Best Ways to Choose A College

Published by Wendy Nelson on

girls-on-computerThere are several best ways to choose a college depending on the student and family’s priorities, preferences and limitations.  I believe that it is best to look at “fit”, but there are several different types of “fit”.  Let’s explore each and some scenarios where each should come into play.

Financial Fit

To me, this is the most important type of “fit” for the student and family.  It is very dangerous for the student to choose a college that is not a financial fit for his or her family.  While this does not mean a student’s family needs to be able to afford the full sticker price of a school before the student applies, it does mean choosing schools to apply to wisely.

  • If you can afford the full sticker price per year out of pocket, the school is already a financial fit.
  • If you can’t afford the full sticker price, first use the school’s net price calculator to get an estimate of your family’s out-of-pocket cost.  If it looks like you will not be eligible for any need-based aid (other than loans) based on the net price calculator, you will have to look into merit-based aid to make the school a financial fit.
  • Explore merit scholarships offered by the school to see if there are some your student may be eligible for.
  • Talk to admissions counselors and/or the financial aid office to get more detailed information about the likelihood of need-based or merit-based aid.
  • Determine if loans are an option for your family, and if so, how much you are willing to borrow.

Academic Fit

In most cases, it makes sense for a student to choose a college that is a good academic fit.  By academic fit, I mean that your student will be appropriately challenged by the level of coursework and will not be bored by classes that seem too easy or overwhelmed by classes that seem too hard. In most cases, a student will experience a few hard classes where he or she struggles to keep up and also a few classes that are just too easy, but overall most classes will hopefully seem like a good fit.

There are a few things a student can look at to assess academic fit:

  • Mid-50% range of accepted student ACT or SAT scores – if your student is significantly above the mid-50% range, there is danger in always being the smartest student in the class.  If your student is significantly below the mid-50% range, there is danger of struggling with his or her coursework.  But don’t look at this number in a vacuum.  Try to find the next one below also.  Note: It’s even better if you can find mid-50% ranges specific to the major or division of the college that your student is interested in.
  • Mid-50% range of accepted student GPAs – The same goes for this one as for the ACT/SAT score ranges.
  • Honors Colleges/Programs – If you student is going to be on the high end for GPA and ACT/SAT score ranges compared to the norm, an honors college or honors program could make a difference and provide the challenge that he or she needs.  Check the college’s website to see if they have an honors program or honors college and to learn more about it.

I said above that in most cases, it makes sense for a student to look for a good academic fit.  Something that is a bit of an exception is looking for great merit scholarships.  Many colleges offer major merit scholarships up to and including full-ride scholarships to attract top students.  In these cases, the students that are awarded these major merit scholarships are often the smartest ones in the room.  If you are looking for top dollar merit scholarships to find a good financial fit, you may have the most luck with schools where your student’s GPA and/or ACT/SAT score is above the mid-50% range.  Also, in this case, an honors college or program will help your student to make such a school more of an academic fit as well.

Location Fit

Some students are willing to go anywhere for a school that meets the other “fit” criteria.  Other students know that certain situations would not be right for them.  Some questions your student should be able to answer to assess location fit:

  • How far from home seems “too far”?
  • How close to home is “too close”?
  • Does it matter if the school is in a small town in the middle of nowhere?
  • Would it be comfortable to be in the middle of a large city?
  • What would seem “too small”?
  • What would seem “too big”?

Social Fit

A “social fit” will be a little different for every student.  For example, a slogan associated with the University of Chicago is “Where fun goes to die.”  Some students will hear this and immediately say “not the place for me!”  Other students will not be scared by this and will be intrigued and want to look into the school further.

Some students will be okay with a very conservative, religious campus atmosphere.  Others would feel very stifled by that.  Some students will want a very liberal, leftist campus atmosphere.  Most students will want something in the middle.

Some students will be happy at a “party school”.  Others will want a completely dry campus.  Again, most students will want something in the middle.

Your student should try to get a feel for a perspective school’s level of social activity and gauge whether it is a good fit for him or her.  A great way to do this is to go on an overnight visit.  Your student will stay in a dorm on campus, meet students and attend some campus activities.  This should help him or her to get a feel for what campus life is like.  The most important thing for your student to do on an overnight visit is ask students a lot of questions!

Make sure your student knows if students tend to hang around on weekends or if a large percentage of students head back home on the weekends as this could make a big difference in the level of social activity.

Athletic Fit

This one doesn’t apply to all students.  It is most applicable to students looking to play competitive college athletics.

If your student is interested in playing at the highest level of competition and is appropriately skilled, there are college scholarships available at the D1, D2, and NAIA levels.  These may help you to find a school that’s a good financial fit as well.  However, athletic fit will be most important.  Ways to gauge athletic fit include:

  • Do the team’s current players seem to align with your student’s skill level?
  • Does the coaching philosophy seem like a good fit for your student?
  • Has the coach/program shown interest in your student?


For most students, more than one type of “fit” will come into play in order to choose a college.  I have tried to cover the major types of “fit” that should be considered when you are looking for best ways to choose a college along with things to think about for each.