How To Narrow Down Your College List: Ask Yourself These Questions

Narrowing down your list of colleges can be challenging at the very least. There are thousands of top-notch colleges across the United States. Many of them offer you the exact combination of academics of extracurricular activities that you are looking for. You wish you could attend them all, but of course, that’s just not possible. So how do you narrow down and get those colleges on your shortlist down to a more manageable number?

students visit colleges

Flickr user Social_Stratification

The best way to narrow down that way-too-long list is by digging deeper into each college on your list. Don’t just skim through the college website. Instead, spend time looking for those many little and large things that will make a difference. In addition to academic programs, there are several other factors that go into creating the whole college experience. There’s the campus culture, location and size of the campus, distance from home and of course the cost of attending. The cost of attending any college includes more than just the tuition fees. You also need to factor in the cost of accommodation, food, text books, and other expenses.

Asking yourself a few questions will help you eliminate a few schools from your list and narrow it down to only a few colleges that are a good fit for you. Remember, just because a college has a good reputation, doesn’t make it a good fit for you. Everyone has their own skills, talents, aptitude, and goals. A good college for you is one that offers what you are looking for.

Questions To Narrow College Search

1. What do I want to major in?

Goes without saying, this should be you’re the very first question you ask yourself while you narrow down your list.

If you already have an idea of what you want to major in, start your search by shortlisting only those colleges that offer the major you’re interested in.

There are a couple of things you should keep in mind when listing colleges that offer your preferred major:

  • List the colleges in order of their reputation in the field you’re interested in. Some colleges may be ranked highly but may not have a strong program in the major you want to study. That is an important factor to consider.
  • Take a look at the other programs that each college offers. Many students change their major during their first year or even their second year. If you do change your mind, you want to make sure you have an acceptable alternative.

What happens if you’re still undecided about your career goals or what to major in? In this case, make sure the colleges on your list offer programs in a couple of different fields that you’re at least a little bit interested in. This way, you’ll still have some acceptable program options to choose from when you do make that decision.

Some colleges offer exploratory programs, which may be worth looking into. Add these to your list if you are still undecided about your major.

2. Can I afford the COA?

COA stands for Cost Of Attendance. This refers to the total college costs of attending the school and takes into consideration all possible expenses. This includes tuition fees, board and meals, textbooks, and additional program fees. It also factors in the cost of transportation, parking, and all other miscellaneous expenses. Keep in mind that this is not the final amount that you will have to pay to attend that college. What you will pay is the net price, which is the COA minus any scholarships and grants you may be eligible for.

You may not be able to determine the final figure yet. The exact amount of scholarships or grants you are awarded will vary from one college to another. However, the COA will give you an estimate of how much you may have to borrow to attend that particular college. Is it worth it? That depends on the program you choose. If your major is one that pays well, it may be worth the larger loan amount as you will be able to pay it back after you graduate. On the other hand, if you know that starting salaries are low in your chosen field, you may want to shortlist colleges with a lower cost of attendance.

3. Does the college offer the extracurricular activities I am looking for?

College is more than just academics. The extracurricular activities matter too. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys athletics, you want to make sure that the school you choose has a strong athletic program (or have these unique sports available). The same applies if you enjoy music, dance, debating, or any other activity.

When you narrow down your shortlist, eliminate all of those colleges that don’t have a strong extracurricular program in your area of interest.

4. What kind of campus do I prefer?

A college located in a rural setting offers a completely different experience from one that is located in a big city. Studying in a rural college means more opportunities to participate in outdoor activities. Think trekking, mountain biking, or just cycling around and exploring the area.

Studying in a city school will be completely different. The cost of living is likely to be more expensive. On the other hand, it is easier to find internship opportunities and you will find many more off-campus social activities that you can participate in.

Think about how you would like to spend your free time and eliminate those colleges that do not allow you to indulge in your favorite off-school activities. You will be spending the next few years of your life there, so the college fit and campus setting is an important factor.

5. What campus size works better for me?

Some students love the hustle and bustle of a large school with large class sizes. They enjoy the relative anonymity of sitting in a classroom with a high student-teacher ratio.

Other students may do better in a smaller school with a lower student-teacher ratio. It matters to them that the teacher knows them by name and that they are recognized within that small and usually tight-knit community.

Consider what the right size college is for you and as much as possible, only shortlist colleges that meet those metrics. If you thrive within a smaller community, you would feel lost and lonely as one among thousands of students milling around campus. On the other hand, if you are looking for anonymity, a smaller sized community may feel stifling.

Figuring out how to narrow down your college list may seem overwhelming at first. Especially as you’re likely to be starting off from a very long list. But as you keep asking yourself questions about your choices, you will start to make progress. The best advice you can get is to start early. This will give you the time you need to dig deeper into each school and avoid getting overwhelmed.

Use College Raptor to discover personalized college matches, cost estimates, acceptance odds, and potential financial aid for schools around the US—for FREE!

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