After you’ve read all the brochures, stalked various schools’ websites and social media accounts, filled out applications, and collected acceptances (congrats!), it’s time. “Decision Day”—your deadline for choosing where you’ll attend— is typically May 1st, and you’ve got to make a choice.
It can be hard to know for sure what the right school for you is, especially when you haven’t been able to visit. But even without in-person tours, you can get a feel for what life at different colleges and universities might look like. Spend some time talking to current students or recent grads (the schools may be able to hook you up with someone, but you might get a more unfiltered view if you find someone through your own or your high school’s network). Take a look at various schools’ student media, like newspapers, websites, and blogs. And, of course, take virtual tours.
Even after all that legwork, when faced with multiple options, you still may have trouble choosing. To help you pick, consider these factors:
The culture and student body
Colleges—especially large ones, but small ones, too—will have a wide range of students with different backgrounds, priorities, and passions. But the general culture of a school is something to take into consideration. If you’re looking for a serious, academic experience, a school known for its Greek life might not be the right fit (and vice versa).
You may want to look for a school where you’re likely to find people with similar interests. A good way to gauge this is to see which clubs and organizations are popular or prominent. For example, if you are really into sports, you might feel at home in a place where the student body really rallies for football games. Or if you are passionate about social justice, a college with numerous activist organizations might be a good fit. Admissions officers, as well as current students, can help you figure out this type of info. Campus traditions and events are another big clue. If the event of the year is a big music festival complete with lots of partying, and you don’t like music or crowds, that should tell you something.
Another facet to school culture is the size of the student body. Smaller schools can have more of a familiar, everyone-knows-your-name feeling, which might be attractive to you. Or, you might desire a larger school with more opportunities for meeting new people and more anonymity.
Both the academic and other facilities can have an impact on your college experience. For example, science majors will want to make sure that labs aren’t outdated, and students in research-heavy majors will want to check out the libraries. Other spaces where students gather, such as student unions and dorms, will impact your social life and the feeling of community you experience.
You’ll also want to think about whether you’d thrive at a campus school in a more remote setting, or if an urban environment is a better fit. With the first, you’ll have more of a traditional college experience, while the second may afford more cultural and career opportunities. A school’s proximity to your home and family is something to take into consideration, too.
Tuition, room and board, and fees can vary wildly from one school to the next. And even within a school, the out of pocket costs can vary from one student to another once you factor in financial aid and scholarships. Private schools generally cost more than public ones, urban schools are typically more expensive than rurally-located ones, and housing and other costs can vary, too. To compare what each school will cost you, use the Award Letter Comparison tool.
Academic and professional opportunities
Even if two schools have similar overall rankings, one may be stronger in the department or field in which you hope to study. In addition to perusing universities’ main websites, look at the department websites. Compare the structure of your desired major at the different schools you’re considering, as well as the professors who will be teaching you. In some cases, the desire to learn from a specific leader in a field can be a deciding factor.
While graduation and either job-seeking or graduate school applications can seem ages away when you’re not even in college yet, it comes up faster than you’d expect. A school’s ranking may open doors for you professionally. Or, one school might have a stronger career office or network in your desired field, with a track record of helping students secure impressive internships. To see how much you might earn when graduating from different programs, check out My College Plan; the tool lets you compare different majors and career choices, showing you how they can affect your potential salaries, and student loan debt, down the road.
Making a choice
When deciding where to go to college, there is no “right” choice. There is only the right choice for you—and that may or may not be the highest ranked or “best” school on paper. Considering all these factors can help you select a school that suits your personality, goals, and circumstances, so you can get the most out of your college experience.