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how to choose a college

Picking the Right College: Which Factors Can Help You Decide 

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The perfect college experience looks different for everyone. Maybe you will be nestled into a small school in a rural area, a large college that dominates the city it is in, or darting around a big city on a distributed campus. You may be one of a dozen students in class or you could be one of 100 students in a huge lecture hall. 

How you envision your college life will be a driving force in where you send college applications, and then decide where to spend your next four years. But there are a number of considerations that make up that bigger picture during your college search. 

“There’s a whole host of factors when you’re looking at schools you want to consider,” said Lisa Bleich, president and CEO of College Bound Mentor, listing everything from cost to location to course offerings to the vibe of the student body on campus.

There are also some factors that don’t matter as much as people might think and could actually steer you in the wrong direction, landing you at a school that isn’t the best fit.

We teamed up with college admissions experts to give you the most important factors you should consider when making your college choice — and which considerations aren’t a big deal after all.

Look Beyond the ‘Best Colleges’

A school’s prestigious name or national ranking was at the top of the list of factors the experts say shouldn’t matter as much in your college decision as some high school students and parents think it does.  

“I think one of the big pitfalls that students fall prey to is focusing on rankings and using that as the barometer for which school is ‘better’ than another,” said Bari Norman, head counselor and co-founder of Expert Admissions. “I’ve seen it happen where students pick the school based on name only or ranking only, that’s not a good fit for them. And then they are miserable there.”

That doesn’t mean to give up your dream of attending an ivy league or the other top private colleges in the country. Instead, they suggested, apply to a wide range of schools that interest you, rather than focusing on name only.

“A lot of students reach too high and they don’t have a balanced list in the application process,” Bleich said. “But if they’re not a good fit for them, either academically, or they haven’t done something really unique that’s going to set them apart and give them an angle to get in, then they might have a lot of rejections come March.”

Students should have a concrete list of reasons why they are applying to a particular school, both to ensure they will be successful and also so they are appealing to admissions officers who are looking for stand-out candidates.

Find a Good ‘Fit’

“Fit” is a popular buzzword when it comes to college admissions, both for the school and potential college students.

“If they can see you as someone who would really engage on their campus and contribute to their campus … then that’s really what fit is about,” Norman said. “You have to feel comfortable at a school, but then you have to say, “Hey would they feel the same about me?’ It’s kind of like setting people up on a date.”

Fit is made up of a number of different characteristics that are unique for each student. This could include class sizes, the type of college campus, the total size of the school, etc. 

Both Bleich and Norman suggested reaching out to current students to find out what the vibe is like and what types of students gravitate toward that particular college. Bleich suggested following current students on Instagram to get an idea of what their college life is like, while Norman advises her clients to speak to students not affiliated with the admissions office.

“You need the unfiltered version,” she said. “You need to hear honest pros and cons.”

And while COVID-19 safety precautions mean fewer on-campus tours, all prospective students should take virtual tours via college websites and see if it’s possible to have a one-on-one socially distant in-person campus visit before you formally commit for your first year. 

Also consider how much room you will have to spread your wings and grow as a student and as a person. You may be looking at colleges when you are 16 or 17 years old, but you will be graduating in your 20s. A school with a good fit will have many opportunities for you to explore, try out new things, and challenge yourself.

Fit could also include the location of the school as some students may want a smaller, suburban school while others envision themselves studying in a big city. And while some students want to stick close to home, others want to be a plane ride away.

Consider the Sticker Price

Once you’ve made a list of potential schools, research how you would be able to afford each one. 

What is your budget? Will you be able to pay the tuition in full or will you need financial aid? What is the average financial aid package for a student like you? How much student loan debt are you willing to take on? 

But don’t automatically discount a more selective school simply because you don’t think you can afford it, especially if you have a sterling high school academic and extra-curricular career. 

There are private schools that may meet your full financial need, Bleich said, if they really want you on campus. She had a client from Connecticut that wanted to get a doctor of pharmacy degree, or PharmD. Her client applied to the University of Connecticut, thinking her only choice might be a less expensive, in-state school.

“But actually when she ended up applying, she ended up getting in everywhere and Northeastern University met her full need,” Bleich said. “So it was less money to go to Northeastern than it was for her to go to UConn.”

But of course, she added, “you have to obviously have the goods” for a school to offer you a full ride.

Research the School’s Learning Style

Unlike high school, in higher education there is a wider variety in how classes are held. A school may have a top -notch degree program, but their curriculum and their teaching style can make a big difference.

“Some are more creative, some are more intellectual, some are more pre-professionally focused, some are more interested in interdisciplinary learning and applied knowledge, and others are more theoretical and tend to focus more on that,” Norman said. “Some are very much into knowledge for social justice. There’s all different things. And your job is to figure how out, how does a college fancy itself?”

When making your list of schools, you may want to consider the size and availability of research facilities or whether the school offers specialties within common degree programs such as English or engineering. Will you have teaching assistants or professors only? 

Students should also consider their own learning style and what kind of support, if any, they may need.

“If you have a learning disability or attention issue, every school is going to have a disability office,” Norma advised, “but you’ve got to find out is it just a place that runs paperwork so you get what the law technically allows you or is it a place where there’s actually some good tutoring and support.”

Also investigate the school’s career center and alumni network. Are they active in their students’ post-graduation job search? Can you get a mentor in your potential field? Is being an active alumna important to you? 

Listen to Your Gut

One of the most important factors you should consider is your own opinion. Don’t dismiss a school simply because you had a friend who didn’t like it, the acceptance rate, or the college ranking. Don’t follow your boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend to their school without considering what you want. Don’t force yourself to enroll in a college you know won’t be a good fit for you, even if it was your parent’s alma mater. 

Deciding where to go to college is one of the first major decisions you will make as you head into adulthood.

“Let the decision be driven by the student and not by trying to please your parents,” Bleich said. “This is a time for students to try to understand who they are and what they want. I know it’s hard but try to listen to the voice inside as opposed to all of the people trying to pull you in a different direction.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest. 

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.