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  • Writer's pictureTrudy Horsting

Nine Things to Think About When Deciding Where to Apply to College

The dream for many students is knowing what school they want to attend, knowing they’ll get in, and applying only to that university. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.

The college application process can be complex, confusing, stressful, and often-times anxiety-inducing. It’s difficult to assess the hundreds of schools available to you and decide where you would be a good fit with little outside guidance. It’s also difficult to assess where you might get in.

This article is not intended to encourage applying only to one school (check out this post for insight into how many schools you should apply to). But it is meant to encourage thinking carefully about each application you send out, and whether or not the school you’re applying to would be a good fit.

Things to Think About

There are many things to think about when choosing schools to apply to, and ultimately, which school to attend. Here are just a few of the variables to consider, not necessarily in order of importance.

Part of the difficulty of applying to schools and navigating all of the advice out there on the internet is that every student’s order of importance will be different. This is something that prospective students should consider carefully. Evaluate the factors below on their own, but then evaluate which of the factors are of the highest importance for you. Give them your own ranking. This, as much as the individual factors on their own, will help you make your decision.

You may not (in fact you’ll likely not) find a university that has everything you’re looking for. But, if you find a school that has your most important things, it may be the best option for you.

1. Majors

If you already know what major you want, exploring schools by majors is a great option. What majors are schools known for? How do the courses for the major you’re interested in vary by school and which courses sound the most interesting to you?

Not every school has every major. Some schools may have unique majors. For instance, you may be interested in a writing major. Some schools may only offer an English degree. Some may have writing programs, and some may provide specialized offerings such as a technical writing major. Do your research and examine your available options carefully.

For more insight on how to decide your major, check out this post.

2. Minors

Some schools offer a plethora of minor options. Some don’t offer many at all. Are minors important to you? Which schools offer the minors (or similar minors) to those you’re interested in?

3. Size

Size of the school you attend is going to make a large difference in your experience. It affects the student/teacher ratio, class size, and ability to have personalized attention. But it also affects the culture of the school.

Small liberal arts colleges are known for having very different atmospheres than large universities. Large universities are often known for large sporting events, school spirit, a plethora of majors, and huge campuses. Small liberal arts schools provide a more intimate environment, and have their own distinct culture.

If you don’t know what size school would be best for you, try to visit at least one of each type. Although no two small liberal arts schools or large universities will look the same, visiting at least one of each should give you a good idea of their differences.

4. Public or Private

Private schools will likely be more expensive than public schools, but do offer unique resources and a unique environment. Look at each school carefully to see what exactly the benefits are, and whether or not these benefits outweigh the costs.

5. Location

Location can also drastically change your college experience. Firstly, do you want an online or in-person program?

If you want to attend in person, how far away is the school from your home? To other family members? To close friends? How difficult is it to travel to your friends and family if they’re far away? Can you drive? Do you have to fly? If you fly, how long is the flight? Are there nonstop options or do you have to include a layover?

Also think about the atmosphere of the location. Is it in an urban, rural, or suburban setting? If rural, how rural? How far away is the nearest city? If it is in an urban location, how urban is it? Is it something like New York City or Los Angeles or something a little smaller like Richmond, Virginia?

If you are interested in completing an internship or working part time while in school, are there industries nearby that you would be interested in working with?

Are there other things you like to do in the area? Are there ways you can still be involved in your hobbies? Maybe you love broadway and want to be somewhere where you can watch broadway shows. Maybe you love sports and want to be near a major stadium. These things shouldn’t necessarily be your deciding factor, but it is a variable to consider. As always, consider its importance for you personally.

Location will affect your cost of living and overall experience while in school.

6. Cost

Cost is undeniably an important factor. Be sure to consider not just the cost of tuition, but the cost of room and board and the cost of living in the general area. Also examine what scholarship, fellowship, or teaching assistantship opportunities may be available at the school.

7. Reputation and Academic Rigor

Reputation is not everything but it is something. Does the school you’re interested in have a good reputation? Is it ranked well academically? Is it ranked well for the specific major you’re interested in?

Also, do your stats match the school? What are your chances of getting in? Near guaranteed? Near impossible?

8. School Environment

School environment is something that is a bit more difficult to determine. But, it is something that will undoubtedly affect your college experience. Try to talk to current students/graduates to see what a school is like. If possible, visit the school and stay overnight with a current student. If you can’t visit in person, you can still communicate online. Ask the hard questions.

Is it a collaborative or competitive environment? Are students all work and no play or all play and no work? Are most students stressed and overwhelmed most of the time or do most students have good mental health?

9. Extracurriculars

You shouldn’t decide where to go to school based solely on the extracurriculars they offer. But, it is important that there is something nearby to do in your free time that you enjoy. No one can just do school all the time, even if school is your main goal and main priority.

If there are no extracurricular activities or community activities which match your hobbies and interests, the school may not be the best choice for you.

Some other things to think about but which are less critical, are school spirit/community, concentration, certificate options, and study abroad opportunities.

What’s Most Important?

There are a million variables to examine when deciding on a university. Remember to consider your own personal list of priorities. Which variables are most important to you? What will impact your own college experience the most?

This list of priorities may change the deeper you get into the research process. Be flexible with yourself, think carefully, and don’t be afraid to talk to others who have gone through this process before.


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