The Complete Guide to Choosing a College

compare colleges

Unlike many of my peers, I was very targeted in my college search. I didn’t apply to any dream universities; I only applied to three schools I knew I could get into.

The deciding factor for me was money. Whoever gave me the most in scholarships, with the lowest total cost of attendance, was where I’d go.

Being focused on price made the process simple. Having a plan ensured I didn’t have any regrets.

Receiving acceptance letters from schools is a huge achievement and an amazing moment. But as soon as those letters come in, the real work begins.

Choosing where to go to college is a big decision. Standard advice says you should apply to five to seven schools, and making a choice can be challenging. To make the best decision for you, it’s important to do your homework and identify the biggest influences in your evaluation, such as cost or ranking.

If you’re not sure how to compare colleges, the below steps can help you through the process.

How to thoroughly compare colleges

Once you have your list of potential schools, narrowing it down becomes more complicated. Schools can all sound the same on paper, so, if possible, visit the school in person to get a feel for its culture.

Take a tour

Scheduling a tour with the university admissions office allows you to see the campus, talk with current students, and ask staff questions about what to expect. You can get a great idea of what the school is like, how big the classes are, what the dorms look like, and what activities are available on-campus.

Touring also can give you insight into how you would adapt to the environment. There’s a big difference between attending a school located in the city versus a college in a rural environment. Some people have determined preferences for and against either option, so seeing the school for yourself can help you decide.

Spend the night

A campus tour is wonderful, but keep in mind that a school-planned tour will be a very polished, prepared view of the college. You won’t hear about any of the downsides or get insights into what an actual day on campus is like.

If possible, schedule a night on campus. Some schools will partner you with a guide to shadow. You can attend classes with them, eat in the cafeteria, and spend the night in the dorm. You’ll get a firsthand glimpse of what to expect in a class or what the nightlife is really like. You may get a completely different impression than you got on the official tour.

Talk with alumni

If you’re interested in a particular major, reaching out to alumni in the field can be helpful. I studied communications, so I asked each school’s office to connect me with alumni working in public relations or marketing.

Connecting with graduates can give you a unique perspective. When I spoke to alumni from a particular school, two of them said they felt unprepared after graduation for their careers and had trouble finding a job.

But when I spoke to graduates from Elizabethtown College — a small school I eventually decided to attend — they raved about their experience, their strong network, and how easily they found good jobs after school. Most said professors connected them to internships and made introductions for them to big companies. Their guidance was a huge help in my decision-making process.

You can also search for graduates from a particular school on LinkedIn and send them a message with questions about their experience. Many professionals are happy to answer questions from students about their alma mater.

Take notes (and video)

If you applied to several schools, they all start to blur together after a while. It’s important to stay organized when you compare colleges.

Take notes after each tour or visit and clearly label them with the school’s name. Write down your key impressions about each school. If you have a smartphone or camera, filming portions of the tour or your overnight stay can help jog your memory about key details. It will help you recall what you enjoyed or disliked about each school.

10 factors to consider

When figuring out how to choose a college, there are a number of factors to consider and priorities to set. For me, the biggest factor that affected my decision was cost; I kept my student loan debt to a minimum. Others might care more about college ranking or graduation information.

Below are some key things to keep in mind as you compare colleges.

1. Cost

College can be prohibitively expensive. In a 2017 study, Student Loan Hero found that the nationwide average cost per credit is $594. Because the average four-year degree requires 120 credits, that means your bill can be $71,335.

Keep in mind tuition is only part of the cost. Room, board, textbooks, and fees can add dramatically to your bill. When looking at schools, make sure you have the total cost of attendance so you can make an accurate comparison.

2. Financial aid

When evaluating cost, also consider financial aid. Some schools give out very few scholarships while others give some form of aid to a large percentage of the student body. With your acceptance letter, each school should send you scholarship offers, work-study options, or student loan information.

