Having the opportunity to go to college is a privilege—one you worked hard for. Making the most out of that privilege can come down to one small but powerful decision—choosing the right college for you.
That impacting decision can dictate not only your future career but also your financial situation and career right out of school. Getting to this stage in your life has been hard work, so narrowing down your college list shouldn’t seem even harder.
Especially with so many valuable and top-notch choices, it’s definitely difficult to make a decision. After all, you are choosing where and how you’ll be spending this next stage in your life and kicking off your adult years.
This decision can impact where you’ll be living for the next four years and possibly where you’ll be landing your first job. It can impact your college experience and the university name associated with your resumé. It can be the difference about whether you’ll get in the door or not even make the top of the pile. This decision can impact who will be at your wedding—who will be at your wedding—and who you’ll be marrying.
So, how can you narrow down that long “potential colleges” list? There are so many factors that go into choosing a great college for you.
We’ve been there before—so, here are a few tips:
1. Make a list. There is no right or wrong answer here. Just start writing down names that are on your radar. They could be colleges that have big football teams that you like or the one that your cousin goes to. Once you have a list of colleges that take your interest—first, congratulations, you’ve already narrowed it down—then you can start to knock off certain choices based on a few criteria.
Next, let’s get into a certain set of preferences.
2. Write down your priorities. Do you need to go to a school closer to home? What about school size—are you okay with 300+ student lecture halls or would you like a smaller-sized classroom? A few factors to prioritize are, but not limited to, geographical settings, what majors are offered, what the average starting salaries are, etc.
Your priorities can be sub-categorized into what you “need” in a school, what you would “want,” and what you would “like” to see.
Your major, for example, is categorized as a “need” and should be a top priority. Take your list and narrow down which schools offer the best program for your particular major or study.
If you are being granted a sport/art scholarship from a few different schools, look into those particular programs at each university on your radar. You’ll be investing a lot of your time and energy into these programs, so make sure they’re a good fit. This is also a “need.”
You might “want” your school size to be a bigger campus, with 30 to 40 thousand students. You like the feel of being a part of a huge legacy and going to a big-name school. This can be classified as a “want.” Although it won’t affect your career after college, it will affect your time during your years there.
You can “want” geographical distances to your home—but if you don’t need to go back home on a regular basis, this might be categorized as a want.
When it comes to “like,” you can consider the city in which your school will be in, the campus and the dorm life. The college experience is what you make of it. However, extracurricular activities, sports clubs, etc., can be things that are implemented during your time on campus—so don’t let your “likes” affect a major decision.
3. Once you’ve narrowed it down, make a pro/con list. To get that long list down to a manageable 5 or so schools, take your need/want/like list and start categorizing those schools and comparing them to one another. The range of qualities, cross-checked with their pros and cons, can help you weigh one school over the other. Rank and order them based on those qualities and how they compare to one another.
4. Take a visit. Some people take college-hunting as a great opportunity for a family or friend road trip. You can imagine and speculate all you want, however, going on campus and experiencing the school firsthand can make a whole lot of difference. Take a tour and even spend the night if you can speak with admission officers, teachers, and students about their time on campus. If you’re going for a sport, talk to the coaches and players about their experiences.
5. Last but not least—can I afford it? If you are not getting a scholarship to college (or if you are but still have some paying left to do), the cost of attendance, including tuition fees, board, meals, textbooks, transportation, etc., is a lot on your plate—or your parents’. Take a good look at the financial situation of your family or your starting salary when you get out of school if you have to take out loans. Although money isn’t the biggest factor, you should definitely make sure your school is within your financial reaching range. You don’t want to have a heavy amount of debt hanging over your head as a new graduate.
Once you feel you have a pretty solid list that you’re happy about, get in touch with others you know and trust to get some third-party opinions. Not only should you be asking your family members, but close friends and students (former and current) also check out some official college ranking systems to incorporate a school’s reputation in your decision.
After narrowing down your list, choosing a college that fits just right for you can help make this college-choosing decision much more manageable.
We hope that this list and these tips can help you make one of the hardest decisions you’ll make, a much easier one!
Anne Baron is a highly experienced educator, writer, and copywriter specializing in academic research. She has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration with almost 25 years of experience in teaching and academic writing. She spent a dozen years managing a large college peer-tutoring program and another dozen years in the classroom teaching college students. She has since retired from teaching and devotes her time and efforts to freelance writing for institutions, businesses, and colleges like Patrick Henry College.