College Applications

Guide to Choosing a College

Whether you’re narrowing down your college list or choosing which school to commit to, choosing a college can be a difficult decision. What do I want in a school? Is there really much of a difference from one school to another?

Below, I outline the most important components to consider when choosing a college.


1. Academics

Of course, academics are the most important part of college. After all, that’s why you’re going there. First, make sure the school has all of your possible majors. If you’re interested in both biology and marketing but the school only has biology, you should reconsider applying there. If you become unhappy with your major and decide you want to pursue marketing, you will likely have to settle for a different degree or transfer to another school.

Also, look at the curriculum. This gives you a good sense of what the school values and what you courses you will take there. If you want to take courses in a wide range of topics but the general education requirements are very strict, it may not be right for you. Or, you may want to take on a double minor, but the curriculum doesn’t give you enough electives to graduate on time. On the other hand, if you do not wish to take on a minor, a school that requires one is likely not for you.

Lastly, what are you passionate about? Whether it be computer science or photography, most people have an underlying passion that is unrelated to their major. Whether you want to minor in the subject or just take a few classes in it, make sure you’re able to do so. Some schools have only a handful of minors and a few open electives, which can be extremely limiting to some students.

2. Finances

If you haven’t had this discussion with your parents yet, do it now. You need to know how much you can afford each year and how much you may need to take out in loans. Also, run a net price calculator. These are found on each college’s website (just Google the college name and “net price calculator”) and can help predict how much aid you will get from the school. The most accurate NPCs are the ones that ask for the most financial information. Be aware that if your family has special circumstances, these may not be that accurate. Also, some NPCS do not take merit scholarships into consideration. Do your research!

If you are still narrowing down your college list, this is a time to eliminate some expensive schools and maybe find some cheaper schools to add to your list instead. It’s better to do your research now than be unable to afford every school that you were accepted to.

Once you’re accepted and have your financial aid packages, compare them. Look at how much you will need to pay, not how much they are offering you. Can you afford all of them? If not, then unfortunately, it needs to be eliminated. This can be tough to accept, but a large amount of debt (especially in private loans) can limit you in terms of internships, activities, and study abroad opportunities throughout college. Also, think of what you want after college. Debt can seriously limit what opportunities you can take advantage of.

College is a huge financial commitment. Each person’s situation is different, but keep in mind the effect debt can have on your future.

3. Clubs & Activities

Of course, you don’t want to spend all your time studying. Clubs are one of the best ways to get involved in your school, but do your research on what’s available at each school. Although most schools will tell you that it’s easy to start your own organization, it can be difficult to capture enough student interest. Do a quick online search for the student organizations on campus and see if you’re interested in any of them. If you’re on a campus visit, try to take notice to any signs you see hanging around campus. This can show you what organizations are active and what they do.

Clubs and activities can let you explore your passions, advance your career, and build connections. One school may have many more opportunities for you than another, which is important when choosing a school

4. Campus Culture

This one can be hard to measure. Campus culture can mean one thing to you and another thing to someone else. First, consider what kind of environment you want on campus. Do you enjoy collaborating with others, or do you enjoy working alone? What do you want to be doing on a Saturday morning? Search the school online. What recent news articles have been written about the school? One school may be in the press because of breakthrough research while another is receiving backlash due to mishandling a situation. Try to understand what is going on at each school.

If you can, talk to current students. Although each student experiences college differently, it’s a good place to start. Figure out what kind of environment you want, and ask the student questions based on that.

If you’re visiting the campus, it’s a lot easier to learn about the campus culture. Are most students walking in groups or alone? If it’s a weekend, is the campus empty? Are students walking across campus hungover or are they working in the library? (Yes, you will probably witness both of these on a Saturday morning.) Take note of the Greek life. Does it seem to dominate? Is every other person showing off that they belong to a fraternity or sorority? Does the school revolve around the top-ranked basketball team? Do the students show a lot of school spirit?

Another thing to consider is if most students commute from home or live on/near campus. Students who commute are less likely to be involved in on-campus activities. If you want to be involved in your school, look for one where most students live on or near campus.

Clearly, there’s a lot to consider in terms of campus culture. After figuring out what type of environment you want at a school, you can narrow down your list. Not every school is going to hit all of your preferences, but there are probably a lot of schools that come close.

5. Size

Size in terms of student population and campus size are both important. Do you want to engage in class discussions or do you want to just listen to the professor talk? Although upper-division classes are usually small no matter where you go, your general education courses can be 25 students to 200 students. At your high school, do you like to ask a lot of questions in class, talk to the teacher after class, or figure it out on your own? Students who choose the latter are likely to excel in a large lecture rather than a small discussion-based course.

Do you want to keep your options open? If so, a large school may be good for you. Large schools often have more majors, minors, and clubs than smaller schools. If you’re undecided and want to explore, a large school typically gives you more opportunities to do so.

Consider campus size. Do you need to walk 30 minutes to get from one side of campus to the other? Or are all the buildings right next to each other? If there is a large student population, is the campus big enough to accommodate everyone? On the other hand, if there is a small student population, is the campus so spread out that you feel isolated from others? Again, you need to decide first what you want and try to see if each school meets your criteria.

6. Location

The location of a school can truly make a big difference. Do you want a school integrated into a city or do you want it to have its own campus? Do you want to be in a cozy college town? What kind of off-campus opportunities do you want?

There are a few ways to help you figure out what’s right for you. Imagine what you want to do on a Friday night. Are you going to a frat party or are you going to see a concert? Do you want to go home on the weekends? If not, do you want to be close enough to drive home?

What are you doing during the semester? Are you focused on your academics or do you want a job/internship? Do you want to work on-campus or off-campus? What companies are near campus?

What is the weather like? If you love sunny weather, a school in Boston may not be the best for you. On the other hand, if you love having all four seasons, maybe you should cross that SoCal school off your list. Maybe weather doesn’t matter much to you now, but remember that you will have to walk across campus in every type of weather condition.


Start off by making a list of your preferences. Although not every school needs to hit all of them, it’s important to consider each factor in a college search. Rank what’s most important to you and do your research. There are schools out there for you, and you will find your place at each of them.

For those going through the college search and selection process,  what are you looking for in a school? For those already in college, what sealed the deal for your school? Comment below to share your story!


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