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How to Choose a College: 7 Key Factors to Consider

The month of March marks the start of a new season. March Madness takes over the sports world, the weather starts to get warmer, and thousands of students receive their college admissions decisions.

If you’re one of these students, congratulations! Your hard work has finally paid off.

As a college student, you’ll have the opportunity to make new friends, develop new interests, and learn important skills that you’ll use to make your mark on the world.

Your anxieties about choosing the right college will soon be replaced by the novelty of searching for roommates, maneuvering the hundreds of courses that your campus offers, and readying your answers to the time-tested questions: “Where are you from?” “What’s your major?” and “What do you want to be?”

Still, choosing a college can be stressful because it feels like one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make as a young person.

After all, “How to Choose a College” is certainly not a course taught in high school. What factors should you consider when making a college decision?

Below, I’ll draw on my 15+ years of experience advising students on college admissions to help you choose the college that’s right for you.

Rank Your Priorities

Choosing a college is a multifactorial decision. Here are the main factors you’ll want to consider:

  • The majors/programs offered
  • Enrollment size
  • Program strength
  • Prestige
  • Location
  • Cost

Next, you’ll need to decide which of these factors is most important to you. For example, some students strongly prefer a more intimate learning environment with classroom-based discussions instead of lectures. These students will likely rank enrollment size high on the list.

Carefully rank these factors based on your personal preferences and evaluate each of your schools accordingly.

Go On a Campus Tour

Chances are, you haven’t visited every single school you applied to. With your acceptance letters in hand, you should attend “admitted students” events to get a better sense of whether you could see yourself attending school there.

These events are designed to give you a sneak preview of student life at the university. If you can’t attend in person, consider doing a virtual tour to help you make your decision.

As you’re taking it all in, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What would your day-to-day life look like as a student on this campus?
  • What were the attitudes of other students? Did they seem happy?
  • What were the biggest strengths of this school? How important are these factors to you?
  • What were the biggest weaknesses of this school? How important are these factors to you?
  • In four years, what types of experiences will accompany your degree and graduation?

Enrollment Size

Different students learn best in different learning environments. For example, you may study well listening to music with lyrics, but might have difficulty focusing when the room gets a bit chilly.

Similarly, class sizes can have meaningful effects on student learning. UCLA’s Moore Hall, the lecture hall home to core science series such as organic chemistry, seats 442 students. Compare that with Harvard, where more than 1,000 of the 1,300+ courses offered enrolled 20 or fewer students.

Consider your high school’s class sizes and your performance in school. Did you thrive in a smaller learning environment? (If so, a liberal arts school could be a great fit.) If you’re in a class with several hundred students and don’t understand a concept, will you be resourceful and confident enough to seek out the answers on your own?

Program Strength

Entertain this scenario for a moment: you’ve earned acceptance letters from Princeton University and Johns Hopkins University.

If your sole aim is to attend the best-ranked and most prestigious school, Princeton (currently the #1 ranked college in the country) would likely be your choice.

But what if your goal is to get into medical school? With 80% of its premeds getting into medical school (compared to the 40% national acceptance rate), JHU might actually be able to compete with Princeton.

Evaluating the school overall is important, but understanding the strength of your major’s program is critical. When evaluating your major/department, consider the following:

  • What professional resources are available to students here?
  • What do most students who graduate from this program end up doing?
  • How do the curriculum and its structure align with your personal interests?
  • Does the curriculum allow for flexibility to accommodate your own values?
  • Explore the work that the faculty in your department is doing. Is that the type of work that you’re interested in?


Ranking colleges is not a strict science. A quick Google search will reveal a number of different news outlets, each with their own unique rankings.

The U.S. News & World Report College Rankings are the most prominent in the education community. But be aware that their methodology favors private schools due to their high faculty to student ratios and large endowments.

While prestige isn’t everything, a name-brand diploma certainly has its benefits. Employers will likely have a more favorable impression of your skills from the outset and, therefore, more job opportunities may be available to you.

However, choosing a college based on prestige alone will not ensure that your experience is a positive one. While prestige may be able to open doors to opportunities, both your hard and soft skills will become more important as you “climb up the ladder.”


Four years can be a long time, especially if you’re miserable. The environment in which your college is located will have a significant impact on your academic success, personal development, and overall happiness.

For instance, maybe you didn’t mind the snow on your family’s holiday trip to Boston. But will you be able to tolerate it for four years as a student at BU?

Consider the following when it comes to location:

  • How important is a warm, sunny climate to you? Can you handle the cold and other difficult weather conditions?
  • Does city-living appeal to you, or do you want to escape into a more serene, rural area to develop yourself personally and professionally?

No matter what college you decide to attend, know that you will have to adapt to a new environment. Selecting a school that’s located somewhere you want to be is important.


Unless you’ve won a full-ride scholarship, you’ll have to pay for your college education. Despite increasing attention given to student loan debt in the media, college tuition remains at an all-time high.

In the past, it’s been easy for students to rationalize that their education would provide a well-paying job that could quickly pay off their loans. The familiar advice to “not worry about student loans” is becoming increasingly dangerous, however.

While there are many reasons tuition continues to rise, it’s clear that stagnating wages can’t keep up. This doesn’t mean that you should attend the school with the lowest price tag, but make sure you understand exactly how much you’ll owe upon graduation and how you plan to repay your student loan debt.

A simple, but important caveat: Schools that report the highest tuition sticker prices also offer the most grant money (i.e., money you don’t have to pay back) through financial aid.

Therefore, make decisions based on how much you will pay out-of-pocket to attend the program. In addition, don’t dismiss schools because, at first glance, you think you can’t afford it. Instead, ask yourself how you can afford it.

Your College Success Depends on Your Attitude

Figuring out how to choose a college is no easy task. There’s no crystal ball that can predict how you’ll fare once you set foot on campus. While the factors covered here are a great place to start, you’ll likely have your own additional considerations to add to the list.

Just remember: Your success in college will depend on your own motivation and attitude. By making an informed decision about where to attend, you can approach your first year of college with confidence.

Want to learn how to get into your dream college? Check out Dr. Shemmassian’s free book on getting into America’s elite colleges.

Image Credits: ivy-covered college building