How To Start Searching for Colleges
Finding the right school feels like a monumental task your whole future depends on. That kind of pressure can make it hard to know how to begin. Don't worry - you're in the right spot and getting started is easier than you think. Learn how to find the right schools (plural!) to help you meet your goals and craft your future. But first, take a second to appreciate the moment, because by the time you finish this sentence your journey to college will already be on a whole different level.
Make a List of Schools
Choosing a college starts with creating a list of all the schools you are considering. Continue adding colleges that catch your attention so you can conduct plenty of research.
Consider opting in to the ACT Educational Opportunity Service (EOS) when registering for the PreACT® or the ACT® test to let colleges find you. Explore schools you may not have heard of or ever considered that could be a perfect fit. You might just find your new dream school.
Learn how to make a list of colleges you want to explore.
Rank Your “Must Haves”
Every student has a different priority list for their college experience. Before you become too set on a specific school, outline your “must haves”. Make sure you are finding colleges that fit your list and aren’t just following others. Do you see yourself attending lots of student activities and living on campus or would you prefer to live at home and commute to campus? How about time with professors? Are you okay with larger class sizes or would you prefer to keep it smaller? Every student will prefer something different!
Plan College Visits
Part of finding the right school is to make college visits a part of your search! While on your college visit, attend a campus tour, drive around the local area to see what is nearby, meet with professors and current students, and explore the campus on your own. Does it feel like a good fit? You might be surprised how much your perception of the school changes once you are actually there.
Questions to ask on your visit:
- How safe is the campus and surrounding areas?
- Are the professors in your desired major experts in their field?
- Are they currently working on any exciting projects?
- What student support services are available?
- How competitive of an environment is it for students?
- What is the degree completion rate at their school?
Can’t go in person? Visit colleges virtually! With a few simple searches you can access plenty of resources to help you get familiar with what the campus has to offer.
How To Choose Colleges That Will Be the Right Fit for You
Don’t let the thought of finding the “perfect” school keep you from finding the “right” school. Great colleges exisit everywhere! That doesn't mean the choice isn't hard, it will be. All of the schools on your list are going to try to dazzle you one way or another, the thing to keep at the front of your mind is this: which of these schools meets my priority list while staying within my budget and feels right?
We’ll walk you through how to choose colleges that fit your interests by examining key factors to consider and comparing those to your priority list.
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8 Factors To Consider When Looking at Colleges
There are many factors to consider when deciding where to apply. A great college should meet your “must haves” and provide opportunities to grow into the person you want to become. Consider the following factors as you make this big decision.
1. Location of the School
One of the biggest factors to consider when looking at colleges is where the school is located. You may already have an idea of places you think would like to live. Maybe you’re looking to move close to a beach or to a city you’ve dreamed of living in. Consider how comfortable you’ll be in the location. Are you okay not being close to home? Are there any conveniences you’ll be giving up?
You should also consider the financial impact location has when looking for colleges. Think about out-of-state tuition, housing, parking, transportation costs including gas and car insurance, cost for getting home, or public transportation options. It’s easy to overlook some of the costs that you come with living in certain locations!
2. Available Majors/Programs of Study
Do you know what you want to major in? Review your college list to see which colleges have your desired major available. This can help you narrow down your list. Maybe you aren’t sure what you want to pursue yet. Consider reviewing colleges based on your interests. Take the ACT Interest Inventory to start exploring college majors and careers that are a good fit for you.
Another important factor to consider when looking for colleges is the school’s overall reputation. Look to see where graduates landed jobs and how much the average salary was both at a school level and in your desired major.
Remember a big name doesn’t mean it’s the right fit! Great education happens in many places. Some colleges are well known for certain programs but not for others. Research if the program is accredited to ensure the college meets a certain level of educational standards leaving you ready to start your career.
4. School Size
While on your journey to find the colleges that are a good fit for you, consider the school size. There are three main categories a school typically falls within.
Small – A small college typically has 5,000 or fewer students.
Medium – Medium-sized colleges are between 5,000 and 15,000 students.
Large – Large student bodies typically include 15,000+ students on campus.
There are pros and cons to each school size, so keep in mind what’s most important to you. Larger school sizes typically offer more student activities, people to meet, clubs to join, majors available, etc. However, you may be competing for time with professors, guidance from counselors, and leadership opportunities. A smaller campus on the other hand may not provide the student life some are looking for but could work great if you learn better in smaller classes.
5. Total Cost of Attendance
The total cost of attendance will play a big part in helping you decide what school to attend. Take into account tuition, room and board, meal plans, housing, travel costs, books, and more. But there is more to college costs than first meets the eye.
You can look to offset some college expenses through financial aid, scholarships, part-time jobs, or other means. One great tool to use is a Net Price Calculator. Every college that offers federal student aid is required to post a net price calculator on their website. These can give get a better idea of what the cost to attend their college looks like for you based on information you input.
Learn how to estimate college costs using our free worksheet.
6. Housing Options
Housing options vary from college to college. Consider each school’s housing policies. Some universities will require you to live in dorms and purchase meal plans, whiles others let you live off campus.
When on a campus tour, ask to see what the college dorms look like and what most students do for housing. Will the dorms be double rooms, co-ed, separated by major, air-conditioned, shared bathrooms, provide on-site laundry, have kitchens, etc.? Don’t assume that all dorms are the same!
If students can live off campus, try to speak with current students about how they find good places to live. Is it difficult to get to campus? Do you have to sign year-long contracts through the summer? What can you typically expect to pay in rent?
7. Campus Life
When picking colleges to apply to consider that school’s campus life. Think of campus life as your campus’s own community. Does your community host activities, value studying or academic achievements, have a good relationship with the surrounding town, provide Greek life, have extracurriculars, or have social or cultural clubs to join?
These are crucial so that you feel connected to others and your college. Having connections will help you avoid feeling isolated and can help you build your network for after school. The more comfortable you feel on campus the more likely you are to finish your degree! Plus you might just discover new passions to explore with others who share your same interests.
8. Available Resources
Review a list of resources available to students so you know the type of support easily accessible to you. Some common resources you should look for include medical care, mental health services, gyms or rec centers, a library, and tutoring. Some campuses will provide additional resources such as student money management centers, writing centers, and online subscriptions.
College is about more than just school! It’s a time to grow individually and prepare for the future. You will be living in a new environment and want additional resources to ensure you are happy and healthy throughout your time there.
Download Our eBook for More Planning Resources
There are many factors to consider when choosing colleges to apply to. Be realistic with yourself on what’s most important to you. Where will you feel most comfortable both physically and when considering the expenses? College research is all about finding the right college for YOU. Focus on what’s important to you and which schools can help you achieve your goals for college and your future career.
Found this helpful? Download the Planning for the Future eBook to learn more ways to start preparing for your future.
More Resources for College Planning
ACT provides comprehensive college planning resources to help you make informed decisions about your educational and professional path. Explore our planning for college resources to gain valuable insights on choosing a college, college majors and much more!