How to choose the best college for you

college admissions strategy

The college admissions process can be really stressful—there are exams to take, essays to write, recommendations to request... our to-do lists seem never-ending. But the vast majority of our concerns with this process circle around the same question: What do I need to do to get into this school?

This is, of course, an important question—and there are many incredible resources that can help you consider it thoroughly. But more often than not, we forget another important consideration: Could this school be right for me?

It's easy to think about getting into college as the end goal. But actually, it's just the beginning—and rather than waiting until after you receive your results back to look into schools
closely, choosing universities that resonate with you before applying will help you build a stronger, more authentic application.

While there's no “right” way of identifying which colleges to apply to, here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Start with the basics

Start by learning about fundamental aspects of the universities you're interested in. A few important considerations include:

  • Size: There are significant differences between attending small colleges versus large universities. This can affect class sizes, course offerings, research opportunities, and campus
    culture, just to name a few.
  • Location: Going to college in a city feels completely different than attending a school in a suburban or rural area. Consider how location might impact your day-to- day life in college. Also, proximity to family and regional climate are important factors, too!
  • School Type: There are many types of schools you can attend, and your college experience (as well as the opportunities available to you) can differ significantly. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of each school type and apply to the types of schools you're excited about. For example, liberal arts colleges really focus on their undergraduates, so you would receive a lot of attention
    and support; however, they might also have fewer options for majors. (Other types of schools include research universities, women's colleges, and HBCUs.)
  • Tuition and Financial Aid: The cost of attending college can vary significantly from one place to another. This information can usually be found on university websites, where they list tuition, housing, and other living costs. College websites also provide information about financial aid. If you're not sure where to start, many schools have tools online that help you calculate the approximate cost of attendance. Also, public and private universities are funded differently—while public universities may be more affordable for in-state students, private universities sometimes offer more financial aid.

 

2. And then dig deeper

While the basics are definitely important, there are many other aspects that you'll find vital to your college experience. Spend time learning more about what makes each school unique. You might want to learn more about their...

  • Majors/Departments
  • Student Organizations
  • Sports/Athletics
  • Greek Life
  • Career Services
  • Alumni Network
  • Study Abroad/Cross Registration Opportunities

3. Align your choices with your priorities

Once you've learned more about the colleges you're considering, spend some time reflecting on your priorities and goals. College is an incredible time for growth and learning, and you get to decide what that looks like! Depending on your circumstances, this could also be a great time to discuss your thoughts with friends and family members who will be supporting you throughout your college journey.

4. Get a feel for the college's culture

As you can imagine, it's hard to learn about campus culture and community by studying a school's facts and figures. If you can, meeting an alum or current student can give you valuable insight you'd never find on a university website. If you don't know where to start, you can reach out to the college's admissions office to connect you with someone nearby. You can also learn a lot by following social media pages or attending campus tours (many schools offer both in- person and virtual ones)!

While the college search process can feel overwhelming, taking it one step at a time can help ease some of the stress. Remember, there's no perfect formula or exact fit—there are plenty of colleges that could be right for you. By doing your research, you're already headed in the right direction. As you go through this process, don't forget to have some fun—after all, learning about these schools and dreaming about your next few years is just the first step to an exciting new phase of your life.

Alice is a medical student in the Health Sciences and Technology program at Harvard Medical School. She earned her BS in Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford.

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