How to Select the Best College

Selecting the best college is a challenge for just about everyone. There are so many factors and so much at stake that the process can be extremely frustrating. And there are literally thousands of quality schools out there. This means you should be able to find a good one, but the selection process can easily become overwhelming. Add other factors to the mix-finances, grades, parents-and it becomes easy to lose sight of your priorities and goals.

Below are some criteria to help you navigate the process. If you give yourself plenty of time (don't procrastinate!) and take it step by step, selecting the best college doesn't have to be torture. It can even be fun!

Ask Yourself Why You are Going to College

This is a simple question, but the answer rarely is. Most high school students don't know what they want to do when they grow up. But remember, you're choosing a college, not a major. Selecting the best college is just as much a process of learning about yourself as it is about prospective schools.

You may not know what career you want to pursue after graduation, but you certainly know what your interests are and what you're good at. Thinking about this will help you figure out if you're leaning towards liberal arts or a technical field.

Self-refection will also help you get a grasp on other factors. Do you want to attend a large or small school? Far away or close to home? Expensive or affordable? As you ask yourself these questions, you will begin to have a better understanding of your own priorities.

It may even be possible that you're not quite ready for college yet. You may want to take a year off, but make sure that you spend it wisely. Other countries have a tradition of students taking a year after high school to travel, work or volunteer. This is not a tradition in the United States, so you want to make sure you do something productive with your time. When you finally do apply for colleges, they will want to know what you did with your free time during the prime of your life.

Seek Out Help

Not to frighten you, but this is a major decision in your life, possibly the biggest decision you've made so far. You don't want to make it alone. Bring other people into the process, including parents, other family members, teachers, friends, college officials and college graduates. The more input you have, the more informed your decision will be.

Chances are your parents are going to have opinions and priorities of their own. It is vital that you maintain clear and honest communication with your parents throughout the process.

Some parents are overbearing and practically make the decision for their child. Others simply have their own concerns, especially when it comes to finances, but have difficulty being a constructive part of the process. Selecting the best college is the student's decision, and it's important that he or she sits in the driver's seat.

Many high school students don't realize they have so many people to turn to for help. Take a step back and look at the adults in your life. If they are successful and happy, ask them about their college experience. Most will probably tell you that it didn't matter so much where they went to school, but what they did with the opportunity. Even those who didn't go to college will have some perspective on why and how that affected their life.

Start Your Initial List

Now that you've asked yourself some tough questions and gained input from older, possibly wiser people in your life, you should have a better sense of what is important to you and what you want out of your college experience.

It's time to begin your list! Initially, you want to start with about 20 colleges. Too many more and you may have a hard time doing proper research on all of them. Selecting the best college can be a full-time job in itself, so you want to make sure to keep your search practical and doable.

There may be a couple of schools that you just know you're interested in. It might have to do with the image or brand of the school. You may be a life-long fan of the football team. Or you might not even know why. That's okay. Include these schools in your list, but keep an open mind.

As you flesh out your list, you're going to want to consider a few vital factors, such as geographic location, school size, campus environment, academics and cost. Below is a little more detail on each of these criteria.

Consider Location

At the start of the process, the location of a college can seem like the most important aspect. But as you do research and learn more about the schools on your list, chances are geographic location will drop further and further down as a priority.

If you are absolutely certain that you want to attend college out-of-state, make sure you aren't missing something good right under your nose. You might want to go far from home based on an emotional desire to engage more fully in the “college experience” and to get away from home and family and establish yourself as an independent person.

But it is almost always more affordable to go to a school in your home state, where you have established residency. Attending college as an out-of-state non-resident automatically makes it much more expensive.

Many students are also surprised when they get out of the nest. Some find that they have a harder time without the support of family, friends and familiar surroundings. This is a good subject to bring up with other adults in your life. Ask people you admire what they did and why.

Enrollment Size of School

The size of a school is a vital piece of the puzzle. It can tell you a lot about an institution. For example, if a college only has 4,000 students it is probably not because they can't attract any more. Some schools stay small so they can offer smaller class sizes and a more intimate campus experience. On the other hand, research universities usually need to be large in order to have the resources to conduct cutting-edge research and attract top faculty.

Many students are drawn to big name schools that they know, either through academics, athletics or a personal connection. If you've always seen yourself at a big school, do some research on smaller institutions. You may be surprised by what you find.

