How To Pick a College in 5 Easy Steps

Picking a College, College Decision

It’s nearing the time of year when acceptance and rejection (and those darn waitlist) letters start coming in.  You’ve been checking the mailbox every day.  Suddenly you’ve got a pile of acceptance letters and you realize – crap.  Now I actually have to pick.  It’s Decision Time.

No worries!  Not only am I going to walk you through the ways to decide on the one that’s right for you, I’m giving you a free printable so you can compare every little detail of each school.  

There are 5 main things I want you to think about when you are considering which school to go to.  Some might be more important to you than others, but these are the big ones.  The ones that can make or break your decision.  Paying attention yet?  It’s time to get serious!

Before we start, download your College Comparison Worksheet! Print it out, get your favorite pen, and grab those acceptance letters!

1.  Does this school offer the major or program you are interested in?

It’s easy to be swept up in the promises of big dorms, above-average dining options, or a beautiful campus, but none of that will do you a bit of good if you’re stuck somewhere that doesn’t offer the major you’re interested in.  It’s time to do a bit more research.  Remove the colleges that don’t offer what you’re looking for.  Here’s the important part:  evaluate the colleges that are left.  Are they known for that program?  Do they put resources towards it?  What internships are available?  How big is the department?  

You might find that some colleges have better programs than others.  Write down the colleges that offer your intended major, in order of their program offerings.  Don’t worry, this isn’t set in stone.  But it’s good to have a visual to refer back to.  

But wait.  What if you have no freaking clue what you want to major in?  What if you can’t make up your mind between criminal justice and environmental science and medieval studies?  What if your mind just comes up with a big fat blank when you try to think of a major?  Whatever you do, DON’T SKIP THIS STEP.  If you have a few different majors in mind, rank the schools by how many of those majors they offer.  You can experiment your first year, take a class or two in each subject, and decide from there.  What you don’t want to have happen is to fall in love with the school, find your best friend/soulmate, and then discover that the school doesn’t offer your major and you end up having to transfer (it’s totally okay to transfer, but if you don’t have to, it’s even better!)

For those of you who don’t know what you want to major in AT ALL, don’t fret.  I had no clue either.  I wanted to be a teacher.  Then I didn’t want to be one.  Then I did.  I hemmed and hawed and had no idea what I was supposed to do.  My solution?  Anthropology.  It gave me a great background for so many different fields, and if I did decide to go into education, it was the perfect compliment to that major.  

I’m not saying every single undecided major should go out and become an anthropology major.  In fact, don’t.  But I do recommend you find a school that offers a wide range of majors, especially liberal arts majors.  Like I said before, it’s totally fine to experiment with classes until you find what works.  So for now, look at your list of schools.  Which ones have a big selection of majors?  Highlight five or ten or fifteen that seem interesting to you.  I’m not saying to choose a major (that’s a whole other post!).  Rank the schools by how many majors they have that look interesting to you.  And then put that list aside, because there are other factors that may be more important to you!

2.  Where Do You Want to Be in 4 years?

Maybe you have your career path all planned out.  Maybe you don’t.  Either way, this is a question you need to ask yourself.  Do you plan on getting a Master’s or higher degree?  Are you going to enter the workforce right away?  Really think about where you want to be when you graduate.  Picture all your relatives coming up to you and asking about what you’re doing next.  What do you want your response to be?  (I mean, other than rolling your eyes because you’ve heard this question way too many times already)

Pretty much every college offers career services.  Research them.  See what they offer.  Are there internships that can lead to jobs in your field?  Great!  Put those colleges at the top of your list!  Is there a college on your list that’s in an area you want to live in after graduation?  Going to a school in the same city you want to stay in can give you a bit of a boost in finding a job after graduation.  Are there jobs in your field available near each school?  What are certain cities known for, in terms of jobs and education?  

While I was debating whether or not to be a teacher, I decided that I really didn’t want to go too far from home.  My only exceptions to that rule were colleges that were near where I had extended family.  I knew that ultimately I wanted to land back in Buffalo, and that helped me narrow down some of my choices.

