How to Choose a College

statue of woman thinkg about how to choose a college

Now that you have all of your college acceptances, how do you decide which college to attend? Easy, just go to your favorite college rankings and pick the one with the highest rank! Just kidding. Of course, if that’s the way you originally chose which colleges to apply to, there’s probably not much reason for you to change your approach now. But for those who think that college rankings might have a few issues or are concerned about paying for college, read on for some advice on how to choose a college.

Take a Trip Down Memory Lane

When you’re trying to decide between colleges, the first thing you should do is to review your requirements or priorities you used to decide which colleges to apply to. Are those same requirements still in play or have your priorities changed since last fall?

There’s nothing wrong with having different priorities than when you started the process. After all, just going through the admissions process by itself will expose you to new ideas and can cause you to change the way you think about college.

Then there is the possibilities of other significant changes in your life.  This could be anything from a loss of income to the discovery of a new passion and career direction.

In any case, you should take the time to review your priorities. Make a list of the factors that are important in a college. Then decide how important each factor is relative to other consideration. In other words, what are you willing to give up in order to have something.

Compare Financial Aid Awards

Comparison Tool: Since you have college acceptances to choose from, you should definitely have financial aid awards. Unless cost isn’t a concern, you should compare the awards very carefully. Since colleges don’t use a standard format, take advantage of comparison tools such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau comparison tool or the Illinois Student Assistance Commission comparison worksheet so that you compare apples to apples.

Merit Scholarships: For awards that include merit scholarships, pay close attention to the requirements for maintaining the scholarships. It’s a lot easier to keep a 3.0 average than a 3.5. Does the scholarship allow a grace period to get your GPA back up if it does fall below the requirement?

Work Study: Another area to dig into deeper before deciding on a college is work-study awards. Because of the way the Federal work-study system is set up, it can be much more difficult to find work-study jobs on some campus than others. Remember, the jobs and hours aren’t guaranteed. You need to check with each school on the application process for the actual jobs and how many students actually get them.

Other Considerations for Choosing a College

Theoretically, you should be able to decide between schools based on costs and your already established priorities. But maybe, you’re lucky and they all provide great financial aid while meeting your priorities. Or maybe, you didn’t really do much priority setting to begin with. If you’re looking for some other ways to rank your college choices, try some of the following.


Since Federal Loans are capped, take a look at the percentage of students that have private loans. Be sure to look at how many have PLUS loans taken out on their behalf. And while it’s not exactly debt, pay attention to the default rates. After all, if you’re going to take out student loans, you should expect to be able to repay them.

Graduation Rates

Similar colleges can sometimes have very different graduation rates. And when looking at graduation rates, make certain that you are looking at the four-year rates, not the more commonly reported six-year rates. If you choose a college with a significantly lower graduation rate, you need to take into consideration paying for an extra year of college and the loss of a year of working and making money.

Career Center Programs

Some colleges do a much better job than others at getting students prepared for a job. This isn’t just about posting internships and jobs and helping with resumes. You’ll find some colleges with programs that start developing work skills as freshman while others take a much more laissez faire approach. This can make a big difference in getting a job that will pay off student loans.

Changing Majors

The reality is that most students end up changing their major more than once. If you do, how hard is it to transfer from a business program to a communications program? What sort of prerequisites guard entry into various majors? Better yet, take a look at how many students who start out in your preferred major end up getting their degree in it. If the numbers are very different, you might want to ask why.

Curriculum Requirements

For those who graduate school is in their future, they should pay attention to the core curriculum requirements. One college may require a specific math class for all graduates while another only requires some generic quantitative class. Depending on your math abilities, your GPA could lower at the former school compared to the latter.

Alumni Organization

Alumni contacts can be critical to getting internships and jobs. However, the lack of a formal program doesn’t automatically mean you won’t get help from alumni. If this is a concern for you, you should pick up the phone and call the alumni center and talk to someone about what kind of help is available.

Course Schedules

It’s one thing to see the variety of courses listed in a college catalogue. Whether or not they show up on the course schedule is something else. Before you choose a college, go to the college’s course schedule and see how many classes are actually offered in your preferred departments. How big are the classes? Are most of them listed as being closed or open? And remember those prerequisites I mentioned earlier, make sure you take a look at their availability.

Meal Plans

This is basically about flexibility and making sure you won’t have to pay for meals you won’t eat. Some schools provide more alternatives in meal plans than others. For those with special dietary requirements, be sure to look at the posted menus for several weeks to see how much effort you’ll need to make to meet your requirements.

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