How to Select A College

Life if full of decisions. While some decisions are inconsequential, selecting a college isn't. The college you decide to attend will play a large part in setting your path for the future. Before you can determine which college is going to best meet your needs, you must first determine what your needs are and what factors will influence your decision making process. The following are few criteria you should consider before preparing a preliminary list of colleges to attend.

  • Geographic Location. Location tends to be one of the biggest factors potential students consider when selecting a college. Some students want to stay local, while others want to get as far away from home as they can. However, if you were to take a look at enrollment statistics for all colleges nationwide, you'd find that the large majority of students attend colleges in the same state they grew up in. Hands down, the majority of students prefer attending a college that is close to their home town. However, limiting your college search to a specific city, state or region will greatly decrease the number of schools your can attend and quite possibly the quality of education you'll receive. Before limiting your search to local colleges and universities, you should consider all the possibilities.

  • Cost. Not suprisingly, cost is a major factor affecting students' choice of college. In fact, the high cost of attending college explains why many students choose to attend a local college. Local colleges, especially public colleges, often offer lower tuition rates for in-state students than for out-of-state students. It's not uncommon for in-state students to pay only half the tuition as out-of-state students. If cost is a big factor in your decision making process, then you may want to attend a college in your state. However, before you sell yourself short, take a look at all the colleges that interest you — regardless of cost. Most colleges offer a large selection of financial aid packages, as well as merit and need-based scholarships for the students they admit.

    A growing trend among would-be college students, is to attend a community college instead of a four-year college or university. Not only are community colleges less expensive than their four-year counterparts, they often offer degrees and programs that are just as valuable. In fact, many community colleges offer career oriented programs that prepare students for a good career in half the time and at half the cost of a traditional four-year college.

  • Enrollment. Many students decide which college they want to attend based on student enrollment numbers. If this is you, make sure to select a variety of schools that meet your enrollment criteria. Even if you prefer attending a smaller school with less than 2,000 students, take the time to consider colleges with 2,000 to 5,000 students. You may find that what you thought was too big a school to meet your tastes, was just the right size. There are pros and cons to attending schools with larger vs smaller enrollment. However, some large schools exhibit the characteristics of small schools (e.g, small class sizes, strong sense of community, small town feel, hands-on learning, etc.), while some small schools exhibit the characteristics of large schools (large class sizes, large selection of programs and majors, prestigious faculty, well funded sports programs, etc.) Don't base your characterization of a college strictly on enrollment. Take the time to get to know each school you think you might be interested in, even if their enrollment numbers fall outside your enrollment parameter.

  • Campus Setting. When you make the decision to attend a four-year college or university, you're also deciding where you're going to be spending the next four-year of your life — maybe longer. Consequently, campus setting and the local surrounding are important factors when considering which college to attend. Some people prefer the hustle, bustle and fast life of the big city, while other prefer to live and study in rural areas, where the pace of life is bit slower and laid back. Before making a college decision, it's not a bad idea to visit campuses in both urban and rural settings to see which you prefer.

  • Public vs. Private Colleges. Colleges are either public or private. Public schools — as their name suggests — are for the benefit of the general public. They are subsidized by tax payer dollars at the state or federal level and typically have higher admission rates. Private colleges and universities are privately owned and operated, often by religious organizations. While not always the case, private schools are typically more expensive to attend than public schools, as they do not receive government subsidies. However, they provide more scholarships than public schools. Students who opt to attend a public schools outside their home state will pay higher tuition than in-state students until they establish residency.

    Public schools are often much larger than private schools, with enrollment exceeding 35,000 students. Private schools including New York University (44,000 students), University of Southern California (33,000 students), and Brigham Young University (32,000) are the exception to the norm. Since private schools have smaller enrollments, they tend to also have smaller class sizes. With the exception of Wyoming, you'll find private colleges and universities in every state in the nation.

