Finding Colleges That Fit

Selecting colleges is a critical piece of the college planning process.

How not to select colleges. I’ve seen students who have built their college lists in a poor or even random fashion. Often they were unhappy with their subsequent college experience. Sometimes they ended up with an unplanned transfer that cost time and money or they dropped out of college.

Don’t select colleges:

  • So you or your parents can brag about the college.
  • Because someone else, not you, likes the college.
  • Without reflecting on what you want in a college and knowing how the college meets that criteria.
  • Because someone else went there or is going there.
  • Because of ranking.

Identifying college criteria. Consider why you want to go to college and what makes a college right for you. If you go to a residential college, the college will not just be your education; it will also be your home and social life. Identify academic, social, and financial criteria by reflecting on what you need and want.

Separate your college criteria into must-have and nice-to-have categories. If you have too many must-have criteria, there may not be any colleges that match all of them. Talk with your parents or guardians about how much money they have to help you with college costs so you can identify realistic financial criteria.

As you identify college criteria, avoid these common traps.

Don’t:

  • Get hung up on published college rankings. You are building the best college ranking: a ranking that is based on criteria that are important to you!
  • Eliminate small colleges for the wrong reasons. So many students say their college must be bigger than their high school without thinking this decision through. If a student goes to a large high school, this decision might eliminate a large percentage of colleges. For example, almost 62% of U.S, colleges have under 2500 students.
  • Limit the distance the college is from home because you think that will save you money. Other parts of the country have excellent colleges that may be less expensive than the colleges in your region even with the additional travel costs. Consider how often you will be going home or your family will be visiting you each year when making this decision.
  • Focus too much on a major. Be aware that many students in the U.S. are undecided about their major when they start college or change their minds about their major after they start college.
  • Leave financial concerns until after you have selected colleges. If finances are important, need-based and/or merit aid should be integral to the college selection, not something you worry about after you have made your college list. Most aid comes from the government or the colleges. If you have financial needs, select colleges that meet as close to 100% of your need as possible. Most colleges don’t meet 100% of your need leaving you with a financial gap that is hard to fill. If you are seeking merit aid, select colleges that give merit aid, typically these are colleges where you will be in the top quarter of their incoming class.
  • Eliminate a college because the list price is high. The important price is the price college will cost your family after grants and scholarships. You can get an idea of how much need-based aid you might receive by using each college’s Net Price Calculator. Sometimes the Net Price Calculator also estimates merit aid.
  • Stop addressing your learning differences when you go to college. If you have been receiving accommodations during high school for learning differences and/or ADHD, this is not the time to go it alone. Research and visit with the disability services personnel at the college.
  • Stop addressing your mental health needs when you go to college. If you have mental health needs, learn about and meet the campus mental health professionals before college starts. Be sure to make arrangements to continue meeting with your current mental health professional or establish a relationship with a private, off-campus mental health professional in case the campus services are inadequate (e.g., a limited number of sessions per semester, too long a wait for appointments).

Finding colleges that meet your criteria. Once you know what you are looking for in a college, search for colleges that meet most or all of your must-have criteria and have many of your nice-to-have criteria. Many search engines can help identify colleges based on common criteria (e.g., size, location, majors available) including NCES College Navigator, College Board’s Big Future, and Naviance. More unusual criteria will often require the use of additional resources.

Researching colleges. Once you have identified colleges that meet most of your needs and wants, do in-depth research on:

  • Chance of admission
  • Academics (e.g., general education requirements, class sizes, tutoring availability)
  • Likely majors (e.g., number of professors for the major, number of students in the major, required courses for the major, areas of research)
  • Career services and what happens to graduates (e.g., jobs, graduate school)
  • Dining and housing
  • Clubs and activities
  • Social life
  • Surrounding community.

Take notes about what you learned, what you like and dislike about the college, and questions you have. 

You can find college information from websites and social media, college brochures, college newspapers, current students and alumni, college fairs, virtual college visits, independent college guides and books. Familiarize yourself with a variety of sources to gain an objective and broad understanding of the data and choices facing you. One of the best ways to learn more about a college is to experience it firsthand through an in-person campus visit, preferably when college is in session.

