How to Choose a College: 7 Tips to Find the Right Fit

Kevin Ott
University of Otago in New Zealand

As of 2015, there were close to 5,000 degree-granting colleges in the United States. With so many possibilities, it helps to have a plan as you are choosing your future alma mater. These tips will help you navigate the decision process.

1. Consider Taking a Year Off After High School

The first step is to slow down. Attending college will have far-reaching effects that shape your life for decades. The entire college selection process should really be about something else: a career-selection process. If you have no idea what kind of career you want, take a year off, do some research and get some real-world experience. Don't spend thousands of dollars in tuition for an aimless journey of finding yourself in college. Try to find as much of yourself as you can before you spend the big bucks. Also:

  • Don't assume that a traditional four-year university experience is always the best choice. Consider the pros and cons of alternatives.
  • For example, going to a trade school has distinct advantages over a four-year school, and it may create a clearer career path.

2. Begin by Choosing a Career, Not a College

Make a list of your top dream careers. You can read about how to find careers that might be a good fit if you're not sure what's out there. You don't necessarily have to rank the list, just write the careers that really grab your interest and seem to fit with your skills. You can pay a college planning company to use their expert software analysis and advising to help you find careers that fit well with your skills, the job market (i.e. making sure the career actually has jobs available out there) and your personal interests.

3. Interview the Future You

Once you have a clear idea about desired careers, find people in companies who are doing what you hope to be doing, and use the company's contact information to call or email those people. Let them know you're a high school student and you'd like to interview them. Your goal will be to:

  • Learn about their academic path that got them into the career.
  • Ask which majors or schools they'd recommend.
  • Ask about their experience in their job to see what it's really like doing that career.

You will be surprised how many companies and employees are willing to help. You may even make a connection who could serve as a future reference for job applications or internships.

4. Research Majors

Take a good look at your list of careers and make notes next to each career about which college major (or majors) will best prepare you for those careers. It's likely that your careers have certain elements in common, so there may be fewer majors on your list than you might expect. In any case, the goal is to understand the academic path that will take you to those careers on your list.

5. Research Schools

College students on campus

Begin looking at schools who offer the majors you've identified in Step 4. Each major will belong to a larger department in the school's academics. Read as much as you can about the reputation of that department. Read the biographies and awards of that department's faculty members and look at what the school says about itself in the "About Us" section. Schools usually tout their best achievements and strengths in that section.

6. Assess Cost of Attendance

A school's cost is more than just tuition. When you review their Financial Aid and Admissions page, look for what the school lists as their Cost of Attendance, which takes into account room and board, average transportation costs, books and supplies, and average personal expenses. Each school should also have a Net Price Calculator that breaks this down. You can also use College Navigator to get information about cost.

7. Now Look at the Finer Points

After going through the steps above, if you have more than one school that seems to be a great fit, use the finer points of your college preferences to help you decide, such as the kind of campus you want, the distance from home, campus organizations and setting (i.e. urban campus or rural campus).

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Look at common mistakes to avoid making them in your college selection process.

Don't Be Swayed By Big Names

It's easy to let the famous brand of an Ivy League school or a big name college sway your decision. While it's exciting when a popular college admits you, make sure it really is the best choice for your future before accepting.

Don't Necessarily Follow the Crowd

Another big temptation: going to the same school where most of your friends are going. High school friendships tend to weaken or dissolve during the college years. College often introduces new friends. In other words, don't sign your life away with a college just because you want the comfort of having familiar friends.

Don't Rush the Process

The best thing you can do is take as much time as possible to make your decision. Your college selection will have life-changing effects. Even if you want to jump right into college the moment you graduate from high school, begin the college research process above as early in your high school career as possible.

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How to Choose a College: 7 Tips to Find the Right Fit