Choosing where you want to go to college is an extremely personal -- and frequently stressful -- decision that teens and their families have to make. So, how can this article help you? This article's intent is to give you a framework that will help you choose the college that is right for you.
One piece of advice before we begin: It's best to start this process as early as possible, ideally in the junior year of high school (although some experts say to start even earlier). If you're a senior, go to our College-Bound High School Senior Planning Calendar.
Step 1: Determine what you might like to study or major in at college. Yes, many students enter college as “undecided,” and that's fine, but if you have some idea of a career or a major, that information can help in finding colleges that offer (and even specialize) in that field. You might like to try some of these career assessment tests to help you with this step. You could also read our article, Choosing a College Major: How to Chart Your Ideal Path.
Step 2: Develop a list of criteria you want to use to evaluate and weed out colleges. Do you want to live close to home, or far away? Do you want a large university or a small college? What about costs? Here's a list of common criteria:
location (rural or urban setting)/distance from home
size of the student population (from small at 1,000 to large at 35,000+)
public vs. private
costs (tuition, room and board, etc.)
financial assistance packages
campus resources (labs, libraries, computer access, etc.)
placement success/internship and co-op programs
faculty contact/classes taught by full-time doctorally qualified faculty
degree of pressure to excel
safety (campus, community)
student body (diversity, gender, etc.)
social life (Greek organizations, sports, school spirit, etc.)
housing options (dorms, apartments, living at home)
realistic entry expectations (based on typical student admitted)
Step 3: Compile a list of possible colleges and universities. With at least some idea of the criteria that are important to you, begin the gathering phase. You can find college information in books, such as The Fiske Guide to Colleges, which you can find among other college books in our Teen Books section. Another resource are college-related Websites, such as TheAdmissionsOffice.com. Find that Website, as well as many others, in our College Planning Resources for Teens. You will surely also get suggestions from family, friends, and high school teachers and guidance counselors. You should also consider attending college fairs, where you can actually meet representatives from the schools, as well as gather important literature.
Step 4: Gather all your resources and information about each school you're considering. If you don't have all the information you need on a particular college, you should consider visiting the college's Website. And most colleges offer some sort of virtual campus tour, so you can get an early taste of the look and feel of a college from your PC.
Step 5: Use the criteria from Step 2 to narrow your list of colleges to a manageable number. This number will vary widely among teens and their families, depending in part on how many you and your family can realistically visit. Most experts suggest narrowing the list to 10 or fewer, but we have known some students who had close to 20 colleges after completing this step.
Step 6: Visit the colleges on your list from Step 5. The best way to really get a feel for a college is by visiting the campus, taking a tour, meeting with students, attending a class, reading the campus newspaper, eating in the cafeteria, and spending the night in a dorm (if possible). You have to feel "at home" at the place where you will spend the next four years of your life, so visiting is important.
For more information and strategies, read our article, How to Make the Most of Your Campus Visit. If some schools on your list are just too far away to make a trip, then at least take a virtual tour of the campus and try to talk to people who have attended the school to get a feel for it. CampusTours.com (listed on our College Planning Resources for Teens) is a great place for links to virtual tours and college Webcams.
Step 7: Apply to the schools that made the cut after the first six steps. How many schools should you apply to? Of course, this decision partly depends on your financial situation (since most colleges have application fees), but most teens generally apply to one or two dream or "reach" schools (where they have a small chance of getting admitted based on a realistic appraisal of admissions criteria), two to four schools where they want to go (and can expect to be accepted), and at least one "safety" school (where they are a shoo-in for admission). But you need to choose the number and type that are right for you; some people don't apply to safety schools, and others apply to only the best schools that have made the cut from the first six steps.
Step 8: While you're waiting to hear back from the colleges you applied to, start hitting the books or the Web to find scholarships (if you need them). We list some of the best of both in our Teen Books section and in our Financial Aid Resources for Teens section.
Step 9: Make a final choice among the schools that accepted you. If you applied for financial aid, take a close look at the offers. If the school you really want to attend gave you a low aid offer, you should consider contacting the school and making a counter offer and see what happens; many schools have become more willing to negotiate in this area.
To help you with your decision-making, we've made this College Choice Table that you can print, copy, or otherwise use in helping you reach some decisions.