Choosing a College

In today’s competitive college application environment, many students and parents are tempted to choose prospective schools based solely on rank or name recognition.  For others, tuition costs are the most important concern.  While each of these factors is important, it is also critical to thoroughly evaluate a school to make sure it is the right fit for the individual student.  This guide contains some tips that will help you navigate this important step of the application process.

Stay Focused

In a society where many judge people based on the college they attend, it’s important to stay calm during the complete insanity that marks the college application process.  It’s easy to get caught up in a game of comparing grades and extracurricular activities to your peers; after all, everyone wants their application to stand out from the crowd.  But by keeping a few things in mind, a student can successfully avoid the chaos and pettiness that can pervade the college selection and application process.

Environment is Key

The most important thing to remember when selecting a college is that whatever school you choose is going to be your home for the next four years.  You’re going to live there, study there, and develop friendships and connections that will last you a lifetime.  Therefore, it’s incredibly important to choose an environment in which you will be happy, as opposed to somewhere that you might choose based entirely on US News and World Report ratings.  In the end, ratings and peer pressure will not make you happy.  It’s more important to find somewhere where you will find your niche, rather than somewhere that people think is impressive.

School Size Affects Academics

While many people understandably struggle to find a good fit school, there are certain elements that you can look for when making your selection.  Size, for instance, is a good place to start.  Everyone learns differently, and prefers different learning environments.  You need to evaluate whether you want a school that will offer large class sizes and unique research opportunities, such as a large university, or a school that might offer small seminars and a greater chance at one-on-one attention, such as a smaller liberal arts college.  Again, everyone prefers something different.  Think about classes that you enjoyed in high school.  Did you enjoy larger classes where lectures were the focus, and you were responsible for how you learned the content on your own time?  Or did you enjoy smaller classes where there was a lot of group discussion, and students were expected to participate on a regular basis?

Match Academic Interests to Strengths

It is also important to consider the academic strengths and weaknesses of the schools you would like to attend. If you have a good idea of what you’d like to major in at college, or at least what general area you’d like to focus (for instance, the humanities versus the sciences), you should try to select a school that caters to your interests. For example, a student whose strengths are in English and History might not want to attend a school such as MIT, regardless of how renowned the academics at MIT may be.

It’s a good idea, while visiting schools, to see if you can talk to members of the departments you might be interested in.  You can also usually find students who are studying subjects you intend on pursuing, and find out what they think of the faculty and classes.  The professors you meet will be people you interact with in the classroom, as well as on an individual basis, so it’s important to get a feel for them.

Scope Out the Social Setting

Of course, academics are not the sole basis for choosing a college.  For the majority of the time, you won’t be in classes – you will be interacting with people around you on a social and extra-curricular basis. For this reason, it’s crucial to find out if you’re comfortable with the school’s social scene.

Again, the size of a school can often dictate what the social life there is like.  A larger school may have a bigger party scene or more involvement in the surrounding city than a smaller school, where the focus might be on smaller group interaction.  As mentioned above, a key to finding out about the social scene at a particular school is to talk to students.  They are your greatest resource.  They have been in your position; most people will be open, helpful, and honest.  If you find that you click with the people you talk to, then that might be a good indicator that you would find a group of individuals you could comfortably fit in with there.

Consider Geographic Location

The location of the school will also have a lot to do with the social scene, as well as how comfortable you are in the environment.  Schools that are located in cities, for example, often base a lot of their activity within the city itself.  They also tend to have rather decentralized campuses; instead of a common university center, they might be spread out over a large urban area.  Suburban and rural campuses, however, will usually have more centralized campuses; at these schools, activities also tend to be kept on campus. If you go to a school that is in a suburb but relatively close to a city, there might be transportation into that city, something to consider if you want a quieter school environment, but the option of getting off campus and going urban during the weekend.

One location is not necessarily better than the other; again, it’s about where YOU are most comfortable.  Cities offer a wide variety of culture, but isolated campuses foster a unique camaraderie and often allow students to be exposed to all sorts of interesting events on campus.  Think about what you would like, and go from there.

It’s All About You

Regardless of which school you choose, the most important thing will always be how happy you think you will be. Don’t get caught up in the grade and resume match and the blind race for the Ivy League; instead, focus on your own interests, goals, and well-being.  In the end, finding a school that is a good match will pay off in ways that those who ignore all of the aforementioned elements will never experience.


  1. Find the best-fit environment, not the highest-ranked schools you can get into
  2. Consider the size of potential schools and how that might affect academics and research
  3. Make sure your academic interests are matched by strengths at a school
  4. Don’t ignore the importance of the social environment
  5. Weigh the pros and cons of the geographic location of each school

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