There are a lot of factors to consider and questions to ask when choosing a college.
When picking a college, you’d be wise to focus on factors such as location, academics and cost to find the right school for you. That way, when National College Decision Day rolls around on May 1, you’ll have your mind made up about where you want to enroll.
Common factors to consider when picking a school
Finding a school that’s a good fit for you and your needs can feel overwhelming. There are a lot of details to consider as you enter a new phase of life. Here are a few common factors future students weigh when considering where to go to college.
- Location: Where you go to school matters, as it can impact how much you pay in school expenses such as tuition and room and board. Out-of-state students typically pay much higher prices than in-state students.
- Financial aid: Money is typically one of the biggest determining factors when someone chooses where to go to school. Submitting your FAFSA as early as possible can help you secure more financial aid when it comes to affording college.
- School reputation: A college’s reputation, particularly when it comes to the area of study you want to pursue, can make or break many students’ decisions as to which school to attend. Attending a school with a stellar reputation in the community, for instance, can help those students secure internships and future jobs.
- Academic programs: Enrolling in a strong academic program can help you gain vital experience during your college studies and even make important connections for jobs and internships.
- Size of campus: Starting college can be a jarring experience for a lot of new students. While some may prefer larger campuses where they have the opportunity to meet lots of new people, others may prefer smaller, tight-knit colleges.
- Size of classes: The size of your classes while you’re at college can determine how comfortable you are while learning. If your learning style is more personable, then it may be wise to steer clear of schools with large class sizes.
- Sports programs: If you plan to be a student athlete while in college, you’ll want to find a school that not only fits your academic goals but also has a sports program that feels right.
- Religion: If you are religious, you may be interested in a school that lines up with your values. Researching a school’s religious views can help you decide whether it is a good fit for you.
10 insightful questions to ask yourself when choosing a college
If you’re deciding where to go to college, asking these important questions about college life, academics and affordability can help you make the right choice for your future.
1. Do the academic offerings match my goals?
2. How do I feel about the location?
3. What’s my cost of attendance?
4. What can I do outside of class?
5. What are the facilities like?
6. Do students like it there?
7. What are the housing options?
8. What are classes like?
9. Is the sports program a good fit for me?
10. Does it feel like a good fit
Plus: Additional questions to ask yourself
Plus: Try to get all your questions answered before choosing a college
First and foremost, you’re heading to college to further your education and earn your degree, so you’ll obviously want to learn about the academics of a college before deciding to enroll.
Find out what majors the school offers, along with the reputation of its departments and professors. If you already have a major in mind, check out the classes the college offers to ensure the curriculum piques your interest.
“The college you choose will have an impact on your life longer than just the time you attend it, so this is one of the most important questions to think about,” says Lindsey Conger, a college counselor at Moon Prep. “It’s OK if you don’t have a major figured out quite yet, but check to see if the school does offer the area you are interested in studying.”
You might also consider class size, as some colleges skew toward large, lecture-style classes, while others offer small seminars and lots of face time with professors. So think about your learning style and which approach would best help you advance academically.
Location can make or break your college experience, so get clear on what you’re looking for. Do you want an urban environment with lots to do? Or do you prefer a close-knit, campus feel in a suburban or rural setting?
Costs can also vary by location — for instance, going to school in the middle of New York City could cost a lot more than a suburban campus — so factor this in when deciding which location would be best for you.
Visiting campuses is a great way to gauge the location, as you can see firsthand what it would be like to live and go to each school. There are ways you can make college visits affordable, and you might even get to stay overnight in a dorm room to get a real feel for the experience.
For most students, it’s crucial to estimate the cost of attendance before choosing a college. With tuition higher than ever, you’ll probably regret committing to a school if it has a sky-high price tag.
“Make sure it is financially feasible for you to attend this school,” advises Conger. “While there are options like loans, scholarships and grants, really take a few days to think about what the monetary impact will be on you.”
Check out the college’s financial aid website to learn about its total costs. At the same time, study your financial aid award letter to understand what you’re being offered. Remember, financial aid letters often include student loans as part of your “award,” but of course, loans must be repaid.
“If you will have to take out loans, make sure you aren’t taking out too much in loans,” advises Sabrina Manville, co-founder of Edmit, a company that helps families prepare financially for college. “As a benchmark, many experts suggest estimating the salary you’ll make in your first year and comparing it to your total loan amount for all four years. The total loan amount should be less than or equal to that first-year salary.”
Make sure you understand all the terms and conditions before borrowing student loans, especially if you also take out private student loans, so you don’t take on more debt than you can handle. You might also consider working a part-time job during college to cover living costs and reduce the amount you have to borrow.
Beyond academics, check out what the school has to offer in the way of clubs, teams and other extracurriculars. Are there sports teams you can join, community service activities you can participate in or an a cappella group if you like to sing?