Before ruling out a school based on the price, make sure you look at the complete offer. In some cases, a pricey school can end up being a bargain.

In my case, Elizabethtown College (a private school) had the highest sticker price. My other two choices were less expensive public universities, but Elizabethtown gave me a large scholarship which reduced my cost of attendance. It ended up being much cheaper than either of the public schools.

3. Work options

Another aspect to consider — especially if you’re looking to limit the debt you take on — is what work options are available. Some schools may have limited on-campus opportunities with fierce competition. At others, there’s work available for any student who wants a part-time job.

If you’re thinking about working off-campus, evaluate how realistic that is. Is the school located in the middle of farm country without many businesses nearby? If that’s the case, getting an off-campus job would be difficult.

4. School rankings

In some industries, where you went to school isn’t a big deal as long as you have a degree. But if you’re planning on entering a competitive field such as law, college ranking, and school prestige can have a big impact on your career. Attending a lesser known school can limit your career options.

The Princeton Review is a terrific resource for comparing schools. They rank each school by prestige, cost, academics, demographics, and quality of life. Compare your prospective schools’ rankings — depending on your desired career, this may hold more or less weight in your decision.

5. Graduating data

When evaluating schools and cost, consider how many students graduate on time. At some schools, only a small fraction graduate within four years; it may take an average of five or even six years to get a degree. That can add substantially to your costs.

The admissions office of each university should be able to provide you with how many students graduate with a degree and how long, on average, it takes to complete their education.

6. Campus size

Looking at schools, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of some of them. Many seemed like their own, independent cities. I came from a very small high school that had just 400 students. I would have been completely lost at a large university. Elizabethtown’s size of just 2,000 students was much more for me.

Campus size can impact whether or not a school works for you. Going from a small high school to a large college can be an intimidating transition. But at the same time, smaller schools may not offer the same amount of extracurricular activities and social events. What works best is up to your individual comfort level.

7. Student-teacher ratio

The student-teacher ratio is another important factor. The size of a class can affect how you learn and how much individual attention you can expect. Check with the admissions office to find out the average class size.

8. On-campus housing options

Make sure you understand all of the housing options. At some schools, dorms are coed by room, so you may end up sharing bathrooms with the opposite sex. At others, there’s separate buildings for each gender as well as quiet halls for those in intensive study programs.

And some schools have luxurious apartments or even townhomes, but they are often reserved for upper-level students.

9. Major availabilities

Some schools have limited major options, or have very limited programs. Make sure you understand what majors the school is well-known for, and speak to alumnae who graduated from that major.

In my case, I passed on one school who gave me a great scholarship but had a weak Communications program. Elizabethtown had a better reputation in the field.

10. Pure emotion

When choosing a school, you should be practical and consider all of the factors – but don’t ignore your gut. Sometimes, your final decision comes down to pure emotion. When you’ve narrowed down your list and have just two or three options left, ask yourself where you see yourself being happiest.

For me, Elizabethtown was a smart choice financially, but it also just felt, inexplicably, like home. While I made an informed decision, I also followed my intuition and went to the school that just felt right.

Tools to help you in your journey

Comparing all of the different factors can be difficult. Thankfully, there are a number of tools that can help you make an informed decision.

College Data

College Data offers a comprehensive database of information on schools nationwide. One of their most powerful tools is the Financial Aid Tracker. You can enter your financial aid awards for each school that accepts you, and the tool will break down which is the best offer and why. It’s an objective comparison that can help you understand the complete value of your financial aid package.

Big Future

If you’re not sure where to start, Big Future offers checklists and guides to help you evaluate each school. They also have videos featuring education experts sharing advice and testimonials from students.

Choosing a college

Choosing where to go to school is a big decision in your life and it can have serious implications for your future. Take your time, thoroughly do your research, and get as much information as you can so you can thoughtfully compare your options. Focusing on your priorities can streamline the process and help you make the best choice.

For more information about choosing a college, check out these 10 schools that offer the most bang for your buck.

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