How to Choose Colleges: 17 Questions to Ask Yourself

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education accredited nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in 2020. With so many options, picking a school can be daunting — especially when you consider how much your choice of alma mater could impact your future. 

The best way to make this process easier is to break it down into bite-sized steps. So, before you make your list of schools, ask yourself these 17 questions to narrow down your options and determine which college is right for you. 

What are my goals?

People pursue higher education for various reasons — to follow a passion, build their network, or obtain the skills required to unlock a particular career. As you begin your college search, ask yourself why you want this. (It can help to make a written list: write out three to five things you hope a college degree will help you achieve.)

If you know what you want to study, prioritize finding a college or university with that specific academic program. If you’re unsure, you may want to attend a community college until you have a better idea. Alternatively, you can attend a liberal arts college that has many different degree programs to choose from. 

Or maybe your primary goal is to get an education without taking on debt. In that case, consider in-state schools or other public universities, which are generally more affordable. You can also look for schools where you’re more likely to be offered a healthy financial aid package, i.e., less-competitive colleges and universities and those known for generous endowments. If your ideal school has a higher-than-average price tag, it also helps to make a list of valuable scholarships.

What are my priorities?

While your goals will help you determine your needs, your priorities will help determine your wants. Beyond academic programs, each school offers a unique set of opportunities that can be an important factor in your college search. 

To figure out your priorities, sit and write for 10 minutes, describing your vision of the perfect college experience. Do you hope to join a sorority or fraternity? Study abroad? Do you see yourself living in a dorm or in a house with friends? How close to a big city do you hope to be? 

If you’re looking for a strong alumni network or a vibrant college sports scene, you may prefer a larger school. Larger schools also tend to have a variety of extracurricular activities and intramural sports to choose from. If you prefer a quieter or tighter-knit feel — or the educational benefits of smaller class sizes — a smaller school might be a better fit. 

How does the school stack up in my area of study? 

Different colleges have different strengths, and the specifics don’t always correlate with the school’s overall prestige. For example, a school well-known for its science departments might have a subpar visual arts program. Conversely, a college with a mediocre academic reputation might have an incredible degree program in your field of interest. 

To determine a college’s strengths, you can reference college rankings online. One of the most notable is U.S. News and World Report’s list of best colleges. While overall ranking might be an important factor in your decision, finding a school with great opportunities in your chosen academic program is crucial. 

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What career resources does the school offer? 

One of the top reasons students pursue a bachelor’s degree is to improve their career opportunities. However, having a degree isn’t the only secret to landing a job. 

Some schools offer robust career counseling programs. Some prioritize placing students in internships before they graduate or connecting each student with a mentor in their chosen field. Prospective students should peruse college websites before they apply to get a feel for the school’s approach to career preparation. 

Try to find out the counselor-to-student ratio, which is usually a good measure of how much attention you’ll receive as a student. You can also get a great feel for career-resource availability by asking current students during college tours.

Do I care about location? 

For some students, getting away from home is a key part of the college experience. For others, being close to family can provide a sense of comfort. If you’re in the former camp, consider how far from home you want to be, and what kind of out-of-state tuition you can afford. If you’re in the latter camp, make a list of in-state schools and start whittling down your choices from there. 

If location doesn’t matter to you, consider going to school in-state, which is often much less expensive than going out-of-state. 

Can I afford it? 

Sometimes, the best college is the one you can afford. According to research by CollegeBoard, the average cost of college tuition was $10,740 per year for in-state public universities in 2021, and $38,070 for private schools. That high sticker price is one of the reasons so many graduates today struggle with student loan debt.

Before you start the college application process, do some math. Write down a ballpark figure for the maximum college tuition you think you can afford. To calculate this number, you’ll first have to ask yourself these four questions. 

How much financial aid am I being offered? 

Once you’ve been accepted to a school or two, assess the financial aid packages you’ve been offered. Some schools have large endowments, which allow them to offer more financial aid, while others offer very little. Then, add up the following:

Subtract this total from each school’s sticker price to calculate the actual cost of tuition. Make your decision based on this number. 

Am I willing to apply for scholarships? 

After you’ve calculated the actual cost of college tuition for each school you’re considering, you’ll need to determine how to pay for the rest of your education. Scholarships are an excellent choice because, unlike student loans, you won’t have to repay them. Scholarships can be used for most education-related expenses

The first step is to do some research on the types of scholarships that you might qualify for. Going Merry is a great resource to help you sift through available options. On the Going Merry platform, you simply complete a profile, then get scholarships delivered to you based on race, gender, location, field of study, and many other criteria.

Am I willing to supplement with student loans

For many college students, financial aid and scholarships don’t cover the full cost of tuition. A lot of those students take on student loans to help fill in the remaining gaps. As you go through the college admissions process, ask yourself how much (if any) debt you’re willing to take on

Student loans can be a helpful way to afford the cost of college. But, unlike scholarships, they’ll need to be repaid in the future, and most carry interest rates, meaning you’ll be paying more than the amount you borrowed. In spite of this, student loans are still a great option for many students. 

Am I comfortable attending a community college first? 

When you’re looking at a list of college rankings, you won’t often see community colleges listed. But just because they don’t have national-level prestige doesn’t mean community colleges aren’t an awesome option for all types of students. 