  • Academic Focus. At the end of the day, going to college is about getting the best education you can. An education that will prepare you to tackle the world and and launch a successful career. Academic focus, majors and specializations should be a major criteria for selecting a college — and one of the first things you consider. Some colleges may not offer a certain major or specialization. Some schools offer more research opportunities for students than others. Some are well known for their expertise in a subject matter, and others are not. Some colleges offer a vary narrow academic focus, while others have a very diverse academic environment.

  • Religious vs. Non-denominational. Most private schools are owned by religious organizations or have some sort of religious affiliation. Schools owned and operated by religious organizations often require students to take religion courses, some do not. However, most schools managed by religious organizations, regardless of beliefs, admit students from diverse religious backgrounds. While attending a "religious" university may be a turn off to some, many private religious schools offer some of the best academic programs in the world.

  • Single-sex vs. Coed. There are roughly 80 colleges in the United States that only admit women. Many believe that all women schools offer a better academic and overall college experience than coeducational institutions. Many students from all women colleges have gone on to fill very important positions in business and government. Studies have shown that 30% of women stars in Corporate America and 20% of women in Congress graduated from all women colleges, and that across the board women who graduate from all women colleges report greater satisfation — in almost all measures — than their coed counterparts.

    While there are also a few all male colleges, there far fewer than all male colleges than all women colleges. Proponents of single-sex colleges (all male and all female) believe that a single-sex environment eliminates much distraction from academic studies and fulfillment (as it very well may). If you're sole objective is to focus on academics, you may want to consider attending a single-sex institution.

  • Campus Safety. Safety is a big concern these days — as it should be. Unfortunately, college campus are no longer as safe as they used to be. Assaults, rapes, burglaries and other crimes are a regular occurance at college campuses across the United States. When selecting a college, we recommend learning more about its on-campus crime rate. There are several websites that post crimes rates for all the college campuses nationwide. It's also important to be mindful of the crime rate in the city where a college is located. If safety is concern, you'll want to select a college campus and city where crime rates are low and security is high.

  • Structured vs. Free Environment. Academic structures and environments can vary greatly from one college to the next. While some schools have very specific course requirements, others do not. Some schools allow you to design your own curriculum around your interests and career objectives. Other schools have very rigid guidelines for each of their majors and allow for very little deviation from their academic structure. Before selecting a school, you'll want to consider whether you prefer a very structured academic environment or an environment where you have more control over the curriculum. Neither options is a bad option, it really just depends on your preference.

Once you've determined what type of college or university is going to meet your needs, we recommend developing a list of the top 10 to 20 schools that best meet your criteria. So now how do you select just one school from your list of top 10 to 20? Well, first of all, you don't want to select just one school. Even if there is just one school that you feel is the perfect fit for you, you have no guarantee that school will accept you. As a general rule of thumb, most students should apply to somewhere between 5 and 7 colleges. As you whittle down your list of colleges to those you're going to apply to, you'll want to take into account your likelihood of being accepted to each school based on (1) your academic, employment and personal history and (2) how competitive the admissions process is for each school. The following are a few more tips and rules to follow as you complete your selection process.

  • Rank your priorities. When there are several colleges that meet all your criteria, it's helpful to rank your priorities. Using the list above as a guide, numerically rank each criteria in order of importance. For example, if location is the most important factor to you, then you might rank location as number one on your list. Once you've ranked each criteria in order of importance, which schools seem to excel in those areas that are most critical to you?

    You may even consider assigning each criteria a value based on it's importance and then scoring each school on how well they meet the specific criteria. When you've complete this, you can then add up the total value for each school based on their scores to compute a total score. Those schools with the highest overall scores are those that best meet the criteria that is most important to you.

  • Focus on your endgame. Where exactly do you want to be in four-years? If you know what career path you're going to pursue, where you want to live, how much you want to earn, etc., consider which college will best help you achieve your goals. While location, campus setting, and cost are all important considerations, at the end of the day you're going to college so that in four-years you're better off than you are today. Which college is best qualified to help you reach your destination?

