How to Choose a College: The Ultimate Guide to the College Decision

Congratulations – you’ve been accepted! Now, go ahead and make a major life decision in less than four weeks. 

Choosing a college is thrilling, exciting, and often pretty stressful, too. There are so many factors to consider – where should you begin? We suggest starting here, with our guide to choosing a college. We’ve broken down the key categories you should consider and the questions to ask in order to gather the information you need.

Each category in the guide has its own instructions, but generally speaking, the best way to learn about a college is by (1) speaking to current and former students, (2) visiting the campus (not necessarily on admitted students’ day – visiting on a regular weekday will give you a much more accurate picture of campus life), and (3) reading the school newspaper.  These strategies will give you a great deal of insight into the school and help you make an informed decision. Now, let's dive into the college decision-making process. 


Get the money talk out of the way first. Finances rarely make for a fun conversation, but it’s essential that you understand exactly how you’ll be paying for college before delving deeper into the decision-making process. Here’s a simple plan for tackling this tricky subject:

1. Review tuition costs, merit scholarships, and financial aid offers.

Examine the cost of each university carefully and, if possible, side-by-side with a family member who knows your financial situation. Keep track of how much each school has offered you and what the cost per year would be for you and your family.

Remember, most colleges’ “cost of attendance” data is based on statistical averages. (If your hometown is thousands of miles from the campus, factor in travel expenses. If your major will require lots of expensive books and materials, factor in those costs.) Take note of any additional information, such as travel expense coverage or work-study requirements.

Outline all of these details in a basic, one-page spreadsheet or document so that you can look over the information quickly and without sorting through page after page of cryptic financial info.

2. Talk to your family.

If you haven’t already done so, open up a conversation with your family about paying for college. How much does your family plan to contribute financially to your college education? How do those numbers line up with the tuition costs, merit scholarships, and financial aid data you’ve gathered? Does this information eliminate any schools from your list? Or, does it suddenly make any schools stand out – like the one that offered you a big merit scholarship?

3. Reflect on your own financial plans. 

These days, a lot of college students graduate with significant student loan debt. Student debt takes a long time to repay and can seriously impact your post-graduation financial situation. Many recent graduates cite student loans as one of their biggest sources of stress. But while we do suggest considering student loans only as a last resort (two words: external scholarships), we don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t consider them at all. Rather, we think you should consider them realistically and intentionally/ Before deciding to take on loans, consider factors like future graduate school tuition, your potential career path, and how ready you are to take on a loan burden.


Naturally, you’re going to learn no matter where you go to college. But what kind of academic environment do you prefer? What's your learning style? What type of classroom helps you thrive? Consider the following factors as you assess the academic strengths of each university.

1. Class size and style.

How do you learn best? Are you a note-taking fiend who excels in a lecture environment, or do you prefer small seminar-style courses where you get to talk out your questions about the material with your peers? Do professors teach courses or are they led by graduate teaching assistants? Find out the average class size and style (e.g. lecture, seminar, a mix of the two) at each university and consider which style works best for you.

2. Accessibility of professors.

Professors will make a big impact on your college experience. How available are professors at each school on your list? Do they offer regular office hours for undergraduates? Do they open up research opportunities for their students? At some universities, professors are focused on research and graduate students, while at others, professors are extremely involved with undergrads and even freshmen. Consider the accessibility of professors, especially if you think you’d like to pursue research on campus.

3. Your prospective major.

Whether you know exactly what you want to study or you have a few different options in mind, you should dedicate time to figuring out exactly which options each school provides for your prospective major(s). How many courses does the university offer in your chosen departments each semester? How many students choose that major each year?

Being part of a small department can be an excellent experience, as you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know your peers and professors. However, it can also have its downsides, such as classes that are cancelled due to low enrollment and other bureaucratic hurdles.

If you have a few different majors in mind, you might also investigate options such as double-majors, major-minors, certificate programs, and even student-created majors. Is the school flexible in terms of changing majors? How early do students have to declare majors?

Extracurricular Opportunities

College is about much more than hitting the books. Extracurricular opportunities, from clubs to study abroad programs, are an essential part of the college experience. Don’t discount these factors when making your college choice. Consider the following points:

1. Student clubs.

How do students find out about clubs, and how easy are they to join? Do clubs have application processes or are they open to all students? Find out as much as you can about the clubs that relate to your specific interests.

For example, if you’re interested in pursuing the arts, investigate each college’s arts scene. How many students are involved in the theater program? Are there lots of a capella groups you can try out for, or is there only one? Do non-majors take drawing classes or are the classes exclusive to art majors? If you love playing sports but aren’t planning on joining a varsity team, find out how easy it is to play intra-mural or club sports. Is there a strong “IM” culture on campus? How many students are involved?

2. Campus groups.  

In addition to clubs, there are lots of campus groups you might consider joining. Some colleges have strong Greek life, while others have no Greek life at all. If joining a sorority or fraternity is important to you, find out as much as you can about Greek culture at the school son your list. There are also cultural groups and community service groups to consider.

3. Studying abroad.

Do you see yourself studying abroad for a summer or semester? If so, take some time to research the opportunities at the universities you’re considering. Some schools have “sister” universities in other countries where the credits are automatically transferrable. Others require you to demonstrate that the courses you take abroad should be counted by your home university.

