Tips for Choosing a College or University
Plus, questions to ask yourself and during campus visits
When choosing a college or university, families should talk about their budget, including the price of getting back and forth to college. But budget isn’t the only consideration. Sometimes, even schools that look out of reach can offer scholarships specific to the college or university, or they may have special grants or loans that will make the school affordable. Beyond the budget, consider these tips:
- Assess your skills, strengths and weaknesses, including emotional/social traits. Do you prefer small groups or large groups? Do you like being close to family? Are you an introvert or extrovert? Generally, what areas of study are you interested in? Even if you don’t know what you want to major in, think about what you like to do. Maybe you’ve always wanted to work at a radio station. Will the school you choose give you the opportunity to try it? College is about discovering your path.
- Size Matters. Do you like the feel of a large university or a small college? This will be your home for approximately four years. How do you feel about the town? The weather? If you prefer a small environment but are going to a large school, does the university have opportunities for small-group interaction, like an honors college?
- Don’t get stuck on a name-brand school. Choose the place where you think you can thrive and grow. It’s about what you do with your time at school that matters.
- Start researching college options early. Find out when applications are due. Do the schools offer binding or early admission that you might want to take advantage of?
- Turn in the FAFSA early (you can fill it out as early as Oct. 1). Universities start giving out scholarships and aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so it can pay to turn in your application on the earliest deadline. Fill out the FAFSA, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for aid.
- Don’t choose a college just because your friends are going there. Choose it because it’s a good fit for you now and for the person you will become. If at all possible, visit campuses while school is in session and imagine yourself there. Talk to students about why they chose the school and what they like about it.
Terms to Know
The Common Application
The Common Application allows you to fill out all the general information for your college applications only once, so you don’t have to do it for each school. Be aware that some schools will still require materials unique to that college or university. You can start your application any time, but the summer before your senior year is a good time. It will allow you to get familiar with how it works. Go to commonapp.org.
Early decision means that you can apply early to your top-choice school. Early decision applications are usually due in November of your senior year, and the schools extend admission offers around mid-December. If you get rejected, you have time to apply to other schools. If you get an offer, it is considered “binding,” and the college expects you to enroll at that school. This option does not give you an opportunity to compare offers from other schools, so you should be certain this is the school you want to attend.
Early action means you can apply early. You will receive a decision early, typically January or February. Unlike the binding admission, you can wait until May 1, the national response date, to decide.
If you apply early and are accepted, that does not mean you can slack off the second semester of your senior year. Early Decision and Early Action offers have been rescinded if the university sees your grades drop senior year.
General Questions to Ask Yourself
- Do I want to live on campus or commute?
- Do I want a small college town or a city university?
- What part of the country do I want to live in to attend college—and will I want to stay in that region after graduation to take advantage of the networks built in those four years?
- What kind of weather do I prefer?
- What size of college appeals to me—small at up to 3,000 students, medium at 3,000-7,000, or large with a greater than 7,000 student population?
- Do I prefer single-sex or co-ed dorms? Does it really matter to me?
- Am I interested in Greek life, and want to pledge to a sorority or fraternity?
- Can I live with regulations and restrictions?
- What kind of extracurricular activities do I want?
- How extensive should a school’s athletic program be?
- Am I looking for a strong creative arts environment?
- Do I want an academically challenging environment, or do I want to do well without working over the top?
- Do I need a highly structured academic framework, or a curriculum that allows for independent projects?
- Do I want a professional-track curriculum, or liberal arts?
- Will I want to participate in off-campus internships?
- Would a year-round cooperative work-study program that alternates with guaranteed employment be something for me?
- Can my family afford my college goals?
- Am I willing to work part-time in college?
- Do I want to study abroad?
Questions to Ask During Campus Visits
Questions to Ask Students
- What do you like most about this college? What’s the worst thing?
- What do you wish you’d known when you were making your decision?
- What are the students like here?
- What are the classes like?
- Do you live on-campus or off?
- Where do you eat?
- Are there lots of small discussion groups or mostly large lectures?
- Do graduate students or professors teach introductory classes?
- How often are you able to meet with instructors?
- What kind of feedback do you receive on coursework?
- How often in the last semester have you participated in class or met with a professor outside of class?
- What do you do on weekends, and where do students study/eat/hang out?
- How central are the Greek houses to campus social life?
- What role does sports play here?
- What percentage of students go home each weekend?
- How do students get around?
- Where do students park?
- How often do you have to make class presentations?
- Do any of your courses involve community service?
- Do you have contact with your teachers outside of class?
- Who do you talk to about career goals?
- How helpful is the administration and its staff?
Questions to Ask School Administrators
- How and when are majors selected, and when must you declare?
- Can you design your own major?
- How can students get help for class selection?
- What types of career planning and job placement services are available?
- How is technology used in classrooms?
- What kind of computer and technology options are available to students?
- Are there student labs available for help with computers, math, science, writing, etc.?
- How many students have their own computers, and how many students use the shared units?
- How extensive are the library services?
- What percentage of students go on to graduate or professional schools?
- What types of internships are available, are they required for graduation, and how much help does the school help in securing these internships?
- What percentage of students do internships?
- What percentage of students study abroad at some point within the four years?
- What types of scholarship/financial aid is available?
- What percentage of students graduate in four years?
- What percentage of first-year students return for sophomore year?
- What was the average tuition increase over the last five years?
- What percentage of students work on-campus? Off-campus?
- What safety services are available on-campus for students?
- Can you take classes at other schools in the area (if applicable)?
- Who serves as a student’s advisor, and do advisors change each year?
- What kind of events come/are invited onto campus?
- What are the living options on and off campus?
- Where do students eat?
- Where are computer labs located?
- When are they open?
- Can students access the campus network from their dorm rooms?
- What services does the career placement center offer?
- What services are available to help students adjust or cope?
- What type of health and counseling services are available to students?
- What percentage of students commute to campus?
- What public transportation is available?
- How are spiritual and diversity needs handled?
- What do students do for fun?
- What kind of activities do students engage in outside of class?
- What sports and physical exercise options are available?
- How aggressive is the school’s summer class schedule?