Choosing a College

You know you want to go to college; now you have to pick one. Considering the thousands of schools out there, this can be a daunting task. Make it easier to find the right college by researching your options and knowing what to look for.

Jump to Section

Types of Schools

Before you can pick a specific school, you need to decide what you want from your higher education and how it meets your needs and lifestyle. When you graduate high school, you have several options to choose from:

Four-Year Colleges and Universities

A four-year college focuses mostly on undergraduate studies and offers a collection of degrees in one specific area, such as business or medicine. A four-year university is generally bigger in size than a college and normally includes undergraduate, professional and graduate degree programs. Both colleges and universities grant bachelor's degrees.

Four-year colleges and universities can also be broken down into public or private schools. Public colleges and universities receive financial support from the state in which they're located and generally tend to be larger and less expensive than private colleges. Private colleges and universities are funded through tuition and donations and generally tend to be smaller and slightly more expensive.

Community and Junior Colleges

Community and junior colleges offer a wide variety of two-year associate degree programs. They're typically less expensive than four-year schools and often have less stringent admissions criteria. Community and junior colleges are a good choice for students who don't wish to commit to a four-year program or those who only need to take a few classes to qualify for a profession or improve their transcript. Upon completion of a community or junior college, a student can enter the workforce right away or transfer to a four-year school to obtain a bachelor's degree.

Vocational and Technical Training Schools

Vocational and technical training schools are privately owned and operated schools that focus on teaching the skills required to get a job in a specific field. The duration of a vocational or technical school program can range anywhere from five months to three years, depending on the field of study. Some of the most common fields of study are computer technology, cosmetology, medical assistance, office administration and mechanical repair.

Service Academies and Senior Military Colleges

Service academies and Senior Military Colleges (SMCs) offer military instruction in combination with traditional academics. Many are among the most prestigious education institutions in the world, so admissions are competitive.

Service academies offer full four-year scholarships, and SMCs offer financial-aid packages for eligible students. Both also offer pay for books, board and medical and dental care. In exchange, graduates of Service academies become commissioned officers upon graduation and are required to uphold a service obligation for a minimum of five years. Those who attend SMCs can choose whether or not they want to serve, but recipients of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarships will be required to serve after graduation.

Distance Learning

Distance learning refers to educational programs that allow students to receive a degree online. Some programs are run by traditional colleges and allow students to complete a degree while not physically at the school. Other distance-learning programs exist entirely on the Internet. These programs are ideal for people who want to continue their education and complete their degrees but still need to work and maintain their own schedules.

What to Look for in a College

Once you've determined what kind of school you want, you need to determine which school in that category is right for you. Narrow down your choices by considering the following key factors:

Cost

What is the total cost of tuition, room and board? What types of financial aid are offered? Is the school located in an expensive city? Will you need a car to get to and from class? You do not want to be burdened with excessive bills and accompanying stress. Before you finalize your school of choice, make sure you consider all potential costs. Also, talk to your parents about higher-education costs to see if they can help.

Location

Where do you want to study? Are you comfortable being far from home? Can you afford the travel expenses if you are? Do you want a school located in a city with nightlife and a lot of activity or in a rural area with a small-town feel? Pick a location you think will enhance your overall experience.

Academic Programs

What colleges have the majors you are looking for? Do you want a school that will challenge you? Do you want a school that has a master's program, so you can stay there through graduate school? Or is an undergraduate program simply a stepping-stone to another school you wish to attend for graduate studies? What classes are required as a freshman? What are the graduation requirements? Some schools mandate the subjects students must study to receive a degree, while others allow more choice. Academics are why you are there, so make sure the school has the curriculum you're looking for.

Extracurricular Activities

Do you play a sport? Do you want to play on a college level? Does the school offer theater, music or debate clubs? How about a student newspaper, radio or TV station? Are you interested in joining a fraternity or sorority? Extracurricular activities are an important complement to academics. Look for a school that offers activities that interest you and will inspire you to learn and grow.

Size

Do you want to go to a big school or a small school? Larger schools usually have more classes and activities, but they also have larger classes, so you may receive less one-on-one time with instructors. Small schools offer more individual attention and often a better chance to get to know your professors on a personal basis, but they may not offer the same amount of courses or activities.

Room and Board

What is the housing situation? What condition are the dorms in? What meal plans are available? Are there apartments close by for off-campus living? Parking permits? Whether you are looking to live off campus or on, room and board is a significant expense, make sure there is affordable housing that meets your standards.

Facilities

What are the athletic centers like? Is there more than one? Are there additional costs associated with them? Is the technology up to date in the computer labs? What do facilities like classrooms, dining halls and the library look like? Does the school practice "green" initiatives like recycling and energy conservation? Above all, make sure the facilities meet your standards and lend themselves to a comfortable learning environment.

Campus Environment

What is life like outside the classroom? Are students welcomed by the surrounding community? Is there stuff to do on the weekends? Do a lot of students commute? Go home on the weekends? What types of religious services are offered on campus? Off campus? Going to college is more than just sitting in class, so take a good look at the overall campus environment.

Diversity

Do you want to go to an all-male or all-female school? Co-ed? What kinds of student organizations are available? Are you searching for a school that has a wide array of different cultures? You should evaluate how important diversity is to you and take a good look at the composition of a school's student body.

Retention and Graduation Rates

What percentage of students drop out after the first year? What percentage graduates in four years? In five years? Good retention and graduation rates are signs of a school's quality and student satisfaction, so sit down and review some of the statistics. Figuring out if it takes more than four years to graduate will also help with your financial planning.

College Fairs

A college fair features representatives from different colleges and universities who come together in one location to give students a chance to explore their options and gather information. During a college fair you can meet with admissions officers, ask questions and learn about schools you may not have known about or considered. College fairs are a great opportunity to learn about possibilities and perhaps zero in on the right college for you.

To find out if a college fair is taking place near you, talk to your school counselor or explore the National College Fairs Program, which sponsors college fairs across the country each year.

At your college fair, make sure to bring a notebook and pen to take notes. Ask questions and visit as many of the schools' information booths as possible. Spending a day at a college fair can give you in-depth knowledge about many schools in a short period of time and ultimately help you narrow down your college choices.

Related Resources

college

Campus Visit Tips

Get the most of your time on campus by preparing ahead of time.