Factors to consider when choosing a college

College Search Factors To Consider

by Carolyn Z. Lawrence, AdmissionsAdvice.com

While your college search should begin and end with you, the characteristics of individual colleges are also important to consider. Here are some important factors to consider while researching and comparing colleges:

The prestige factor. Prestige is an intangible factor that makes a poor college selection tool. If a college or university isn't a match for you in other ways, prestige in and of itself will not make up for what's lacking. If a college fits you in other ways, consider prestige to be a bonus.  Prestige should never be the entire reason for choosing a college.

Admissions selectivity.  How many applicants typically apply? What percentage are rejected? How do your grades and test scores compare to admitted students? Be honest and realistic.  While it is fine to include a few colleges that may be a stretch on your list, a college list that is made up only of schools that are wildly out of sync with your admissions profile is a risky bet.  Similarly, a list that only includes colleges that reject 75% or more of applicants is foolish, no matter how well qualified you may be. Smart students know that there are great colleges at all levels of selectivity, and they build their college lists accordingly. Reality check: college acceptance rates 

Cost. Every college publishes an estimate of the cost of attendance, including their tuition/fees, room and board, books, and personal expenses. You can find this information on each college's website.  However, keep in mind that the published cost of attendance can vary widely from what you may actually pay after financial aid and scholarships, so don't immediately rule out colleges based on their published cost. Instead, do your homework on each college's track record with financial aid and scholarships. Ask: How will this college determine what my family can afford? Does this college guarantee to meet the full need of all accepted students? If not, what is the average percentage of need that isn't met through financial aid? What type of debt do students graduate with at this college?  How much in merit scholarship money can a student with my grades and test scores expect at this college? The answers to these questions are readily available online and from college admissions and financial aid offices. Then, use the college's Net Price Calculator on their website to get a rough estimate of how your financial aid package might shake out. With this sort of data in hand, you can then make an informed decision about adding a college to your list.

Location. Don't forget that you are not only selecting a college, but also a place to live. Urban? Suburban? Rural? Cold winters or sunshine year-round? Do you want a school like New York University or San Francisco State where the campus blends right into its city, or a more bucolic setting, such as the University of California Santa Cruz or Kenyon College, which each have stand-alone campuses with hundreds of acres of trees? Do you want to be close to home or in another part of the state or across the country? Don't ignore the area surrounding campus either; most cities and towns in the U.S. have chambers of commerce and local newspapers that can help you get an idea of what the surrounding area has to offer.  This is particularly important for international students.  The United States is a huge country, with many different climates and lifestyles.  Don't assume that New York and Los Angeles are the same. Every school's location and setting is different, with pluses and minuses.

Size. The smallest college in the United states has just 24 students; the largest well over 60,000.  In between are thousands of different choices.  Think carefully about which size might be best for you academically and socially.  There are advantages and disadvantages to all sizes of colleges.  Focus on what feels right for you.

Curriculum and educational approach. Many students mistakenly focus solely on comparing specific majors at different colleges.  In reality, you'll only take a small percentage of your classes in your major area of study.  So, start broadly: What does each college require from its students in order to graduate? Some colleges offer very open curriculums that allow students to sample a wide variety of courses in different subjects before committing to an academic focus.  Others expect students to apply to a specific major.  Most colleges have required subjects that all students must take in order to graduate, but some colleges give students more flexibility than others in deciding how to meet those requirements. Knowing what will be expected of you at a particular college is important. For isntance, if you're not a math and science type, you'll probably be happier at a school where you won't be required to take many courses in those subjects to graduate.  On the flip side, if you don't enjoy literature or foreign language courses, you might prefer to look at colleges where there are fewer requirements in those areas.  Finally, investiage how each college structures the academic year.  Some colleges work on a semester schedule, others on a trimester or quarter schedule, and some even work on a one-course-at-a-time schedule.  Consider which pace will work best for your learning style.

Programs of study.  Even if you're not 100% sure of what you want to study or do after college, you probably have some ideas about academic subjects and careers that interest you. Before you add any college to your list, make sure that it offers relevant courses, programs, and degrees.   Don't just take a quick glance at the listing of majors on the college's admissions website; dig deeper. Under "Academics" on the college's website, look for the academic departments that interest you to learn about the distinguishing features of the program and the courses that are offered. Pay attention to the fine print. If there are requirements to get into a particular major, be sure you won't face obstacles. When you visit, make a point of setting up a meeting with a professor or student from the department to ask more questions.  Can't visit? Don't be shy! You can usually find the names and contact information of faculty members on the department's website to email with your questions.  However, keep in mind that a large percentage of students will change their major at least once, so don't let the strength of a particular department or program be your only reason for choosing a college. You should also investigate the academic advising services offered so that if you need help picking a major, you'll be able to receive it.


Diversity.  How comfortable are you around people who may be very different from you? Diversity doesn't just mean ethnic or racial diversity, but also economic, geographic, academic, and even political diversity.  Some students find being surrounded by many different types of people exciting, while others prefer a campus where there are more familiar types of people.  College guidebooks and campus visits can give you some idea of how diverse a particular campus is, and where you might fit in best.


Housing.  Some students - especially those who will be far from home - find they prefer the more cohesive community and varied weekend activities on a highly residential campus.  If living on-campus is important to you, be sure to check on the availability and quality of rooms in the dormitories, not just for freshman year, but for subsequent years as well. Other students, prefer the idea of living independently off campus or need to commute from home. If you plan to live off campus, or on-campus housing is limited, make sure to check about the cost and availability of off-campus housing options.  If you'll be commuting from home, ask about lockers, parking, and commuting student social organizations.


Campus culture.  Just like your high school has a different feel than other high schools, each college and university has its own unique campus culture. Some colleges are high stress pressure-cookers that are great for students who thrive on academic intensity, while other colleges take a more laidback approach.  The same holds true with the social atmosphere.  Some colleges feel more friendly and social than others.  On some campuses, weekends are filled with partying, while others have a quieter and more subdued atmosphere.  As you consider your college options, think about these differences and weigh which type of atmosphere will fit you best.



Next: Which Type of College is Right For You?


Based in San Diego County, California, Carolyn Z. Lawrence is a private college admissions consultant who has helped hundreds of students from across the country and around the world find the right college matches. 


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