Or perhaps you have a very small school in mind-somewhere that specializes in a certain field of study and reduces other distractions like sports and student clubs. If so, take a look at the next size up. Even if you wind up staying small, you will learn a lot about your priorities by looking at a slightly larger college.

Campus Environment

The environment on campus is another crucial aspect of your college experience. Do you want to be in a big city or a rural setting? Do you want to live in student dorms or find your own apartment? Are you concerned about safety and campus security? Campus life varies immensely from college to college, and for some people it can be just as important as the academics in shaping their experience.

As you investigate colleges, learn what you can about the campus culture. Some schools have a bustling campus community full of events and student organizations. Others are commuter schools, where very few students, if any, live on campus and participate in extracurricular activities.

The best thing you can do is visit the campus in person; there's simply no substitute. It will give you the opportunity to walk the grounds, feel the energy, taste the food (literally), and most importantly, ask detailed questions. You may even be able to sit in on some classes.

Some students with the financial means even schedule a second campus visit. This is not an option for everyone-even one visit is expensive-but it illustrates how important it is to see the school with your own eyes. You're going to be spending four (or more) years of your life in this place. You want to be certain that it is somewhere you want to be.


You want to find a school that is a good fit for you academically. Start broad and then get specific. Look at the school's general admissions standards for incoming students. The admissions department should provide statistics on the students they accepted in previous years. Do your grades and test scores line up with their standards?

You want to find several schools that are in the range of your own grades and test scores. These are known as your “match” schools. Don't rule out a college that typically admits better-qualified students. If you really want to apply there, that will be your “reach” school. And it's always good to have a “safety,” meaning your grades and test scores are higher than the average.

Once you have identified schools as a safety, match or reach, you will have an idea of your chances of being accepted. Start digging a little deeper and look at some of the specific departments. Academic standards can vary widely from program to program. For example, a university's business school might be very competitive, elevating the overall ranking. But you're not interested in business. You want to study engineering, and that program is much easier to get into.

As you explore different academic programs, compare them with other schools on your list. Look at the course requirements that make up different majors. These are the classes you'll be taking, and they can tell you a lot about an academic program. If possible, talk to professors or former students to get a clearer picture.

Cost of School

Finances can be one of the most frustrating aspects of selecting the best college. You may have found a school you love, and your grades and test scores match with their admissions standards, but the cost of tuition is just too expensive.

Remember that you will most likely be utilizing some form of financial aid. These days most college students need to take advantage of student loans. You may also qualify for a grant or scholarship. If you are seriously interested in a school, make sure you talk to an admissions counselor about what financial aid packages are available. It will affect the overall cost in a major way.

In general, private colleges are more expensive than state-operated schools. This is because the government subsidizes state colleges and universities. However, most private universities have considerable endowments and offer more scholarships. Keep this in mind if you're looking at private schools.

Career Opportunities

As stated above, you want to have some sort of plan for your academic career. That includes giving some thought to what you want to do after graduation. You don't have to decide anything, just start thinking about it. This will help you judge whether or not a college will help you meet your goals in life.

Some colleges invest heavily in career counseling services, others do not. If possible, get some statistics on career placement from the school. A college that is active in this field will have this information readily available. Career counseling can be invaluable in helping you find internships and employment.

Some colleges and universities have an active alumni network. Think of this as career counseling on steroids. Especially with Ivy League and other prestigious universities, an alumni network keeps the school plugged into various industries and provides graduates with direct access to employers and career opportunities.

Final Decision

Let's say you've considered all of these criteria, conducted a thorough search and applied to five different schools, including one reach and one safety. You've been accepted into all three of your match schools and now you need to make a very tough decision: which one do you accept?

Start by revisiting your initial list and review your notes. Going back to the beginning of the process can be eye opening. By now you've digested so much information and experienced enough stress that you may have forgotten why you were first interested in a particular school. Revisiting the entire selection process can help clear the fog and lead you to your final decision.

If you have the means, a second visit to the campus is a very good idea. At this point you'll have some more detailed questions and you can get a much better idea of how you would fit in at this school.

There's a lot that goes into selecting the best college, but if you give yourself enough time and carefully consider all the factors described above, you should be able to find a good school that is a great fit for you.

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