3.  What are the costs associated with this school?

This is a big one, guys.  Sooner or later, you’ll have to sit down and figure out what you can and can’t afford.  Maybe you’ve already done this.  Maybe you’re like me – you applied to some schools knowing that you could only go there if you got a scholarship.  

I want you to write down the costs associated with each school you got into.  Room and Board and Tuition are the big ones.  Now look through those acceptance letters.  Where did you get scholarships?  How much are they for?  Subtract the cost of those scholarships from the total cost of attending.  I want you to rank the schools in order from cheapest to most expensive.  

You don’t have to go to the cheapest school.  I didn’t.  (I went to the second cheapest!).  But it’s always a good idea to get an understanding of what’s being offered to you.  I was offered a $24,000 scholarship from Drexel, $5000 from University of Buffalo, and $4000 from University at Albany.  When I did the math, even with the HUGE scholarship from Drexel, the cost was way over what I would be paying at either of the state schools.  So don’t get distracted by the numbers of the scholarships until you see how the math turns out!

4.  What does this school offer that others don’t?

Is there an amazing sports program that you’ve been accepted into?  Are you drawn to the campus in the big city?  Is a school’s small class size appealing to you?  These are all really really really important things to consider.  Forget about things like cost and majors for a minute.  Write down the one thing that makes this school stand out in your mind.  It can be anything!  For me, American University offered a beautiful green campus that I fell in love with.  UAlbany was the perfect distance away from home.  Boston University had amazing study abroad options.  

Have your list?  Now rank the schools in order of how much you love that one thing that makes them special.  Really think about this.  It’s time to come back to reality a bit.  Every school will have something that makes them special, but you really have to love what that thing is.  Who cares about a great sports program if you aren’t into sports?  Tons of study abroad options might be great, but if you can’t afford them, they aren’t a reason to pick a school.  On the flip side, if something makes you say, “This is really cool”, put that school at the top of your list.  Does the political science department offer internships with state assemblymen?  Does the education program offer student teaching placements sooner than other schools?  

5.  How does the school make you feel?

This is the one I think is most important.  If a school looks great on paper, but you show up on campus and think “This place is ugly and depressing and I hate it” – you aren’t going to last very long.  You don’t want to be miserable.  You want to love your school!

Have you gone on campus visits yet?  If you can, go again.  Go in the middle of March when everything is grey and snowy and muddy.  Get a feel for the campus on a day that’s not sunny and bright and perfect, because you’ll be living through both.  

Dorms are going to be an adjustment no matter what, but it’s time to evaluate what you like and don’t like about them.  I realized there was no way in hell that introverted little me could go live in a freshmen dorm that held more students than my entire town.  That just wasn’t going to end up well for me.  But hey – it might be great for you!

Some schools will just feel right when you step on campus.  (It’s like finding the right wedding dress, except with less squealing and a whole lot more expensive!).  Pay attention to that feeling.  Sometimes following your gut is the way to go.

Take some time to talk to students who aren’t tour guides.  Yeah, it can be a bit awkward, but it’s worth it.  Check out the library and dining halls – you’ll be spending a lot of time in both.  Sit down in the middle of a popular hang-out spot and just get a feel for the school.  

Now look at that stack of acceptance letters.  Rank those schools on how they made you feel.  


Ready for the final step?  Get out each of those ranking lists I had you fill out.  Look at the top ranked school on each list.  Is there a common one?  Does one stand out as your top choice?  Or are there ones that consistently ranked low?  Cross those out – they may be good schools, but if they aren’t going to offer what you’re looking for, it’s time to put them aside.

With any luck,
you’ve narrowed it down to two or three schools that really stand out.  These are the schools that make you feel good.  They offer what you are looking for.  The cost is something you can manage.  Great!  Now what?

It’s time to really get serious.  What is most important to you about a school?  Like I said before, how the school made me feel was most important to me.  I got a better scholarship at UB, but UAlbany’s campus felt right.  It also offered the right program – a really great anthropology department.  I was accepted into the Honors College, which meant I could live in special housing with other Honors students and get benefits like signing up for classes earlier than the rest of the school.  All of that combined made me decide that it was the school for me.


Hopefully by now you have your school picked out!  What was most important to you in deciding where to go?  Let me know what you think in the comments!

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