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10 Factors for Choosing the Right Colleges for You

Deciding where to apply can be a daunting task considering that the U.S. boasts more than 3,000 colleges. The key to finding a group of colleges that best match your preferences is to start early, identify the factors that are most important to you, cast a wide net, and continue to narrow down your choices based on additional information that you gather.

Below are 10 factors that will help you identify colleges that are right for you. Initially, try not to be too rigid in your preferences as they may change as you learn more about the colleges during the search process.

1. Geographic Location

Some students decide that they want to go to college in a different region of the country from where they grew up. Others want to stay near their hometown or within driving distance from mom and dad. A strict adherence to a specific location can severely limit your college choices. It can be a good idea to consider some colleges outside the location that you currently prefer. Once you start learning about the colleges, your preferences may change, so it is best to keep an open mind. You may also find other factors that will take on greater importance than geography, so you do not want to eliminate a college before you consider whether it has some of the other attributes you are seeking.

2. Enrollment

The undergraduate enrollment at a college can range from as few as 700 students to as many as 35,000 students. When determining what size school you wish to attend, consider a range of school sizes around what you believe is the ideal size. For example, if you think that you want to attend an intimate college of fewer than 1,000 students where you know nearly everyone in your class, then your initial pool should probably consist of colleges with up to 5,000 students. Yet, you should also consider a few colleges in the 5,000 to 15,000 student range. Even if you are considering a large university with more class offerings and resources, you still might want to visit a few smaller colleges to confirm your decision. Upon visiting colleges and learning more about them, you may discover that you actually prefer a larger or smaller college than you previously thought.

3. Campus Setting

Campus environment is another factor that is important for many students. On one side of the spectrum is a college like Dartmouth in a remote setting in New Hampshire, surrounded by forests and mountains on the bank of a river. On the other side of the spectrum, is New York University in the center of New York City with a campus indistinguishable from businesses and with many bustling streets weaving between college buildings and dorms. And somewhere in between those extremes are colleges in small towns and suburbs.  Visiting colleges is one of the best ways to help you decide upon the campus setting that you prefer.

4. Campus Safety

The best way to find out about campus safety and what a college does to ensure the safety and security of its students is to talk to current students or recent alumni. You may also want to inquire about the presence of campus security officers, dorm entrance security, the availability of transportation around campus, escort services at night, the presence of outdoor lighting and emergency phones, and the crime rates on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods.  Many of these statistics can be found on the college’s or town’s websites.

5. Public vs. Private

U.S. colleges are either privately or publicly funded. Since public colleges are supported and operated by individual states and partially funded by state tax dollars, they generally cost less than private colleges. Yet, attending a state college outside your home state will likely cost more than tuition at a public college in your home state. In addition, enrollments and class sizes at state schools tend to be higher than those at private institutions.

Private colleges, on the other hand, are funded by tuition, fees, private gifts, corporate contributions, and endowments. Typically, this means that private colleges are more expensive than public colleges, though private colleges tend to offer more scholarships and grants.  Still, additional expenses often mean you will need to fund more of your education with student loans. Enrollment and class sizes at private colleges tend to be smaller than those at public colleges.

6. Religious vs. Non-Denominational

Although most private and all public colleges are secular, some colleges are operated by a religious organization and require religious activities and courses. Other colleges may be associated with a particular religion, yet students of varying religions attend the college and practice their own religions. Secularity can be gaged by the number of lay (non-clergy) faculty and the percentage of students of other faiths attending the college.

7. Single-sex vs. Coed

The vast majority of U.S. colleges are coeducational. Although most women choose to attend coed colleges, there are eighty-two women's colleges in the U.S. Research shows that women who attend women's colleges have advantages that lead them to be more fulfilled and successful in life than their female counterparts at coed colleges. On the other hand, advocates of coed colleges argue that women's colleges isolate women from the "real world" and the intellectual and social diversity that men provide.

Aside from seminaries and rabbinical colleges, only a handful of men's colleges exist today: Hampden-Sydney, Morehouse, Wabash, Deep Springs, and St. John's University.

8. Academic Focus

A good way to assess the academic focus of a college is to consider the most popular majors and the percentages of students in those majors. A college where most of the students major in engineering obviously has a different strength and focus than a college where most of the students major in the arts or humanities. With that said, do not eliminate a college simply because your intended major is not one of the top three as long as you understand what the college's most popular subjects are.  Our College Profiles show the most popular majors at the top U.S. colleges.

9. Structured vs. Free Environment

Each college has its own curriculum and course requirements for each major. Some colleges have strict requirements that allow for few electives. Other colleges have few requirements and allow students the freedom to select courses and do not require a formal major. Students who feel they need more structure and guidance may favor a college with stricter requirements; conversely, students with a defined academic and career plan may favor a college that offers flexibility. Choose the environment that you feel most comfortable in.

10. Extracurricular Activities

Thinking about what you want to do outside of classes should also play a factor in your decision. For example, if you are a high school athlete who would like to play a varsity sport in college, you need to make a realistic evaluation of your chances of playing at the Division I, II or III level and choose colleges based on the competitiveness of the sports teams. If you are interested in participating in Greek life, make sure the colleges you are looking at have fraternity and sorority houses; or, if you want nothing to do with toga parties, then look for a school where Greek life is not prevalent. Do not downplay the importance of participating in extracurricular activities in college; getting involved on campus will lead to a more fulfilling collegiate experience and will be viewed positively when you look for your first job out of school.

Once you’ve selected an initial pool of colleges, Go4Ivy can calculate your percentage chances of admission for each of the colleges, so you can determine whether you have chosen a sufficient number of safety, likely/ballpark, and reach schools. If you have a disproportionate number of likely, reach or safety schools, you may consider redefining your pool of colleges so that you do not paint yourself into a corner later in the admission process.

To learn about making the most of campus visits, see Visiting Colleges.

To plan your application strategy, see Applying to Colleges.

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