Another consideration is financial aid: does the university apply financial aid to study abroad programs? Are there grants or fellowships available for students who study abroad? Find out how common studying abroad is and try to find out about other students’ experiences with each university’s study abroad program.

Professional Experiences

Every university hopes that its graduates feel prepared and confident about their career prospects. As a prospective student, you might find it helpful to find out exactly what kinds of career-related support each university provides for students.  From internships to research opportunities to on-campus recruitment, compare the strength of each school’s professional support system.

1. Internships.

Internships are a big part of many college students’ professional preparation. As you weigh your university options, find out whether each college provides easy access to internship opportunities for students. Do the schools have connections to local companies that provide part-time internships during the semester? Do big employers recruit students for summer internships? How do students find out about opportunities – is there a helpful online internship resource?

Many universities offer course credit for some internships (a few even allow students to live in another city for an entire semester in order to complete an internship!) while others do not offer any course credit.  Consider these policies and how they will affect your professional plans.  

2. Careers.

You’ll want to find out more about each school’s support system for the types of careers you’re interested in pursuing. For example, some colleges have great alumni networks for students who are interested in the arts, while others have powerful connections to the finance world.

In terms of the career center itself, what types of resources are offered? Are there full-time career counselors available for mock interviews, resume reviews, and other hands-on career preparation? Finally, consider how job recruitment works on each campus. Do companies visit the campus to recruit students frequently? If so, which industries recruit most often?

3. Student jobs and work-study.

Taking on a part-time job while in college gives you an opportunity to make money while gaining valuable professional experience.  Whether you’re working at the circulation desk in the library or swiping IDs at the fitness center, you’ll meet fellow students and build up your resume at the same time. If you’re interested in pursuing a part-time job, find out as many details as you can about student employment at each university. How are student jobs distributed on each campus? What types of student jobs are available, and how easy or difficult is it to get a student job? What are the typical hours for student jobs, and what is the minimum wage for students?

Campus Culture

Campus culture isn’t always easy to pin down. The best way to learn about each university’s distinct culture is by talking to current and former students and visiting the campus yourself. Here are some things to consider about campus culture.

1. Surrounding environment.

Is the campus situated in an urban or rural area? How do students get around – by foot, by car, by campus bus? If it’s an urban campus, do students tend to spread out across the city or are they concentrated in one central area? If it’s a rural campus, do students tend to stay on campus all the time or are there things to do off-campus?

2. Social life.

What do students do for fun? Are there a variety of things to do on weekends, or is there a dominant “party culture”? Does the social scene at each university appeal to you? Find out what the prevailing attitudes are on key college topics, such as sports (spirited or blasé?) and politics (activist or apolitical?). Could you see yourself bonding with the current students? Would you feel comfortable striking up a conversation with someone in the dining hall? 

3. Student housing.

What types of student housing options are available? Where do most students choose to live? Is housing guaranteed for four years? Is dorm life part of the social scene? Do students enjoy spending time in residence halls? Or, are the dorms mainly a place to lay your head at night rather than a place to bond with friends and participate in fun activities?  

Quality of Life

Food, laundry rooms, weather conditions... these quality of life considerations might not seem like huge factors right now, but they may very well become important as you start your college career.

1. Food.

Let's get down to basics. You eat three meals a day, so food will inevitably be important. If you have specific dietary restrictions or preferences, be sure to find out as much as you can about the dining situation at each school (e.g. whether the schools publish ingredient lists and how easy it is to get meals that suit your dietary needs).  

However, regardless of your specific eating habits, everyone should consider food a big factor when assessing universities. What types of dining options are available? Is there one major dining hall or lots of little places to grab a bite to eat? Can you use dining points at on-campus restaurants and cafes? What are the dining hall hours? Are there any late-night snacks available on campus? If you don’t have time for a meal between classes, how easy is it to pick up food to-go?

2. Climate.

Many of us like to think that we can thrive in just about any weather scenario. While it’s a great idea to expand your horizons and experience a new climate, you should also be mindful of what a new climate might mean for your college experience. Do you have winter clothes, or will you need to buy a new wardrobe? Are you a winter lover or do you struggle with seasonal affective disorder? While weather is not necessarily a reason to eliminate a college from your list, the seasons may impact your day-to-day life, so it’s important to think about them as you’re reviewing your college list.

3. Transportation.

How do students travel off-campus? Is there any there any type of public transportation close to campus, or do most students have cars? If you’re considering colleges that are far from home, find out about the cost and convenience of train station/airport transportation. How frequently will you want to travel home? Is the college located near an airport or train station, or will you have to travel a great distance to catch your flight?

4. Support for students.

What type of support is available for students? Are there accessible academic support options, such as departmental tutoring centers or free peer tutoring? What about advising – are students automatically matched with advisers? How accessible are the advisers and how often do they meet with students?  What about medical support? Are student health services readily accessible when you need them?  Finally, how easy is it to meet with a mental health counselor? Many students benefit from talking to a counselor at some point during college, and even if you’re not interested right now, it’s extremely helpful to know that the option is available.