10 Tips For Deciding Where To Apply To College

Written by James Mielke
Published on January 1, 2023 · Updated on May 20, 2023

10 Tips For Deciding Where To Apply To College

Written by James Mielke
Published on January 1, 2023 · Updated on May 20, 2023

There are nearly 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States. As a result, deciding on which colleges to apply to can feel like a pretty daunting task. While there is no hard science to guide prospective students in their college search, there are some valuable tips to help them navigate this process.

We spotlight some critical information that students can use to create their list of potential colleges on the following page. We underscore personal priorities like campus culture and location while covering measurable elements like admissions requirements and tuition rates. 

Keep reading for some practical tips that can help you create a focused list of potential colleges.

1. Check Admission Requirements

Admission requirements are a suitable place to start when checking out which colleges to apply to. Before you apply, consider each school’s requirements. Most schools publish a freshman class profile—this page lays out information, including admission rates, average GPA, standardized test scores, and study body breakdown by demographics.

Additionally, many schools will set admissions benchmarks for GPA and standardized test scores. That said, just because you might fall short on these metrics, it doesn’t mean that you won’t get in. Many programs review applications holistically, considering academic performance alongside personal essays, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities.

2. Research Each Schools’ Academics

When deciding on potential schools, academics should weigh heavily in your decision. Sure, extracurricular activities can help shape your experience, but you’re going to college to get a degree. Some schools focus heavily on math and science, while others emphasize humanities and social sciences. Begin your college search by locating programs that mirror your academic interests.

If you’re unsure about an academic path, consider choosing schools that offer a variety of majors so you can explore different disciplines. Once you’ve experienced various classes, you’ll have a clearer idea of what major to pursue.

3. Estimage Cost and Financial Aid

College is a serious financial investment, and some schools cost far more than others. Many private institutions are prohibitively expensive, so unless you’re willing to take on $200,000 in debt, these schools might not be for you. Taking a practical approach to tuition obligations can help you decide what colleges to apply to.

That said, financial aid options do exist. Many students take out loans to cover tuition and offset their financial burden through scholarships, grants, and work-study programs. Additionally, many students take advantage of a community college’s relatively low tuition rates to complete general education coursework. In-state tuition is often far less expensive than private or out-of-state rates.

Related: 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Choosing My College

4. Location

The location of prospective schools often plays a significant role in determining where you apply. Some students may want to study close to home, while others want to spread their wings and experience a new place. Additionally, elements like climate, city vs. rural, and access to transportation should be considered. If you hate the cold, Minnesota might be a risky choice. If you want access to ample outdoor recreation options with wide-open spaces, a college in Los Angeles might not be the best option.

5. Campus Life

From Christian-affiliated schools to large, football-centric universities, each school has its own unique campus culture. When deciding what schools to apply to, do some research to ensure that the school offers campus activities that meet your needs. Student organizations, clubs, and on-campus activities play a large part in your college experience. If you have questions, reach out to the school’s student life center—they’ll provide you with an extensive list of on-campus activities.

6. Narrow Your List

Once you’ve compiled a list of potential schools, the next step is to winnow down your list. At this point, you probably have a handle on the school characteristics that make a college a good personal fit. From here, it’s worth researching elements like financial aid, student organizations, and housing. Additionally, a great way to narrow your list of potential schools is to make an in-person college visit. 

With most everything in life, quality is preferable to quantity. Crafting a thoughtful list of potential colleges allows you the opportunity to submit quality applications that highlight your unique skills and personality. 

7. College Visits

Visiting a campus gives you a first-hand look at a college and can help give you a sense if the school is right for you. When planning campus visits, make sure to leave yourself enough time to explore each school thoroughly. During your time on campus, take advantage of the opportunities you’ll have to chat with students, instructors, and the school’s admissions staff.

When planning your visits, note that you may need to schedule meetings in advance. Some schools even arrange an overnight stay in a dorm. Do all you can to get a real sense of each school you visit.

Also, when you’re visiting schools, be prepared with some questions for students, tour guides, and admissions staff:

  • Why should I go to this college?
  • What are some challenges when transitioning from high school to college?
  • What’s it like to live on campus?
  • What are your favorite things to do off-campus?
  • Why did you choose this school?
  • If you could change one thing about this school…?
  • How do students spend their free time?

8. Sort Your List of Schools

Once you’ve narrowed your list and visited potential schools, it’s time to organize prospective colleges and universities. It is often helpful to organize schools into three categories: safety schools, good matches, and dream schools. While you’ll want to include a couple of safety schools and colleges where admission might be a stretch, make sure to have a handful of schools that you feel are a good match.

9. Join Current Student and Alumni Groups

All across Facebook and Instagram are active online communities for current students and alumni. These groups provide a welcoming environment where potential students can ask questions and receive answers from experienced individuals. Additionally, as many of these groups focus on specific academic and extracurricular activities, you can get a lot of first-hand knowledge from current students and graduates that share similar interests.

10. Keep An Open Mind

While it is important to have a list of preferences when searching for potential colleges, it’s equally important to keep an open not. Not only does the “perfect school” not exist, but taking a practical approach that’s underscored by reasonable expectations can help you create a focused list of potential schools. Collect the necessary information, have conversations, ask questions, and allow yourself the chance to learn about schools previously off your radar.

College Application FAQs

  • How Do I Know What School is Right For Me?
    • Selecting what colleges to apply to can be stressful, but it just takes a bit of work. Begin your college search early, do some intensive research, and reach out to admissions advisors with any questions you may have. 
      Also, campus visits allow you to get a feel for a school. On your visit, consider an admissions interview, talk to students and professors, and take a tour. After your visit, you should have a pretty good idea if a college is right for you.
  • Who Can Help Me Decide Which Colleges to Apply to?
    • You have ample resources, and you do not need to go through the college admissions process alone. School counselors, trusted teachers, parents, and college-age friends can all help you through this process. Additionally, college admissions counselors are dedicated to making the application and admissions process as painless as possible. When in doubt, ask for help.
  • Does the Perfect School Exist?
    • There’s no such thing as a perfect school. When compiling a list of potential schools, a pros and cons list can help determine which schools come out on top. Setting your sights on one particular school can have some demoralizing effects if you don’t gain admission. That said, if you take a measured approach and carefully submit applications, you can expect to receive some positive admissions letters.