10 tips to choose a college that’s right for you

Choosing a college is an exciting process. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or stress free—or that there aren’t plenty of questions or unknowns about a potential school’s location, cost, classes and campus life.

The truth is there’s no perfect college choice. But figuring out what’s important to you and doing some research goes a long way toward picking a school that gives you the education and experience you’re looking for.

Key takeaways

  • To figure out which colleges might be a good fit for you, it helps to first determine your goals for college and beyond.
  • It’s also important to consider what factors are most important to you, like location, campus life, degree programs, extracurriculars, cost and more.
  • College costs can add up, but there may be opportunities available, like financial aid, scholarships, work-study programs, grants and student loans.

College Students and Credit Cards

In search of a credit card for students? Here are some things to look for.

Learn More

10 tips for choosing the right college

Here’s how you can find a college that matches up with what you’re looking for:

1. Think about your career goals

It may seem out of order, but before you start judging schools based on their campus vibe, location or prestige, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says to first consider your career goals. 

Knowing where you want to go in life might help you plot a path to get there and narrow your search. You can use the U.S. Department of Labor’s My Next Move site to research different careers. It could give you an idea of what course of study might be worth following, along with skills, abilities and other career suggestions common to a job or career—not to mention industry outlooks and possible salary ranges. 

2. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers

It’s OK if you don’t have it all figured out yet—you may not even need to declare a major before applying for college. But it might benefit your search to at least narrow “your interests to large categories like STEM majors, the humanities or education,” according to The Best Schools.

Being undecided could even be a good thing. The former executive director of Colleges That Change Lives wrote in a 2007 piece for NPR that being undecided might mean more academic experiences to help you figure out your interests and what you’re good at.

If that sounds like you, the FTC recommends checking to see whether schools offer “a wide variety of majors.”

A student and a guidance counselor sit together at a table and talk.

3. Review costs and financial aid options

When it comes to paying for college, tuition is just the start. There’s also housing, transportation and food to consider—just to name a few. But there may be financial aid available to help pay for it all. And exploring options can help you decide on a college—and a budget—that’s right for you.

“Understanding college costs and comparing financial aid offers can help you begin to make a plan for paying for college,” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) says. Aid could include scholarshipswork-study programs, grants and student loans

Securing financial aid starts with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA®. And the CFPB also has a financial aid tool that may help you manage debt and plan for college costs

But remember to be cautious and only use reputable websites. The Department of Education has tips to help identify student aid scams.

4. Consider campus locations

Online programs might offer the option to study anywhere, which could be especially helpful if you have family or work obligations. But if you’re planning to live and study on campus, location might be a key factor in your decision. 

Do you want to be close to home? Or do you have your sights set on an out-of-state—or out-of-country—education? Whatever you choose, keep in mind that location can play a major role in affordability.  

“Students can save thousands by choosing a public, in-state school,” according to The Best Schools. “Location also affects your ability to receive state financial aid, including grants that support state residents.”

5. Think about your ideal college experience

Another way to narrow your search is to think about the sort of college life you want. Are you interested in athletics—whether it’s getting involved with intramural teams or attending games as a fan? Or maybe Greek life or cultural diversity are most important to you. 

Whatever it is, think about your priorities as you consider what schools might be a good fit.

You might also consider whether you might prefer to be at a larger school, on a smaller campus or somewhere in between. The size of the student body, or enrollment, could give you an idea what to expect—and what classes might be like.

6. Consider class sizes

Another factor to weigh is class size. Consider whether you prefer large or small class sizes. Or somewhere in between. 

Some schools offer a mix of lecture-style classes with hundreds of students—often for prerequisites—and smaller seminar and discussion courses.

You can review the student-to-faculty ratio on the College Board’s website. This number shows how many students there are at a school compared to the number of faculty or teachers. A ratio of 20 to 1, for example, would mean that there are 20 students for every faculty member. 

A professor writes on a dry erase board at the front of a classroom as students sitting at desks watch.

7. Come up with a short list

Hopefully, you’ve been able to get an idea of what type of school might be the best fit for you—based on your career goals, ideal location, budget and learning style. From here, you may want to come up with a few colleges you can start to explore more closely. 

Let the list evolve as you figure out what you like and don’t like. Feel free to add and remove options as you find the best fit along the way.

8. Do some in-depth research

Once you have a small list, you can really dig into data to help inform your choices. The FTC recommends looking at the Department of Education’s College Scorecard. You could also use the College Board’s BigFuture tool. Both offer information like: 

  • Graduation rates
  • What graduates typically make in their careers
  • The amount most students pay to attend that school
  • The progress former students are making on repaying their student loans

If you’re curious about on-campus jobs, networking opportunities and internships, those are worth looking into now as well.

The FTC also says to find out if the schools you’re considering are accredited. That’s important because “it’s hard to transfer credits from a school that’s not accredited.” And you can only get federal student aid if the college is accredited.

9. Visit colleges on your list

Sometimes the best way to get a feel for a particular college is to visit. This can help you experience the campus culture and what life could be like at that school. 

And if there’s something that’s important to you, don’t hesitate to ask. A visit might be the perfect opportunity to check out course materials, explore the library and confirm whether the lab equipment is state of the art or stuck in the past.

There are lots of other practical tips in this campus visit checklist from the College Board. Keep in mind that you might need to set up tours or admissions meetings in advance. And if you’re hoping to stay overnight in a dorm, you might need to arrange that in advance too.

And while you’re on campus, the College Board recommends talking to “as many people as possible,” including admissions counselors, students and professors. 

Two students sitting next to each other talk and smile.

10. Talk to students, alumni, family and teachers

Talking doesn’t have to stop just because your visit is over—or yet to come. Talking to students or alumni from the colleges you’re considering could also help you get an idea of what classes and life are like at that school. 

Consider asking an admissions counselor to recommend some students or recent graduates who may be willing to talk with you. You can also try to strike up conversations with students or faculty as you visit the colleges on your list. 

It might also help to talk to people who know you best: parents, teachers and guidance counselors. They may be able to share their experiences and help you think about what schools might be a good fit for you.

Choosing a college in a nutshell

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing a college—like location, campus life, cost, extracurriculars, degrees and financial aid opportunities. As you think about the financial aspects of your college decision, learn more about how to pay for college.

But remember, it’s ultimately about figuring out what’s best for you. “Reflect on what’s important, where you want to be, and who you want to become,” the College Board says. “With those answers, you can figure out what types of colleges will allow you to reach your goals.”

Related Content