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Choosing the Right College or University

Updated on April 3, 2015
Paula Atwell profile image

Paula Atwell is a freelance writer with WriterAccess, webmaster, member of Pinterest Party on FB and the owner of Lake Erie Artist Gallery.

Choosing a major
Choosing a major | Source

Choosing Your Major

While every student needs to choose a major eventually, it is not required to enter college with the choice made. If you are not sure what you want to study, then choose a college or university with a good overall program so that you have the opportunity to try several types of classes.

If you do know what you want to major in, search for colleges that offer that major. Not all colleges offer all subjects as majors. For instance, many colleges offer environmental studies as an undergraduate degree, but not environmental science. Admission counselors do make mistakes, especially if your subject is more rare. Call the department that offers the classes to be sure or check the college site if they list all of their majors.

Cost vs. Program vs. Personality

Getting ready to help your child search for the right college choice takes a lot of advance preparation and focus. One of the most important aspects of finding the right college or university is starting early enough in the year to allow for enough time to follow each step thoroughly.

With one daughter in her senior year in college and another one starting the college search process this year, I thought it would be good time to record best practices to help other parents wade through the numerous issues necessary to find the right school.

Dependent on your child's situations, there are three main categories of consideration when choosing a college. These are:

  • Cost--tuition + travel + room and board
  • Program--which degree and does the college have the program
  • Personality--is the college the right fit for your child

There is a long list of to-dos for each of these categories which I will address in this article. The bottom line is that your family needs to choose a college that you can afford which has the program that your child wants to attend and is the right fit. To find this school or group of schools, you should start no later than the beginning of the senior year in high school to search. For those who want to take a long time making the decision or who have a lot of schools to visit, it is best to start spring junior year.

As you read this article, feel free to ask questions in the comment section, which I will do my best to answer or refer to a good place to find one.

Studying at college
Studying at college | Source

The cost of college

There is no secret to the fact that college is expensive. In general, public colleges are less expensive than private colleges. Residents of the state get a better price for tuition for public colleges and universities for the state they live in. However, with financial assistance, it is possible to get more money from private colleges in certain circumstances.

Financial Aid

The majority of college students require financial aid to attend a four-year college. The primary source of financial aid for college is the Federal government. Federal aid is distributed based on the FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Families are required to fill out the multi-page form based on an estimate of their Federal tax return, then once the tax return is completed, send a copy of it to the financial aid department at the school you are planning to attend.

Federal financial aid is awarded based on need. It can come in the form of a grant, a loan or work-study or a combination of any of the three. Loans may be made to the parents or the student with varying conditions. Once the aid is awarded, you can choose to take all, some or none of it. Schools often also have payment plans to spread out your payments for each semester. These plans can be administered by a third party.

Once a student is accepted into a college or university, most schools will award a grant for part of their tuition based on the student's grades in high school and their ACT or SAT test scores. This award is not given to everyone, however a student can often increase their award by retaking the ACT or SAT to earn a better score. Sometimes just a few points may make the difference of a few thousand dollars per semester. Once the award is made, most schools will continue it throughout the student's college career as long as their grades meet a minimum level.

Where can you find more money for school?

After you have explored the two main options for financial aid, federal and college aid, the next step is to find other sources of aid if you need it. There are numerous organizations, clubs and groups that will help students pay for college, however most of these awards are based on very specific criteria and the student needs to fill out an application for each one. To discover if you qualify for any of them, take the following steps:

  • Start with your high school guidance department. High schools have become much more proactive in helping students find money for college as costs rise. Your local community may also have groups that offer local students money to help pay for college. Treat each application like a job application and give it your best effort.
  • Many churches also have money for students either locally or regionally. Ask your church pastor or administrative person for information.
  • Once you have exhausted local sources, start an Internet search. You will be surprised at how many scholarships are available. Some are for $100 and others are for more than $1000. Every bit helps, and the more you search and apply, the more possibilities you will have.
  • Working when at college is another way many students pay for tuition and room and board. Jobs can be found in every college town, but looking early will land a job while waiting will reduce the opportunities. You can even look the spring before you attend because many students get jobs for the following year.

