What Does Your Student “Need” In a College?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

College Campus ImageWhat does your student “need” in a college?  Now is the time to separate “wants” and “needs”.

This is the third article in the series that breaks down the Upside Down College Search concept I first introduced in “A Better Way to Search for Colleges: The Upside Down College Search“. We started by examining “What Can Your Family Afford for College?” Then we moved to “What’s Your Student’s Merit Hook?” Now it is time to examine what your student “needs” in a college. The more “needs” your student has, the smaller his or her list of potential colleges will be.

At this point in the Upside Down College Search process, you want the largest list of potential colleges possible.  Your student should only eliminate things that would be “deal breakers” for him or her. This will vary by student. Some potential areas to look at are:

  • Majors Offered
  • College Size
  • College Location
  • College Selectivity


Many students will look for colleges that offer specific majors. Of course it’s hard for 16-18 year olds to really know what they want to major in, but if there are subjects they are interested in, they should make sure to find schools that offer those subjects.


It is also hard for high school students to know what size of campus they will be comfortable with.  They often have preconceived notions about what a really large or really small campus would be like, but these are usually not based on personal experience.  Students just starting the college search process should visit campuses of different sizes, especially when school is in session, to get a feel for what they are like. If, after visiting, a student has a very strong feeling that he or she wouldn’t be comfortable at a really large school or a really small school, it may be best to avoid them.


There are many pieces to college location:

  • What region of the U.S.
  • How far from home
  • Urban, suburban, rural
  • Neighborhood
  • Campus separated from town or blended right into town

This is another area where the student really needs to visit different types of campuses early in the college search process in order to determine his or her preferences.  Certain schools will feel more like home for a student and this could have a lot to do with the location and feel of the campus.

In addition, there may be logistical reasons that would keep a student from traveling too far from home.  This could be based on how often the student wants to visit home and/or how affordable it will be to travel back and forth.


This can be a tough one to figure out.  Students at the top of their class often assume they should go to a very selective college.  I often ask, “Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?” If your student chooses a highly selective college, he or she will be in a community filled with students with high intellectual abilities.  There will be some students who are smarter.  This can be tough for a student who is used to being the smartest one in the room, but it can definitely be a good experience. If your student chooses a less selective school, he or she may stand out in classes.  This can be both good and bad.  Some students get very frustrated when they can tell that nobody else takes class as seriously as they do.

One option to consider is an Honors Program or Honors College within a less selective school. This can provide a dual experience as honors students have some classes with their honors peers and some with the general school population.

It would be hard to convince me that selectivity should ever be a deal breaker.  Smart students can get some of the best merit scholarship offers from less selective colleges.

Wants vs Needs

Finding a school that offers majors that a student is interested in is the biggest factor above that I would consider a need. In addition, there are some situations where a student would not feel comfortable based on school size or location. Then those factors become needs for that student.

The more flexible your student can be with college size, location and selectivity, the more opportunities for merit scholarships he or she will be able to find in the next step.  Next week, we will discuss that next step – What Deals Can You Get?