• With around 5,300 colleges in the U.S. alone, searching for the right college can quickly turn into a pretty intimidating task.
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With around 5,300 colleges in the U.S. alone, searching for the right college can quickly turn into a pretty intimidating task. And if the sheer number of choices didn’t already make it difficult, being able to make a decision based on limited exposure to what college is actually like can make it feel next to impossible to choose a school that’s right for you. You could just apply to prestigious Ivy League schools and hope for the best. They’re highly ranked for a reason, right? Well, yes, but ranking isn’t everything, and although a school may be number one for one thing or another, it might not check off any of the right boxes for you.

But how do you know whether a school checks off those boxes? What even are your boxes? Fear not, anxious junior (or senior. Or just anxious person. I don’t judge), for there are numerous helpful questions that’ll enable you to narrow down those thousands of schools down to just a handful of potential contenders.  

  • Location: Consider how far (or close) you’re willing to be from home. Tuition costs may also be a little higher for out-of-state students, and moving back and forth multiple times during four years may be a deterrent to move across state lines. But if you love the location of the school, it may just be worth the price and effort of traveling longer distances between home and campus during holidays and breaks. And if you’re going to be moving away from home year-round  to go to school and are not going to be living on campus, take into account the cost of living in that area.
  • Size: Does the idea of sitting in a 500-person lecture hall terrify you? Or does a class of 30 seem a little too close for comfort? It may be hard to imagine either of these classroom settings, depending on what you’re used to, but generally, smaller classrooms facilitate closer collaboration with professors and students. That being said, smaller schools may also have fewer professors, which can sometimes limit the availability of classes. Look into both the size of the student body and the student-to-faculty ratio, and consider what kind of environment would be the most comfortable and allow you to learn the best. 
  • Public or private: The main distinction is how these schools are funded: either primarily by the government or by private donors and tuition. That being said, public universities tend to have lower tuition rates, larger student bodies, and a wider variety of majors. Private universities have higher tuition rates but greater scholarships, and tend to be smaller. 
  • Graduate programs: If you think you want a master’s degree, consider whether you would want it from the same institution as your bachelor’s or whether you’d like to apply to another school for your graduate work. If you don’t want to attend different schools, look into colleges with graduate programs that suit your needs. And if you don’t want a master’s at all, consider looking into undergraduate-only institutions. The benefits of going to an undergraduate-only school is that you don’t have to compete with graduate students for professors’ time, research opportunities, and other resources. 
  • Departments: Think about what kind of majors you’re interested in, and research the size of the programs, how much funding they get, and their reputation. The type of school you’re looking at also factors into this. For example, a smaller liberal-arts school may not have a very sizable engineering department, but students may be able to go more in-depth with their research.
  • Retention rates: This is a measure of how many students return for a second year. While there are a lot of factors that may prompt a student to leave a school, a high retention rate is usually a good indicator that the school is giving its students reasons to stay. 
  • Go on college visits: Sometimes a school just has to pass the vibe check. A school that sounds absolutely perfect to you on paper may not meet your expectations once you’re physically there. Or you might instantly click with a college you weren’t sure about at first.  

Going to college is ultimately an investment in your future, so it’s important that you invest time into finding the right fit. Although the search can feel intimidating, breaking down what matters to you most will aid in making the process both easier and worthwhile. And while having a list of criteria is helpful, it is just as important to keep an open mind. Your dream college may just be a surprise!


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