  • Don't rely on college rankings. While college rankings may be a good starting point for identifying and researching schools, they should not play into your final decision. Too many people put too much stock in college rankings. College rankings are often bias and shortsighted, and should not be construed as an absolute indication of quality of education provided by a college. In many instances, student who do not attend "top 10" colleges actually receive a better education and ultimately are better prepared for their career.

  • Don't get caught up in the hype. While the overall prestige of a school may be attractive, it can be misleading. Harvard is one of the top three Ivy League schools in the nation, and is among the top ranked universities worldwide. Nothwithstanding, when it comes to starting salary, Harvard pales is comparison to some lesser known schools. According to a survey by, an undergraduate liberal arts degree from Harvard University nets new grads a median salary of $54,000 a year, while graduates from Loma Linda University, a lesser known school in San Bernardino, Calif., have average starting salary of $64,000 a year. So that highly coveted Harvard degree isn't necessarily the degree of choice if a high starting salary is one of your main objectives. Do your research and make a sound decision based on fact, not hype.

  • Evaluate the departments not just the college. There are a lot of top ranked colleges out there that don't have the best programs. There are a lot of top ranked colleges that don't have a large selection of programs. Alternatively, there are quite a few schools without top rankings that offer selection and program quality that is superior to that of many top ranked schools. For example, US News & World Report recently ranked Brigham Young University (BYU) 62nd among national university in the U.S. Notwithstanding, if you plan on a career in finance or accounting, there isn't a better school out there. BYU has one of the best accounting programs in the nation. No only do it's student garner relatively high starting salaries, they're also in very high demand.

  • Take a look at the career center. You're going to college to set yourself up for job. Stands to reason then that a good school would have a good career services center and a high job placement rate. When evaluating colleges, take a look at their job placement rate. Find out how many students are still looking for a job a year after they've graduated. Ask questions about on-campus interview opportunities, counselor-to-student ratios, job fairs, alumni networks and ongoing career development support. A stellar college will have a steller career services center.

  • Compare financial aid programs. If cost is a big deal to you (as it is for most people), you'll want to make sure that you accurately compare the financial aid packages offered at the schools you're considering. Make sure you understand what money is free (grants, scholarships, etc.) and what money you'll have to pay back (student loans). Some schools purport to offer attractive financial aid programs, but when you take a closer look many students don't qualify for their packages and those that do don't receive much in the way of institution sponsored financial aid.

  • Never select a college without visiting the campus. In fact, we'd go as far as to recommend that you don't select any college until you've visited the campuses of at least your top two or three choices. A school that looks good on paper may give an entirely different impression when you visit it's campus. And sometimes a school that didn't look that great on paper may feel like a great "fit" after you visit it's campus and get to know the people.

  • Don't select a school because your friends are going there. If there is any one really bad reason to select a college, this is it. Don't select a college because your girlfriend or boyfriend is headed there. Chances are that the person you're dating in high school is not going to be the person you date in college, and very unlikely to be the person you marry. And if they are your soul mate, then going to different colleges won't tear you apart. Selecting a college because your friend is going there is recipe for a very poor and frustrating experience.

  • Base your decision on facts. Base your decision on fact, not on opinion or generalizations. People often refer to a college as "prestigious", "a party school", "competitive", "demanding", "hard to get into", "too expensive", etc. without really know if what they're saying is accurate. Research, research, research. Find out the facts. Base your decision on the facts.

  • Discuss your decision with others. While you're ultimately the one to make the final decision, conferring and counseling with your family, friends and counselors who know you and whose judgement you value can be very helpful.

  • Don't procrastinate. Haste makes waste, but procrastination can lead to lost opportunities. If you receive acceptance letters from several college's you've applied to, but haven't received a response back from your #1 choice, don't fall prey to procrastination. Don't be too hasty, but spend a few weeks doing some really serious research so you can make the right decision.

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