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10 Steps to Choosing the Right College

Find the right college.

Choosing a college is about more than the name on the diploma. Where a student goes to school touches numerous aspects of his or her life, from academic studies to social activities and beyond. Considering the importance of this decision, prospective students should think carefully about where they decide to enroll when looking over their options. Accepted to several of your top-choice colleges? That's an enviable position to be in -- though it might not feel like it. Follow these 10 steps to help you make a college decision.

Develop your short list.

A lot of thought should go into developing a short list of schools you would like to attend. But what kind of factors should drive your thinking when crafting that list? Brennan Barnard and Rick Clark, authors of "The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together," urge students to think about location, enrollment size, majors and programs, the people on campus, opportunities outside of the classroom, cost and selectivity.

Rank your priorities.

Take time to make your own rankings, weighing the pros and cons of a particular school when you are working on choosing the right college. Carefully consider your wants and needs when thinking about where you'll spend the next four years or longer. One way to do this, write Barnard and Clark, is to create a list of those wants and needs.

Don't procrastinate.

Deadlines may vary depending on the institution, but applications typically are due by January for regular fall admission. Experts suggest getting started on the application process by the start of your senior year in high school. And plan plenty of time for college visits, taking standardized tests, writing essays and asking for letters of recommendation.

Go back to schools.

Once applications are in, it's time to think hard about where you want to attend, which may prompt another visit. While you should have gotten a feel for campus life during initial college tours, take another trip to each school and ask 10 to 15 detailed questions, says Bob Roth, author of several books on college success. Know what to ask on a college visit, and don't leave with any questions unanswered. But taking a campus tour can be expensive, considering travel costs. If a return trip is out of the question, take a second look at the campus via a virtual tour and reach out to college officials with any follow-up questions.

Focus on your endgame.

Ask yourself where you want to be in four years. If you can pinpoint a reasonable job and financial outlook, consider which college might best help you reach those goals. Will you have a loan burden at one school but not at another? Tuition costs vary by college. U.S. News data for the 2019-2020 school year indicates that ranked in-state public colleges tend to have the lowest sticker prices at an average of $10,116 compared with $36,801 at private schools. But note the key words "sticker price." While private colleges tend to come with a higher price tag, there may also be more institutional aid, which means students and their families may not pay the full tuition cost.

Delve into departments.

College rankings can be one tool in the decision process, but don't forget that academic prestige can be examined on a smaller scale, too. Research the departments you'd be studying in, Roth says. Is one school better known for your major? Are faculty actively engaged at school and in the field? Visit college websites and reach out to faculty for more information. U.S. News also ranks specific undergraduate programs in business and engineering.

Investigate job connections.

One reason you go to college is to set yourself up for a job, so consider each school's career center. Roth recommends that students ask questions about job fairs, on-campus interview opportunities and even the counselor-to-student ratio. Make sure that the resources are sufficient to give you the help you'll need. Career centers offer a variety of services, helping students develop soft skills, providing employment and salary data, promoting internship leads, conducting mock interviews, explaining hiring processes and more.

Compare financial aid awards.

If you're looking to graduate from college with little or no debt, carefully compare financial aid packages. It's wise to look beyond the tuition and see what other fees apply. Also, understand the difference between free money -- such as grants and scholarships -- and loans, which you'll have to pay back eventually. Some colleges offer generous financial aid packages meeting full financial need, meaning those students are not required to take out loans.


"The admission process can make your mom or dad go a little wacky at times," write Barnard and Clark in "The Truth about College Admission." The authors encourage families to embrace the admissions experience as a chance to grow and learn together, taking time to support, encourage, trust and lift one another up. They emphasize that families should focus on the things they can control rather than what happens "behind closed doors in college admissions offices hundreds of miles away."

Move on from rejection.

Finding out you weren't accepted to a top-choice college can be tough, Roth acknowledges, but try not to dwell on the rejection. An even worse result would be to let disappointment stymie the decision you still have to make. Some schools are highly selective, with acceptance rates in the single digits. But at most colleges, the overall odds of admission are good. The national average acceptance rate at four-year institutions for first-time freshman applicants was 66.7% in fall 2017, according to a report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Learn more about colleges.

Get more advice about how to choose a college, and check out the complete rankings of the Best Colleges to find the school that's best for you. For more tips on selecting a college, connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.

How to decide on a college

-- Develop your short list.

-- Rank your priorities.

-- Don't procrastinate.

-- Go back to schools.

-- Focus on your endgame.

-- Delve into departments.

-- Investigate job connections.

-- Compare financial aid awards.

-- Compromise.

-- Move on from rejection.

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