With over 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education, it is no wonder deciding where you will apply to college is a dizzying proposition. Too many college choices is as daunting as having a shortage of college choices. So where should a high school student begin?

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With over 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education, it is no wonder deciding where you will apply to college is a dizzying proposition. Too many college choices is as daunting as having a shortage of college choices. So where should a high school student begin? The first step to finding “the perfect fit” is to write down your priorities and expectations for your college experience. Begin determining your priorities using the list below. Then, craft additional priorities based on your personal circumstances. After recording your thoughts, use our search tips to begin finding colleges meeting your expectations.

1. Cost of Attendance

Cost of attendance includes tuition, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, and a myriad of personal expenses. In most cases, tuition accounts for the lion’s share of the cost of attendance. But don’t underestimate your personal expenses because they add up quickly. Examples of personal expenses include a car, food, and tutoring costs. Create a budget identifying the cost of attendance for each college you are considering applying to. Many colleges provide these estimates for students. Search “name of college” + “average cost of attendance” and you will find most of the work has been done for you.

2. Undergraduate and Graduate Programs

Some universities are well-known for their stellar programs in specific disciplines. If you search “top engineering schools”, a ranking of the top engineering schools in the nation will appear. You can repeat this search for virtually any other discipline and there will be a list available. If you have decided your college major, conduct a search, “top” + “your major” + “schools”, and you will find colleges and universities excelling in your discipline. Also, consider a backup plan if you decide to change majors or you fail to make the grade. Investigate if the college or university offers several different majors you may be interested in.

3. School Size

There are advantages and disadvantages associated with attending a large or small school. In a larger school you may take an exam along with hundreds of other students. This can be intimidating and make you feel like a “number”. However, a small school may offer too much familiarity amongst the student body given its limited size. If you’re waffling about school size, speak with college students about their choices. What size school did they attend and how did it affect their experience? Are they pleased with their choices or are they considering transferring to a different school? Also, when you tour a campus, reach out to students and ask them about why they decided to attend this particular school. Discuss the pros and cons of how its size influenced their experience.

4. Student to Faculty Ratio

The student to faculty ratio of a school is calculated by dividing the number of students attending the school by the number of teachers teaching at the school. Usually, schools with a lower ratio have smaller class sizes and students are able to interact with faculty more frequently. If this is a priority and appeals to you, search “best student to faculty ratio colleges” to determine schools with the lowest number of students for each member of the faculty.

5. Research Opportunities

Most students are either hot or cold when it comes to considering research opportunities. There are many advantages to participating in research, such as increasing your knowledge base of your major, becoming published based on your findings, earning spending money if it is paid research, and creating networking possibilities for future opportunities. Additionally, if you are considering graduate studies, research may provide a gateway for graduate school. These pros definitely make the topic of research worth your consideration.

6. Location Location Location

Tuition and location often vie for the number one priority position when considering where you will attend college. Initially, attending a college far from home may be appealing, however, it has distinct disadvantages. Two of the biggest disadvantages of attending college far from home are time and money (see #1 above) because transportation to and from home must be fed by time and money. If you are seriously considering submitting an application to a school, consult a map of the United States and calculate the distance between your home and the school. Then, decide what forms of transportation you will use to bridge the gap. Often, schools have carpooling boards and bus transportation to/from nearby airports. Take the time to explore all of your possibilities.

7. Tutoring Availability

The academic leap from high school to college is a lot like walking through the park and then sprinting a marathon. Many students must alter their reading and study skills to adapt to the rigorous demands of college academics. This realization can be stressful. Remember, it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to be self-aware and realize when you may need additional instruction for a particular class or classes. Many schools offer free tutoring sessions, however, to be prudent, include tutoring costs in your college budget. If you find you don’t need additional help, well then, looks like it’s pizza night!

8. Study Abroad Opportunities

Throughout the past decade, the number of study abroad programs available to college students has significantly increased. Due to their popularity, most colleges offer a variety of study abroad programs ranging from an entire year overseas, possibly more, to a spring break adventure. If you enjoy traveling (no, some people don’t), decide if this is of interest to you. Just because other students are traveling abroad does not mean it is the best choice for you. Consider what you will be sacrificing in exchange for traveling overseas. Carefully examine your financial obligations and determine if the decision to study abroad will extend your time in college. Extended enrollment has a price. If a student spends two additional years in college and finances $10,000 per year, there is a $230 increase in their monthly student loan payment (computed with 6.8% interest with 10 year repayment). Use FinAid’s Loan Payment Calculator to estimate your potential student loan payments. Balance these potential drawbacks with the plethora of advantages study abroad programs provide. If it’s your cup of tea, studying abroad would be an awe-inspiring experience.

9. Job Placement Services

Right now the idea of job placement services may seem as far away as a constellation. But just like the sunrise, graduation is inevitable for most students and thus the birth of a career. Unfortunately, the economy is not always a willing participant and now more than ever students are struggling to find jobs after graduation. This is where long term planning can save the day. When you visit college campuses, inquire about their job placement services for your particular major. Ask how they assist students in finding summer internships, co-op programs, and full-time employment. When you don your graduation cap, your investigation will pay off, because you will be prepared to begin your career as you always dreamed you would.

10. Dormitory Conditions

Some may scoff at the mention of dormitory conditions but it is an important point. After all, you will be living there for at least your freshman year until you can find off-campus housing. This is where college visits really serve a great purpose. You can’t smell a dorm room online, but you can definitely smell a dorm room on a campus tour. You may find you wish you had passed on that part of the tour.


This is definitely not an exhaustive list of priorities. It is merely the beginning. Tailoring your own list of priorities for what you expect from your college experience is an excellent investment of your time and will ensure that the final decision of where you attend college is based on sound logic and thorough examination. Make sure your college application list includes at least two safety schools. If you are unsure of what “safety school” means, see our Free Resources section for a complete explanation. For additional resources about choosing a college, visit College Pencilpedia, and for more great tips with a step-by-step approach for determining your priorities and college choice, purchase “The Ultimate College Application Guide” on Amazon today.

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