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Applying to college is a lot of work. You have to keep track of all of the different requirements and deadlines. There are letters of recommendation to collect, SAT® or ACT® tests to take and college application essays to write. And in addition to the work, applications can be expensive with some costing as much as $90.

These three questions can help you figure out how to choose a college that's worth your time, effort and money:

  • Do I have a good chance of getting in?
  • Can I complete a degree in four years?
  • How much will attending the school cost me?

These aren't the only questions you should ask — other factors like a school's location or culture are also important — but these can be an initial guide for finding schools that will be a good fit.

1. The School's Academic Requirements

Your grade point average (GPA) and test scores aren't the only factors that college admission officers consider, but they are important.

On, a website run by the nonprofit The Education Trust, you can quickly select multiple schools and compare their admission rates, the average high school GPA of their freshmen and the median ACT® and SAT® scores. College Board is another resource you can use to see how your GPA and test scores compare to the previous classes' numbers.
If you're slightly below the median with your GPA and test scores, your extracurriculars, letters of recommendation and personal statement could make all the difference in getting accepted. In some cases, you may get in or be put on the waitlist, which is still a positive outcome.
However, if your grades and test scores are well below the average, even with an otherwise stellar application, you might not get in to some schools. That doesn't mean you shouldn't still apply for a few reach schools and a couple of backup schools to give yourself options. But focus your energy on applying to colleges that you like and where your chances for acceptance are good.

2. The Four-Year Graduation Rate

Another thing to consider before filling out college applications is whether the school's students generally complete their degree within four years. Every additional semester you spend at college is another term's worth of expenses, and an extra year or two may wind up costing you tens of thousands of dollars.

With this in mind, you can look at the school's four-year graduation rate for majors you're interested in pursuing. The National Center for Education Statistics has a College Navigator tool that you can use to find your prospective schools. You can then analyze the data and see how long it took other students to earn their degrees. Some of the colleges even break down overall graduation rates by gender, race or ethnicity, and show retention rates for first-time students. offers similar data on graduation rates and you can quickly search and compare multiple schools.

You could also call and speak to a guidance counselor. Especially if you have your mind set on a major, a counselor may be able to give you more insight into the regular course load, schedule and potential obstacles associated with that major. They may also know about upcoming program changes or opportunities — such as whether or not you'll be able to study abroad and complete your degree within four years — that aren't reflected in historical data.

3. Your Estimated Net Price of Attendance

The cost of attendance is another important factor as it can vary greatly from one school to another. There are tuition and fees to consider, but also the cost of room, board and travel, especially for a school that's in a large city or far away from home. Colleges and universities may also have different amounts of financial aid available for students.

Considering the net cost of attendance — your cost after financial aid — can help you make a good apples-to-apples comparison between schools. The FAFSA4caster and each school's net price calculator are two helpful tools that you can use to help estimate how much it will cost you to go to a particular college.

Make Each Application Count

Whittling down your list to best-fit schools, plus a few backup and reach options, can help take some of the stress out of applying to college. As a result, you'll be able to efficiently use your time and money on the applications you decide to submit.

The academic requirements, graduation rate and net price may determine whether a school makes it onto your list, but there are other factors to consider as well. The school's location, availability of majors, sports and other extracurricular programs, as well as the school's culture, are all important.

Once you submit your college applications the waiting starts. And as you start to hear back from schools you'll have another important decision to make — which offer to accept.

ACT® is a trademark registered by ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

SAT® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

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