“Students should ask what is there to do on the weekend, and does everyone tend to stay put in the residence halls,” suggests Adam Smith, former director of undergraduate admissions at Husson University in Maine. “Some schools may be known as a ‘suitcase’ campus where everyone packs their bags and leaves due to their proximity to home and/or work. This can often cause students left in the residence halls to feel homesick and question their decision to attend.”
Outside of clubs, teams and events, find out if your school offers opportunities for internships or on-campus jobs. And if you want to spend a semester or two in another country, learn more about its study abroad offerings.
If you’re living on campus, you could be spending up to four years living in a college dorm and eating in your school’s cafeteria. So make sure to tour the campus and view all the facilities (or at the very minimum, check out the pictures online) before committing to enrolling.
While you can’t expect a dorm room to be the most elegant living situation, you at least want to be comfortable where you are. And if you’re having trouble deciding between two schools, the quality of one’s dorms, cafeteria, gym, auditorium, labs or other facilities might just give one an edge and help you pick.
If you can, reach out to current students or alumni to ask about their experiences there. While different people might see things differently, students past and present can give you firsthand insights into the school’s academics or culture that you wouldn’t hear about otherwise.
Prepare some questions to ask when visiting a campus, as this is your opportunity to hear what the students have to say.
You might also look up data on retention rates to see how many students return year after year. If the school you’re looking at has a very low retention rate, that might raise a red flag about the quality of the education there.
Anna Ren, a college admissions consultant who runs Elite Advantage Prep, similarly suggests looking at the school’s graduation rate for insight into how it supports its students.
“It’s important to know if a school’s four-year graduation rate is low, as that may indicate that the school does not have as many resources in place to help students get to the finish line,” says Ren.
If you’re required or planning to live on campus, you’ll want to learn more about the dorms, the roommate process and the cost of room and board.
Your comfort level with your living situation can play a key role in your success and happiness at college, so it’s particularly important that you pay close attention to these details.
What are the dorms like and what kind of amenities do they have? Can you choose your roommate or are they randomly assigned? What are the personalities of the various dorms? Which ones are more social and which are more academic-focused?
These types of questions can help you to narrow down your preferred living arrangement while taking classes.
Since you’ll be spending a lot of time in class while you’re at college, you may want to gauge what taking classes will be like there.
Are the class sizes big or small? What are the professors within your major like and what is their teaching style? What will your workload be like?
Learning more about how classes are set up at your potential new school can help you decide whether you think you’ll be successful in those environments. In particular, you may want to ask yourself what your learning style is and whether you prefer large classes or small ones.
You’ll also want to find out what kind of office hours your potential future professors hold and how personable they are about helping their students. Like class size, your professors can make a big difference when it comes to your academics.
If you’re an athlete, a school’s sports program is going to weigh heavily into your decision about which college to go to.
You’ll want to ask yourself if the program aligns with your goals as a student athlete, whether you can work well with your potential future coach and if you feel you fit with the rest of your teammates.
Because being a student athlete will be demanding in terms of your time and energy, you may also want to ask about the balance between your commitment to your team and the commitment to your studies. How many hours a week are you expected to commit to your sport? Are there tutors available if you get behind in your classes?
And, finally, you’ll want to compare offers from the various schools you applied to. What scholarships are being offered?
Finally, don’t forget to check in with your gut about where you want to go to college. While all these considerations about location and the quality of the facilities can help you evaluate your options, it’s also important to trust your intuition.
“Making your college decision based on how you feel about a school is valid,” says Shannon Zottola, vice president and dean of enrollment management at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. “Do you feel excited about going there? Feel that you will be secure, that you will be OK on that campus? When it comes down to it, let go of all the checkboxes and give in to your emotion. If you trust your instinct, it generally will be the right fit.”
You have a good sense of what you’re drawn to and what you’re not, so don’t be afraid to let your internal compass guide the way.
The following are additional important questions you may want to consider when picking a college:
- What scholarships does this college offer?
- What is security like on campus and does the school have any safety issues?
- Are there jobs available on or near campus?
- Are fraternities and sororities on campus and are they a large part of the college’s culture?
- What are the graduation rates and what percentage of students graduate on time?
- Does the college have an honors program?
- How much debt do students typically graduate with?
- How much financial aid are students typically offered?
- Would I prefer the school to be located in an urban, suburban or rural setting?
- What is the size of the campus and what are the transportation options?
- Is the school public or private?
- What is the student-faculty ratio?
- Does the program I want to go into offer internships or connections for jobs?
Selecting a college is a big decision, and the answer isn’t always clear-cut. Make sure to get all your questions about college life answered so you can feel confident about your decision.
Of course, you can always transfer if the school you choose turns out not to be the right one for you. Hopefully, though, your answers to these questions above will lead you to the perfect school where you can earn your degree and avoid taking on a burdensome amount of student loans.