Most community colleges offer core-requirement courses at lower prices than state schools or private colleges do. These credits can then be transferred to other universities. That allows students to complete their coursework at more prestigious institutions — which means you end up with a brand-name diploma without having to pay the full cost of it. 

If you need help making any of these calculations, try Going Merry’s College Cost Insights tool. It’s a school comparison calculator which helps you understand your financial aid packages, and the true cost of each college, and compare them to each other.

Do I prefer a certain campus size?

One of the biggest differentiators between different colleges is enrollment size. Many public colleges and in-state universities are larger, while private colleges and universities tend to be smaller. There are various reasons why students might prefer one size over another. 

Maybe you went to a small high school and want to expand your horizons and experience life on a big college campus with a diverse student body. Or, if you do better with specialized attention from teachers, maybe you want to find a school with smaller class sizes where you can have greater access to your professors both in and out of the classroom. (If you’re unsure if a school qualifies as big or small, use the Carnegie Classification of Institutions as a benchmark: schools with 5,000 or fewer are considered small, and schools with 15,000 or more students are considered large.)

Does the school have the extracurriculars I want?

College is a place to let your imagination run wild and explore different interests — from new academic subjects to extracurricular activities like fencing or pottery. If you fell in love with a certain sport or activity as a high school student, check to see if your prospective college offers it. If you want to try a bunch of new things, look for a college that offers a diverse array of extracurriculars. While it doesn’t often make sense to choose a college based on club sports or recreational hobbies alone, these activities can be a big part of campus life. Consider extracurricular offerings a tiebreaker if you’re torn between two schools. 

Does prestige matter to me?

Your answer to this question might be an automatic one. But before you dismiss it entirely, it’s important to understand that the ranking of your university isn’t just a fun thing to boast about at parties. In some careers, having a degree from a prestigious university could give you an edge in the job application process. 

But for many students, prestige matters less than they might think. If you pursue challenging coursework and maintain a high GPA, a bachelor’s degree can help you get a job no matter which university’s name is on your diploma. (To determine a school’s prestige, you can consult college rankings lists or look at statistics like acceptance rates and test scores. If a school has low acceptance rates and requires high test scores, it likely has a prestigious reputation.)

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Is the school accredited?

Before you get your heart set on a college or university, make sure it’s accredited, a certification that ensures the rigor of education and the quality of the degree. (The U.S. Department of Education keeps a list of accredited schools you can reference.) Schools that receive accreditation must adhere to specific standards for designing coursework and hiring professors. It’s also easier to transfer credits between accredited schools, which is a good backup in case you need to switch institutions mid-way through your degree. But, most importantly, only students who attend accredited universities qualify for federal financial aid. 

What do the numbers say? 

Assessing hard data can help take some of the runaway emotions out of the college application process. 

  • What’s each school’s student retention rate? 
  • What percentage of students graduate in a set amount of time? 
  • What percentage of students find full-time employment after graduation? 

It could be a helpful exercise to create a chart or spreadsheet with these types of statistics on each of your prospective schools. Most universities will publish this type of information on their websites, usually under a section called something like “Facts” or “Data.” 

Also be sure to keep l national averages in mind as a benchmark. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduation rate for U.S. undergrads was 64%. So, if your prospective school boasts a higher graduation rate, you’re probably in a good place. And if its graduation rate is lower, you might want to weigh that into your final decision. 

Can I see myself here now that I’ve visited?

Campus culture can be essential to your college experience, but it’s one of those “x-factors” — it can be tough to put your finger on, let alone capture through a college website or a set of statistics. If it’s financially feasible for you, try to schedule a campus visit and a campus tour. 

When you get home, ask yourself: do you think you can see yourself thriving there? Did you feel comfortable? Did you meet any students who gave you a glimpse into the campus culture? Could you imagine yourself on campus, walking those sidewalks and learning in those classrooms? If the answer to all those questions is yes, keep that school at the top of your list.

What does my family think? 

If the college admissions process starts to feel like a full-time job, consider contacting family members to help you weigh the pros and cons of different schools. Maybe your parents can give you some insight into what campus life was like at the kind of school they attended. Or, if you had a parent who graduated with student debt, ask how it affected their college experience and the first years post-graduation. Then use that insight to help you decide whether or not to take out student loans. If you’re considering a school far away from home, get your parent or guardian’s advice about how you might make that work with travel and transportation. 

Get scholarships delivered to you with Going Merry

The college admissions process is exciting, but many students also feel pressure to select the exact right college. From financial aid packages to extracurricular activities and academic programs, there are a lot of important factors to consider. The good news is that there’s rarely just one perfect school for a student. If you do your research, weigh the pros and cons, and make a robust list of schools — including “reach” schools and “safety” schools — you’re highly likely to land on one that’s a great fit for your needs. 

Of course, the more colleges you can afford, the wider net you’ll be able to cast. Scholarships can be a great way to reduce the cost of college and open up your list of options. Consider signing up for Going Merry to quickly and easily find scholarships you’re eligible for. All you have to do is create a profile, and Going Merry will deliver quality scholarships suited to you, saving you tons of time you’d otherwise spend searching and scrolling. Create your free profile today, and let the scholarships come to you. 

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