College Match

College Match: A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You, 12th Edition
College Match: A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You, 12th Edition
If you are looking for a guide to help match colleges to your needs, this book is the best choice to help. Click through for more details.

Finding the right program

Colleges and universities come in many sizes and each one has at least one area of specialty. If you know what you want to study, it is crucial that you choose a college that gives you the most opportunities in your field. While cost is a big issue, if the school that is the cheapest doesn't have a department of Botany, then you will not be able to major in Botany.

Even when schools have the department, it doesn't mean that the programs are equal. Schools develop various departments for a variety of reasons including research grants that the school have received. When visiting each school, you can meet with the department heads to learn the details about the program, the experience of professors and what types of work the student can participate in.

One question to ask is what is available at the school outside of the classroom to extend learning. Schools may have programs that are outside the classroom that will give a student more informal learning or hands-on experience that are not listed in the official program guide.

Some of this search is obvious. For instance, marine biology will be better at a school near a waterfront. A school that primarily produces teachers will not be the best place for a farming tech degree. Remember to look at the entire package when visiting your finalists.

College walking tour

Walking tour at Tulane
Walking tour at Tulane | Source

Visiting the school

Plan your visit during the week if possible in order to see school in session. You can take the official tour, then walk around on your own, visit department heads, see the surrounding area and talk to students. You may be able to set up appointments with clubs, sororities or any other group while you are there. The more detailed your visit, the better you will understand how the school will be when you are a student. The following list contains suggestions of what to do when there.

  • Take the official tour. The tour will give you an overview of the campus, get you inside the dorms and may answer questions that you didn't even know that you had.
  • Visit the department that you are interested in and talk to the head to understand the program better.
  • Discuss the financial aid options with a counselor to see what is available for that school.
  • Walk around campus to see what the student body feels like, how crowded it is and possibly stop and talk to students.
  • Drive around the surrounding area to see the town or city, visit sites and learn what outside interests there are.
  • See a sports game, visit a club or take in a show on campus.
  • Eat in one of the dorm cafeterias.
  • Ask for names of alumni in your area to talk to about the school after you get home.


The personality of a school is extremely important. A student spends four or more years of their life attending college. In order for them to do well in academics, they have to be happy with their school choice.

The best way to get a feel for a school is to visit it in person. Once you have narrowed down your list of schools to about five, it is time for you to visit. Before you visit, determine the following:

  • Do you want to attend a small, medium or large school?
  • Do you want a college or university?
  • Do you like cities or rural towns?
  • How far away from home do you want to be at school?
  • Are you going with other people or do you want to start over fresh?
  • What climate is best for you?
  • Do you have any special needs?
  • Do you want to attend a school with a large sports program?
  • What activities do you want to participate in outside of class?
  • If you want to join a sorority or fraternity, does the school you are looking at have a chapter?
  • Ask yourself as many questions as possible before you go to narrow down the list. Then once you do, prepare a list of questions to take with you to ask when you visit.

Your college visit and college tour

College interview

College interview

Not all colleges have interviews as part of their admissions process, but if they do, it is a good idea to participate. However, interviews can be scary and intimidating.

This video has several excellent tips to help you have a successful interview and how to prepare for it beforehand.

Good luck

Good luck and happy hunting! If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments section on this page, and I will be happy to answer them.


After just seeing my second daughter through the college selection process, I can say that the second time around it is only a bit less stressful. Taking your time is definitely worth it, and being ahead of the game is a good feeling once the selection is made.

© 2014 Paula Atwell


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    • Paula Atwell profile imageAUTHOR

      Paula Atwell 

      5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      Yeah you are a better person than me. I don't trust my kids' leg work :)

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      College hunting is a job in itself. Luckily my kids did a lot of the leg work themselves and found great schools for themselves.

    • jmsp206 profile image

      Julia M S Pearce 

      5 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Very hard decision to make at the time.Some great info here.

    • Paula Atwell profile imageAUTHOR

      Paula Atwell 

      5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @ann@Richard thanks. I am visiting a college today with my younger daughter. :)

    • Richard-H profile image


      5 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      Very useful information!

    • annieangel1 profile image


      5 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      looking good Paula


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