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10 Tips for Choosing a College

Updated on November 20, 2013

As new school terms loom around the corner, students look through - and often soon become overwhelmed by - the number of colleges across the nation, and even world. Narrowing down the list and choosing a university or college can be intimidating, and it can be easy to commit to one for the wrong reasons. Being nervous or indecisive is totally normal. After all, enrolling in a new school is a huge decision, and it is not usually a decision that comes without a substantial price tag, too. Before you make your choice, here are some tips to help you evaluate colleges more accurately and with more confidence.

  • Start thinking about colleges or universities as far in advance as you can. It is never too early. Many high school students get anxious at the thought of leaving home and making that decision, and that can lead to pushing back researching and applying to schools - which in turn will narrow your options. I recommend juniors in high school start taking tours and looking at schools. College students should try to keep graduate school in their heads even earlier if possible, as class schedules often need to be planned around a grad school's criteria.
  • Take as many campus tours as you can. Calling and signing up for a campus tour is a great way to acclimate yourself to a school, get important information and have a first hand view of the facilities. Most schools put a lot of effort into making students feel welcome - a school my younger brother looked at provided him with lunch, coffee, and even a free T-shirt, as well as a huge folder of information and pamphlets about anything from campus clubs to financial aid. Though it is important to be aware that the admissions office is trying to sell an image, getting a look at the school in person is much more valuable in the decision-making process than simply poking around on the website.
  • The listed tuition price is probably not accurate. Remember, many if not most full-time students get some kind of financial aid or scholarships, and often the more expensive colleges offer more scholarships yet. Of course it is important to look at the price tag, but if your grades are okay, if you've been involved in extracurricular activities or if you're willing to write an essay or two for independent scholarships, chances are you'll be paying less. On the other hand, beware of "hidden costs" like transportation, books, and so on. Additionally, check if the listen tuition includes room and board, as well as things like student fees and other miscellaneous charges.
  • Apply for as many scholarships as possible. College, especially in the United States, is ridiculously expensive. The high cost, unfortunately, isn't something that will change quickly, and it's on you to make it affordable. The good news is that if you are determined enough, there is a good chance you can shave off some of that tuition. Most schools offer scholarships, some purely academic and some special interest, like sports or fine arts. Apply for everything that applies to you. But don't stop there - there are countless independent scholarships. High school counselors will probably have information on things from small, local prizes to national full ride scholarships. Most will require writing a short essay, and many have nothing to do with your current academic transcript. Even winning $50 from writing to the mayor about your city's history means something, and it should be noted that small contests are less competitive than big-reward scholarships.
  • Choose colleges based on the academic programs that interest you. Colleges are often ranked on how allegedly "prestigious" they are, but these titles can be misleading. The pedigree of the school itself depends largely on what academic department is being discussed. That small school might have a better engineering program than the big-name school. Even Ivy League schools have areas of specialties and other departments might be lacking at best. Always be wary of college ranking lists, and think in terms of what you want to study.
  • It's okay to go to college undeclared, but remember your time costs money. Rushing into a decision, especially when that decision is your future and career, is never a smart option. But because college is expensive, taking too long to choose a major is a pain in the wallet. Don't be afraid to take a year off if that's what you need, but start your first year as an undeclared student taking your generals, or "core" courses the college requires before graduation. Reach out to the variety of departments you will likely have to take classes in and explore them. Try to find out what interests you. Most students will change their mind at least once (or twice, or three times, or..) and that's okay. But be active in discovering your passions to decrease dawdling in wasted time.
  • Don't pick a college simply because your friends go there. Going to a new school can be scary, but this is about your life and your future. Your priority should always be yourself and your academic interests. You will make so many new friends in college, too, especially if you involve yourself in clubs or student activities, and only hanging out with old friends can make you reluctant to meet new people. Take a breath, be bold, and get out of your comfort zone!
  • Apply to as many colleges as you can, instead of only your first choice. Not only is it risky to put all of your eggs in one basket, but when you start to look at the places you have been accepted to, you will find yourself with a wider range of options. Remember, getting into a university is never a sure thing, and it is good to have a backup plan or two. Even if you do get into your top school, you might be disappointed in the particular financial package that they offer you. So shop around, and see what prices and scholarships different schools offer you before making your decision. Evaluate schools even more thoroughly after you get acceptance letters, and then you can be more confident in your final decision.
  • Don't underestimate the value of a school that has a flourishing campus life. Academic opportunities should always be the most important, but there is also a lot to be said about the factors that determine how enjoyable your college experience is. When researching a school, there are many things to check. Are there dorms or apartments on or nearby campus? Are you okay with commuting, or would you rather live right in the middle of school buildings? How is the cafeteria food? Is there a coffee shop or convenience store on campus? How about a gym or theater? Take a glance through the campus clubs. Will you be able to have fun at school?
  • Check for special opportunities and resources, such as study abroad programs, internships, and career centers. Don't limit your life to simply school and fun. You can get so much out of your college career if you push a little further beyond that. Consider studying abroad or traveling on a school program - college is the perfect time to do it, so see what schools offer. Are there also resources that will help you hone your career skills and find jobs? How's the library?
  • Increase your chances of being accepted into college and getting scholarships by maximizing your transcript - get good grades and involve yourself in your current school! Many of the best scholarships ride on students' grades. It can be easy to blow off high school and tell yourself you'll get serious in college, but not only will getting good grades be good practice and academic discipline for college, it will also make it financially more accessible. Though getting an A average is the best goal, it's not necessary for all merit-based awards, either. And grades aren't everything - being involved in school or community clubs is also helpful. Volunteer experience can really polish your resume, too. At school, push yourself to take advanced or honor level classes, too - colleges often compare grades with what classes students took to better assess their abilities. It doesn't hurt to take a practice ACT or SAT test before the real thing, either.

What is or was the most important factor for the school you chose?

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