Five Questions to Narrow Down Your List of Schools
1. What do I want to study?
If you already know what you want to major in, check out the schools that have a good reputation in that field. Be sure the schools have strengths in other academic areas, too, though, since it's not uncommon for freshman (or even upperclassmen) to change majors once they're on campus.
If you're unsure what you want to study or do after college, look for a college that encourages students to enroll as undecided majors, such as a liberal arts school or a larger university with an exploratory program for undeclared freshmen.
2. What kind of campus do I want?
There is a huge difference in the experience of students at an urban school versus a rural one. Rural colleges are more likely to give you that idyllic college campus (think ivy-covered buildings and a quad) and a close-knit community. They tend to have fewer off-campus dining and cultural opportunities but a much lower cost of living. An urban school, on the other hand, may blend into the city and have less distinct campus boundaries. The cost of living will be more expensive, but there will be many social activities off-campus and more opportunities for internships at local businesses.
The size of the school is another important factor. Some students prefer a campus with just a few thousand students, such as a small liberal arts school. Others are drawn to the vast options and anonymity of a school with tens of thousands, such as a flagship state university.
Before dismissing a school based solely on the size of its enrollment, check out one more metric: the average class size. Some very large schools have surprisingly low student-to-faculty ratios and can offer the small classes that enable students to feel like they're part of a community.
3. How far from home do I want to go?
If you're planning on commuting to school or even making frequent visits home, you may be bound by geography. Remember that the further away you look the more it will cost you (in both time and money) each time you need to make a trip back. If you select a geographically distant school, it will be harder for you to pop home for a weekend if you need to get away, and you'll have fewer visits from family or high school friends. That may be appealing for independent students who are ready for the adventure of being on their own. For students more prone to homesickness or who like to attend every family function, it may make more sense to stay within reasonable driving distance.
4. Can I afford this school?
Rather than looking at the sticker price for a school, consider its net price — that is, the amount that you'll pay after you factor in any grants and scholarships you may be eligible for. A key factor in determining whether a school is affordable for you is how much money you can expect to make when you graduate. If your starting salary is much lower than the amount of money you need to borrow, it may be too expensive for you.
5. Is the culture a good fit?
There's more to college than academics, and finding a place where you'll thrive socially is important to a successful college career. Check out a school's student life page to get a sense of what type of clubs and activities are available. Schools that heavily promote Greek life, athletics, political causes, or a particular religion may be a great fit for some students and a miserable one for others.
The cultural fit goes beyond extracurricular activities, though, and this question may be tougher to determine via the school's website and promotional materials. Visiting the school and talking to students will give you better sense, and online review sites like Unigo and Niche can provide additional insight.
While selecting a college is certainly a significant decision, it's one that offers a great opportunity for you to learn more about yourself. Take the process one step at a time and trust your gut -- and advice from those who know you best -- to help you make the right decision. A year from now, you'll be lounging in your college hoodie wondering what you were so stressed out about.