Visiting colleges. Plan your college visit. During that visit, learn as much as possible by:

  • Attending an info session
  • Taking a tour
  • Sitting in on a class
  • Looking at bulletin boards
  • Eating in the cafeteria
  • Reading the school newspaper
  • Talking to students
  • Staying overnight (if available)
  • Having an interview (if available)
  • Having your parents talk with the financial aid office
  • Talking with a professor or chairperson of the department you would like to major in
  • Walking or driving around the surrounding neighborhood.

Building the list of schools you will apply to. Based on your college research and visits make a prioritized list of colleges you would be happy to attend from the first choice to the last choice.  Select six to eight schools.  No more than a third should have a low probability of acceptance.  Include at least one college with a high probability of acceptance and at least one with a high probability of acceptance that your family can afford without aid.  In some cases, you may want to apply to between four (e.g., if your four top choices are all high probability of acceptance) and ten colleges (e.g., if you want to apply to more low probability of acceptance schools or if you are shopping for the best financial aid package).


If you follow this process, it is likely that you will be happy with your college experience and will meet your college goals.

The Big Decision

The time for the “big decision” for high school seniors is quickly approaching. For those who have been accepted to more than one college, it will soon be time to make the final choice.

Now is a good time to visit or re-visit the campuses and surrounding areas of the colleges you are considering. It is time to ask and get answers to any final questions. Here are some things to consider:

  •  Academics – Review the core curriculum courses and the required and available courses in likely majors and minors. Consider class size; opportunities for internships, research, a senior project, and travel abroad; accessibility to professors, and support in finding a job and/or graduate school when you finish your undergraduate studies.
  • Social – Consider school environment (e.g., location, size, weather, distance from home), as well as your social, political, extra-curricular and religious needs.
  • Financial – Know how much tuition, room and board, books, travel, and miscellaneous expenses will cost. Make sure you understand your financial aid package, including how much you will need to pay back each month on loans and how long it will take you to pay back those loans.

What other tips would you give high school seniors faced with the big decision?

How Will I Afford College?

Parents worry about how much college will cost and how they will afford college. Other than purchasing a home, college is usually the largest investment a family will make. Hopefully, families have been saving for college from the time their children were small. But with four years of college costing as much as a quarter of a million dollars, family savings are typically not enough.

A common misconception that parents have is that their financial salvation will come in the form of private scholarships. Private scholarships make up only 6% of all scholarships.   

The biggest source of aid is through the colleges. Families can save thousands of dollars by selecting the right colleges. Some parents might jump to the wrong conclusion when reading this. They might think that this means their child needs to attend a college with a low sticker price. Colleges, however, are like airplanes. Different people are paying different amounts for the same service. Surprisingly, private colleges may be less expensive than a public in-state college. 

Students need to select colleges that fit them financially, as well as academically and socially. The junior year of high school is a great time to begin the college selection process. If you are a rising senior, and haven’t considered the following financial questions, try to address them now. 

On the financial side, you need to know:

  1. How much money has been saved for college?
  2. How much need-based aid do you qualify for?
  3. Which colleges meet a high percent of need?
  4. Which colleges meet the need primarily with grants, instead of loans and work/study?
  5. How much merit aid do you qualify for?
  6. How many years will it take to graduate? (Students will want to check the 4-year, 5-year and 6-year graduation rates at the colleges they are considering.) 
  7. How much money is the most the student should borrow?
  8. How much money is the most the parents should borrow?

Some families, without the money to pay the college sticker price, ignore these issues and stick their heads in the sand. I don’t recommend that since the family may run out of money before college is completed or the student/family may be saddled with incredible debt for years to come.

Other families invest significant time to research these issues. Some families hire an independent college admissions professional like me, who understands these issues and the available resources, saving the family money and preventing the family from taking on too much debt.
 
What has your experience been?  What questions do you have?