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How to pick a college that’s right for you

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So, you got into several colleges and now you have to decide where to go. We get it, choosing a school is stressful. 

Thankfully, you have plenty of information at your fingertips (literally) to compare your options. If you need a little extra help organizing your thoughts and getting started, we’ve got you covered. 

How to Get Started

The first and more important thing to consider when comparing college options is obvious — you.

Your personality, likes and dislikes, accomplishments, and aspirations all factor into choosing a school. This is something unique to each individual, and we can’t help much with that, but we can offer some advice. 

The Lifestyle Checklist

Take a piece of paper and separate it into three columns. In one column, write down the things you absolutely can’t live without.

In the second column, write a few of the things that you might experience now that you can live without.

And in the last column, write down your ideal college wishlist.

Take a look at the example below to get some ideas on where to start.

Let this exercise be fluid. Keep writing until you run out of ideas for each column.

Once you finish, look at all of your answers and see if there are any themes. By now, you should be able to see what is most and least important to you. This is a great starting point as you begin to consider the pros of cons of your college choices. With that complete, you can move on to the next step — comparing schools. 

Things To Consider When Comparing Schools

There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to comparing schools, but here are some of the most important.

Location

You’ll be spending the next few years in this location (or online if you go the non-traditional route), so it’s something you need to consider. 

Here’s an example of how location matters:

Say you’re deciding between New York and Los Angeles. In this case, your transportation options will differ significantly. Do you want to drive a car to run your errands and get around town? Or maybe you don’t have a car, and public transportation is a must!

Whatever the case, you want to be comfortable with the location you choose, so consider all the pros and cons. 

These are some things to keep in mind as you think about location:

  • Cost of living
  • Transportation options
  • Distance from home
  • Culture
  • Diversity

Affordability & Financial Aid

Here’s a big one. Being able to afford your school and not being left with a mountain of debt after you graduate is a big deal. Financial aid awards start with filing the FAFSA and a CSS profile (if necessary). 

Once you receive your financial aid award letter, you can really start comparing schools. If you’re having trouble breaking down where you’ll get the most for your money, check out our award letter guide.

One of the big bonuses to having several schools accept you is that you might be able to negotiate for a better aid package. If the school you end up wanting to go to offers less in financial aid, you could qualify for an aid appeal.

No matter what your decision is, make sure you’re financially able to handle the responsibilities that come with work-study programs, loans, and other financial aid you might need.

The Size of the Schools

This might not seem like a big deal, but the size of the student body can directly impact your college experience

  • Small Colleges (up to 5,000 students) – more intimate, a sense of community, smaller class sizes and one-on-one time with professors
  • Medium Colleges (5,000-15,000 students) – A sweet meeting spot between the two
  • Large Colleges (15,000+ students) – more activities, club options, bigger and better facilities, a wide variety of sports

A site like CollegeBoard.org makes it easy to look up how many students are on campus and other great information about student life. 

Campus Life

Similarly to location, campus life factors into your lifestyle over the next four years in a significant way. This encompasses a little bit of everything, including the wishlist items from your lifestyle checklist.

When considering campus life, think about the activities that you’re hoping to take part in like:

  • Sports
  • Attending special events
  • Clubs
  • Sororities & Fraternities 
  • Volunteer Opportunities
  • Academic Enrichment Opportunities

Your campus is going to be your home-base, so make sure it helps you to reach your goals as much as it provides a relaxing space for you to end your days. 

Academic Offerings

Does the school offer the major’s you’re most interested? When you look through the course list are you excited by what you see?

Considering the impact your education has on your future, you want to make sure the college you choose has the ability to set you up for success. Take a look through their catalogs, double-check it has everything you want, and if it doesn’t? Keep that in mind when comparing it with other options.

Step Into The Real World

The best way to know whether a school is a fit for you is by spending some time there.

Campus Visits

You may have already done a campus visit during your initial search, but if you didn’t, it’s not too late.

Now that you’ve narrowed down schools try taking trips to the ones that are at the top of your list. Explore the campus in-depth. If you have an idea of what you’re studying, you can check out those buildings and facilities.

It might even be helpful to take a tour guided by alumni or current students. That way, you have an immediate segway into our other bit of advice.

Talk to Alumni & Current Students

What better insight is there than from those that have lived the experience? That’s why reaching out to current students or alumni can be so beneficial. 

Ask them questions about their experience. 

  • What did they love about the location, campus, activities, etc?
  • What difficulties did they experience?
  • Overall, how do they feel about their time on campus?

Having these conversations is an opportunity for someone outside of your orbit to shed some light on your decision. 

Stay Overnight

To truly get a feel for life around campus, considering an overnight stay. While you’re there, spend some time doing everyday activities and errands.

From learning how to get around to knowing ahead of time how crazy the local Trader Joe’s is, the best way to gain insight into campus life is to put yourself in the middle of it.

Make Your Decision

With these considerations in mind, we’ve put together an easy college comparison guide to help you get an idea on which options rank the highest. Hopefully, this will provide some insight into how you feel about your options.

Rate your top three schools in each category on a scale of 1 to 5. With 1 being something you completely dislike, and 5 being something you love about what the school offers. Add up all the numbers at the end to see where each school ranks.

It’s great to have some input from counselors, family, and friends who likely want the best for you, but nobody knows what that is more than you do.

Take your time to consider each school and what it has to offer you and your goals. With that attitude, there’s no doubt the school you choose is the right one.

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We are not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education. Federal Student Aid (FSA), an office of the U.S. Department of Education, makes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form and assistance available to the public for free at fafsa.gov.