Ten Factors for Choosing Colleges
By Matthew Schuldt
President, College Admissions Services, Inc.
Deciding where to apply can be a daunting task considering that the U.S. boasts
about 3,000 colleges. The key to narrowing down your options is to pick an
initial pool of 20 to 25 colleges that interest you and to focus your research
efforts on these schools. Selecting a large pool of colleges upfront gives
you the flexibility to eliminate colleges that you decide do not suit you, still
leaving you with a range of colleges to which you can apply.
The key to finding a group of colleges that best match your preferences is to
start early, identify the factors that are most important to you, cast a wide
net, and continue to narrow down your choices based on additional information
that you gather. Below are 10 factors that will help you select colleges that
meet your needs. Try not to be too rigid in your preferences as they may change
as you learn more about the colleges during the search process.
1. Geographic Location
Some students decide that they want to go to college in a different region of
the country from where they grew up. Others want to stay near their hometown or
within driving distance from mom and dad. A strict adherence to a specific
location can severely limit your college choices. It can be a good idea to
consider some colleges outside the location that you currently prefer. Once you
start learning about the colleges, your preferences may change, so it is best
to keep an open mind. You may also find other factors that will take on greater
importance than geography, so you do not want to eliminate a college before you
consider whether it has some of the other attributes you are seeking.
The undergraduate enrollment at a college can range from as little as 700
students to as many as 35,000 students. When determining what size school you
wish to attend, consider a range of school sizes around what you believe is the
ideal size. For example, if you think that you want to attend an intimate
college of fewer than 1,000 students where you know nearly everyone in your
class, then your initial pool should probably consist of colleges with up to
5,000 students. Yet, you should also consider a few colleges in the 5,000 to
15,000 student range. Even if you are considering a large university with more
class offerings and resources, you still might want to visit a few smaller
colleges to confirm your decision. Upon visiting colleges and learning more
about them, you may discover that you actually prefer a larger or smaller
college than you previously thought.
3. Campus Setting
Campus environment is another factor that is important for many students. On
one side of the spectrum is a college like Dartmouth in a remote setting in New
Hampshire, surrounded by forests and mountains on the bank of a river. On the
other side of the spectrum, is New York University in the center of New York
City with a campus indistinguishable from businesses and with many bustling
streets weaving between college buildings and dormitories. Visiting colleges is
one of the best ways to help you decide upon the campus setting that you
4. Campus Safety
The best way to find out about campus safety and what a college does to ensure
the safety and security of its students is to talk to current students or
recent alumni. You may also want to inquire about the presence of campus
security officers, dorm entrance security, the availability of transportation
around campus, escort services at night, the presence of outdoor lighting and
emergency phones, and the crime rates on campus and in surrounding
5. Public vs. Private
U.S. colleges are either privately or publicly funded. Since public colleges
are supported and operated by individual states and partially funded by state
tax dollars, they generally cost less than private colleges. Yet, attending a
state college outside your home state will likely cost more than tuition at the
school in your home state. In addition, enrollments and class sizes at state
schools tend to be higher than those at private institutions.
Private colleges, on the other hand, are funded by tuition, fees, private
gifts, corporate contributions, and endowments. Typically, this means that
private colleges are more expensive than public colleges, though private
colleges tend to offer more scholarships and grants, additional expenses often mean you will need to fund more of your education with student loans. Enrollment and class sizes
at private colleges tend to be smaller than those at public colleges.
6. Religious vs. Non-Denominational
Although most private and all public colleges are secular, some colleges are
operated by a religious organization and require religious activities and
courses. Other colleges may be associated with a particular religion, yet
students of varying religions attend the college and practice their own
religions. Secularity can be gauged by the number of lay (non-clergy) faculty
and the percentage of students of other faiths attending the college.
Find out what admissions officers and other experts have to say about religious
affiliation. Learn more about what
religiously-focused schools have to offer.
7. Single-sex vs. Coed
The vast majority of U.S. colleges are coeducational. Although most women
choose to attend coed colleges, there are eighty-two women's colleges. Research
shows that women who attend women's colleges have advantages that lead them to
be more fulfilled and successful in life than their female counterparts at coed
colleges. On the other hand, advocates of coed colleges argue that women's
colleges isolate women from the "real world" and the intellectual and social
diversity that men provide.
Aside from seminaries and rabbinical colleges, only a handful of men's colleges
exist today: Hampden-Sydney, Morehouse, Wabash, Deep Springs, and St. John's
Find out what admissions officers and other experts have to say about the single-sex
college experience. Learn more about what
all-women's colleges have to offer.
8. Academic Focus
A good way to assess the academic focus of a college is to consider the most
popular majors and the percentages of students in those majors. A college where
most of the students major in engineering obviously has a different strength
and focus than a college where most of the students major in the arts or
humanities. With that said, do not eliminate a college simply because your
intended major is not one of the top three as long as you understand what the
college's most popular subjects are.
9. Structured vs. Free Environment
Each college has its own curriculum and course requirements for each major.
Some colleges have strict requirements that allow for few electives. Other
colleges have few requirements and allow students the freedom to select
courses and do not require a formal major. Students who feel they need more
structure and guidance may favor a college with stricter requirements;
conversely, students with a defined academic and career plan may favor a
college that offers flexibility. Choose the environment that you feel
most comfortable in.
Find out what admissions officers and other experts have to say about academic
philosophy. Learn more about what
liberal arts colleges have to offer.
10. Extracurricular Activities
Thinking about what you want to do outside of classes should also play a factor
in your decision. For example, if you are a high school athlete who would like
to play a varsity sport in college, you need to make a realistic evaluation of
your chances of playing at the Division I, II or III level and choose colleges
based on the competitiveness of the sports teams. If you are interested in
participating in Greek life, make sure the colleges you are looking at have
fraternity and sorority houses; or, if you want nothing to do with toga
parties, then look for a school where Greek life is not prevalent. Do not
downplay the importance of participating in extracurricular activities in
college; getting involved on campus will lead to a more fulfilling collegiate
experience and will be viewed positively when you look for your first job out
About the Author
The admissions specialists at College Admissions Services (www.go4ivy.com)
can give you your percentage chances of admission and help you identify reach,
likely, and safety colleges based on your preferences—predictions were
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