubs. If you want to focus strictly on academics, look into colleges that devote much of their resources to research. 

Testing Requirements

Standardized tests, including the SAT and the ACT, play a significant role in college admissions. Some institutions require their applicants to have minimum test scores for admission, so try to limit your time and resources to only the schools you qualify for with your current test scores. If your scores do not qualify for your top choices, you may be able to retake the test if time permits. (This is why early application is always a good idea!)

Rate of Acceptance

The most prestigious and competitive institutions usually have minuscule acceptance rates. For example, Yale University accepts less than 5% of all applicants. While you shouldn’t immediately discount yourself, be honest with yourself and consider whether your grades and test scores will make it worth the time, work, and money to apply to institutions with low acceptance rates.

Graduation and Retention Rates

A school’s graduation and retention rates can tell you a lot about how much students enjoy the school experience and how effective the institution is in helping students complete their education. Ivy league colleges have maintained retention rates of 90+%, but this near-perfect rate isn’t realistic for most other institutions. We recommend looking for schools with a graduation and retention rate of over 75%, or a C on the high school grading scale, for a great academic experience.

Housing and Dining Options

If you’re planning to live on or around campus, the quality and availability of housing and dining options will be an important consideration. Do your top institutions offer well-maintained housing on campus? Does the school have a dining hall, or do students have to venture to different parts of campus for their meals? Are sophomores, juniors, and seniors permitted to live in on-campus housing, or will they have to relocate to off-campus housing after freshman year? Depending on your preferences, the answers to these questions may make or break your choice of college.

Ability to Provide Online Learning

Since the transition to remote learning and work in 2020, many schools have opted to keep their online learning option in place to offer education to a broader range of students. If you are unable to travel or relocate for school, find colleges offering high-quality online programs.

Extracurricular Opportunities

Well-rounded students take advantage of opportunities outside of the classroom. Make sure extracurricular opportunities are part of your college criteria. Whether you’re interested in film, choral music, athletics, culinary arts, dance, theater, debate, sculpting, or foreign languages, look for schools with programs or clubs that will foster and develop your interests and hobbies.

Support and Resources

If you are a student requiring special accommodations for learning impairment, physical disabilities, religion, or something similar, see to it that your chosen school has the support and resources built in to make your learning experience possible. Check for the availability of writing centers, tutoring services, counseling facilities, on-campus medical professionals, wheelchair ramps, elevators, and more.

How NOT to Choose a College

Now that we’ve overviewed what you should do during the college application process, let’s talk about a few things you shouldn’t do as you learn how to choose colleges.

Don’t Focus on Prestige Alone

Prospective students sometimes tend to romanticize big-name colleges and place greater value on the education of these institutions. Schools with elite reputations do not always offer better value than other schools. Even though it’s fun to tell people you were admitted to a selective school, you should never attend because of notoriety alone. Ultimately, you should choose the college that makes you happiest, is the best personal fit, and meets most of your goals.

Don’t Rely on College Rankings

College rankings don’t always tell you everything you need to know about a school; they only paint a small part of the picture. For instance, you may be able to learn how many people in your class are likely to graduate, but you won’t have any idea how much students enjoy the school or what the teachers are like. What’s more, rankings can vary based on the criteria of the organization conducting the rankings, and they can be skewed in favor of certain institutions. 

So, if you aren’t sure how to decide on a college and need to use college rankings, be sure to look at rankings from various sources. 


What are my chances of getting into a good college?

You can find a multitude of college admissions calculators online that will tell you your odds of acceptance at most accredited schools. The likelihood of your admission depends upon several factors, including your high school GPA, letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, extracurricular involvement and overall well-roundedness, demographic information, character and passion, application essay (if required), and the major you’re pursuing. 

If you want to increase your chances of acceptance, start working on these things now by seeking extra-credit opportunities, retaking standardized tests, volunteering in your community, gathering recommendation letters from trusted mentors, and spiffing up your writing skills. 

How do you start looking at colleges?

It is recommended that you meet with your high school academic advisor to get started. They can recommend educational institutions based on where you want to attend, your budget, your preferred school size, your intended major, and more. You can also attend college fairs, visit local campuses, and do your own research online to find schools that meet your criteria.

When should you start looking at colleges?

Give yourself at least a year before you graduate (or more if you don’t know how to pick a college) to start looking into colleges and universities. Junior year is typically thought to be the best time, but you can start earlier if you prefer. Generally, the earlier, the better. You need time to carefully weigh your options and think through the pros and cons until you feel confident about the schools that are right for you.

How does a college differ from a university?

Many people think of “college” and “university” as interchangeable terms. But, in general, a university offers all levels of degrees, from the associate to the doctoral level, while a college is an institution that is limited to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees at the undergraduate level. Due to this distinction, you will tend to find more program options at universities than you will at colleges. 

When should you apply for college?

Most colleges and universities open their applications during August and September and stop accepting them toward the end of spring, so most students start applying in the late summer/early fall of senior year. Every school is different, though, so be aware of the application window for your top choices.

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