10 Tips to help choose a College

10 Tips to Make Your Final College Choice Students should weigh cost, fit and other variables when deciding on a...
10 Tips to help choose a College

10 Tips to Make Your Final College Choice

Students should weigh cost, fit and other variables when deciding on a college, experts say.


Expert tips for how to decide on a college.

Choosing a college is not the kind of decision to take lightly. It involves numerous factors, including cost, fit, location, postgraduate success and other aspects that will shape a student’s collegiate experience. Beyond that, the college choice will influence friendships, extracurricular opportunities and daily life on and off campus. Considering the weight of this decision, an applicant should take a hard look at what he or she wants out of a school before choosing that state university because he or she grew up cheering for the football team, or that quirky liberal arts college three states away. Here are 10 tips to help students weigh the merits of a college once that acceptance letter arrives.

Focus on fit.

Students should put a heavy emphasis on finding the right fit when choosing a college, experts say. Where students go to school will color many aspects of their lives, so finding a place they can embrace will serve them well in the transition to college. And it’s a long-term commitment. “You want to feel comfortable where you are enrolling. It’s not just an education; it will be your home for the next four years,” Eric Nichols, vice president for enrollment management at Loyola University Maryland, wrote in an email.

Explore campus beyond the tour.

While campus tours are informative and often led by enthusiastic student ambassadors, it’s also an experience curated by the college. It’s a great way to see much of campus and hear about it from a student’s perspective, but typically not all-encompassing. Applicants should seek out other stops and students. “In addition to the tour, spend some extra time on campus. Pay attention to the students. Stop a few students on campus, tell them you’re a prospective student, and ask them a few questions,” Christopher Rim, CEO of Command Education, wrote in an email. One caveat to that advice is that physical college visits may not always be possible, so students should consider alternatives, such as virtual tours.

Understand that extracurricular opportunities may vary.

The odds of joining a sailing team at a college in Kansas are probably pretty low. Ditto for mountaineering in New York City. And if frat parties and football games are your priority, that small liberal arts college may not meet that need. Students should think about the type of experience they want from campus life. “If a good football team or a large Greek presenceis important to you, then consider attending a school with those opportunities,” Rim says. “But don’t let them outweigh a better academic program or ranked school.” He adds: “Find your people.”

Factor in family ties.

Family ties may help a student land that acceptance letter. Legacy admissions is a point of contention for many critics who argue it offers an unfair advantage to children of privilege and undermines equity efforts at colleges, but students should know how they can benefit – if interested – in a parent’s alma mater. The boost offered by legacy admissions varies by college, and some schools have scrapped the process entirely. But it’s a factor worth exploring. Students who benefit from legacy status should take advantage of the potential boost it offers their application and flag it in the admissions process, experts say. Family ties may also mean familiarity with a campus that can make for an easier choice.

Consider the consequences of debt.

Rim encourages students to consider schools that are the best value for them. “Do careful research when considering the cost of the colleges you’ve been accepted to, and which college has the greatest value in both quality and price,” he says. “If you’ve been offered a scholarship, carefully research its conditions.” While a certain amount of debt may be worth it when postgraduate earnings are considered, students need to make those calculations ahead of timeand consider short-term and long-term finances. Students should be aware that the loans taken out in college may follow them into their 30s and 40s, making for a commitment with the potential to last decades.

Pay attention to postgraduate success.

College is a journey, and ultimately the destination is likely the workforce. That’s why applicants should be career-minded when deciding on a college. “When choosing a college or university, it’s important to think about how the institution can help set you up for success after graduation,” Anne Huntington, president of Huntington Learning Center, wrote in an email. “Look for universities with strong work-study, internship or co-op programs, job placement assistance, and strong alumni networks – these are critical resources that will help you land a job upon graduation.”

Know how a major influences career options.

Which college to attend and what major to choose are two significant decisions for students looking ahead to their future. A college major will serve as a launching pad into the workforce, and the major a student picks can have an outsize influence on future earnings. Experts say students should choose a major in a discipline that they enjoy, while also being aware of job opportunities, earning potential and barriers to practicing in a particular field, such as a need for advanced degrees or professional licensing requirements. “Getting a solid education is key, but what you are able to do with it is important too,” Nichols says.

Pay attention to institutional values.

The impact of the coronavirus on college admissions is still playing out, but students caught up in the turmoil of pandemic life should consider how colleges are responding. “You can learn a lot about an institution’s values and mission during times of crisis, so pay attention to how the schools you are looking at have responded to the coronavirus,” Nichols says. “Pay special attention to the ones who are providing room and board refunds, have set up emergency relief funds, and are providing alternative grading for their students. Maybe even more importantly, take note of those who aren’t doing these things.”

Trust yourself to make the right decision.

It’s likely that many people invested in the college decision will have opinions and influence. But at the end of the day, the decision ultimately belongs to the student. While friends and family can offer important insights, applicants should understand that the decision is up to them. Nichols encourages students to go with their gut. “You will have a lot of people influencing you (friends, family, etc.), but at the end of the day, it is you that will be going to college. Don’t obsess about making the ‘right’ decision; instead, focus on making your decision.”

Remember that no college decision is truly final.

Even in well-reasoned college searches, students can end up at a school that isn’t quite right for them for a litany of factors. Whether students change their major, opt for a cheaper school or want to move closer to home, there are countless reasons for transferring colleges. So if a student doesn’t get the college search right or circumstances change, he or she should know about available options. “You can always transfer to a school you think will be a better fit, or take a gap year and come back when you feel more ready to overcome the challenges college brings to the table,” Rim says.

Learn more about colleges.

Get more advice about how to choose a college and check out the complete rankings of the Best Collegesto find the school that’s best for you. For more tips on selecting a college, connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.