How to Choose the Right College or University

Student Choosing a CollegeWith so many options available to those pursuing higher education, choosing just one school may start to feel more like a burden than a blessing. But there are ways to keep sane and organized as you make such a weighty decision.

First Steps

  • Approach the decision to pick a school as an exciting opportunity to learn all you can.
  • Read. Materials sent by colleges can be a valuable resource, but it's important to bear in mind that there's a lot more to a school than those glossy photos of students lunching on a grassy knoll. And if a school you like doesn't send you a brochure, by all means, go ahead and request one, or seek information online. Request all the information you want. At this point, you just want to be informed. You are not making any commitments.
  • Attend college fairs held in your area to pick up more information and talk with school representatives.
  • Consider what life is like at any given institution. Most students benefit from making a list of what they are looking for in a school.

As you read about schools and research them further, you'll get a better idea of what type of school seems like a good fit for you.

Consider the Size

Smaller colleges boast a more intimate classroom experience, but larger schools often have a wider variety of classes and activities. Where would you thrive? If you want your professors to know your name and to be able to offer you one-on-one assistance, a smaller school might be a better choice. The campus atmosphere is also usually more like a close-knit community.

"Basically, you can be a big fish in a little pond...if that's what you choose," said Michael Poll, vice president of admissions for Chatham College, a private school with just under 1,000 students located in Pittsburgh, Penn.

A larger school usually means larger classes, sometimes with hundreds of students. However, this is usually the case in introductory courses. More specialized classes often have smaller enrollments. Larger universities can also offer many more programs than smaller schools. This may be a plus for those who are undecided. On the other hand, smaller schools are more likely to work with students to design majors around their interests, as long as they are within the school's curriculum.

Consider the type of classroom environment to which you are accustomed. What are the perks and drawbacks of that situation? A great way to get a feel for the differences between a small classroom and a larger lecture hall is to visit some campuses. Checking out a class can usually be arranged during a trip to the school.

"Ask to sit in on a class and eat a meal in the dining hall or snack bar. Check out the gym facilities and housing," said Jennifer Deweerth, director of the Student Service Center at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, New York. "Students should pay attention to their gut feeling when they visit a campus," she added.

Seeing the school can often help answer a lot of questions. Not only can you see and feel what it is like on campus, you can also ask students and faculty questions. "Campus visits and interviews are critical," said Poll. "Also, they can improve your chances of being admitted to the school."

"Remember, even if the college doesn't need to interview you, you need to interview the college, as you are planning to spend your time and money there, and you need to find out whether it is the right place for you," added Deweerth.

But for those who are still not sure where to apply, let alone visit, consider a visit a nearby college. Such a visit might help you realize some of your likes and dislikes, which you can use to help make your decision about where to apply.

Consider the Location

There are urban, suburban, and rural colleges -- something for everyone. Again, as when considering a school's size, it's helpful to think about what you are used to, and to weigh what you find good or bad about it. If you come from a big city, for example, do you want to try something different or do you freak out at the thought of seeing cows and fields instead of skyscrapers and concrete?

Consider the distance from home. It is important to be realistic here. Many students are cavalier about wanting to leave home and go as far away as possible. Moving away from home is a big deal, so think seriously about what it's going to be like and whether or not you want to be on the other side of the world from your family. On the other hand, this is a good chance to get out and experience new things, so don't be afraid to challenge yourself -- just be honest with yourself when you are deciding what that means for you.

Consider the Cost

Cost is, of course, also a big deal for most people. Price tags vary enormously from school to school.

"The reality is that how to finance your education is a factor for most prospective college students, and there may be a big difference in cost, with community colleges saving thousands of dollars in comparison to four-year schools," said Deweerth. "But students should realize that many private colleges give a lot of financial aid to students who qualify, so the differences may not be as great as they assume."

Students do not have to rule out a school just because the cost seems astronomical. If it is your dream school, you can still apply, but be sure to fill out financial aid and scholarship forms. There is a lot of money available for students, but you have to look for it. Fortunately, financial aid administrators at most schools are there to help you. That is not to say money is no object when choosing a school, but determine what your resources are and keep that in mind when choosing a school. Just remember it doesn't have to be the sole factor in your decision.

Consider Academics & Your Plans

A school's academics should also be high on your list of criteria. After all, getting a good education is what this is all about. You might be swayed by a school's prestigious reputation or rankings in national magazines. These are not bad things to consider, but they are not the only things that should matter. Just because a school receives accolades doesn't mean it's perfect or, more importantly, perfect for you. That's not to say that going to the top school for a particular program won't be an asset if that is your chosen path of study. It is just another factor to consider and weigh accordingly.

All of these decisions can be particularly difficult if you're not even sure what you want to study, as is the case for most incoming freshmen. Colleges generally don't require students to declare a major until their second year. But you do have to decide if you have at least a general idea of what you want to do because you want to choose a school that offers a fitting program. If you are still torn, make sure you don't choose a school that will limit your choices. Consider also the strength of the academic counseling the school provides, because you may need help declaring a major or keeping things straight if you switch programs.

If you are interested in one- or two-year programs, you will need to know right off the bat what you want to pursue. These programs, usually offered at professional schools or community colleges, are more specific and job-skills oriented. Again, a school's counselors are there to help make sure you're on the right track.

In the end, it all comes down to you, your goals, and how you plan to achieve them. "It is a big decision, but the more research and visits a student does, the better the decision will be," Deweerth says.