How to Choose a College: A Complete Guide

Choosing a college is part science: making sure they have the academic major or extracurricular activities of your choice in the location you like and with the opportunities you seek.

But, choosing the “right” school for you is also very much an art. I often see students who search the Internet and find a place that, by all counts, seems to be the perfect fit only to find that they just aren’t really jazzed by it once they get to campus. Similarly, a student will visit a place about which they were lukewarm in their initial research only to fall in love with it once they visit. You will spend a great deal of time at this place and with these people, so make sure you like it!

Three students sitting at a table, with a laptop and notebooks on the table.

How to Choose a College

Ethnic cuisines and the importance of keeping an open mind

Do you like Nepalese food? Guyanese? Turkish? You’ve never tried it? You’re willing to go on faith that you might like it if you had the opportunity to try it? Hold that thought.

I think it’s kind of funny that we ask 16 and 17-year-olds what kind of characteristics they want when they choose a college when they’ve had, at best, limited exposure or experience with many of these variables to be able to respond in any kind of educated way.

“So, Sam, do you want to go to a big school or a small school?” Even kids who go to exceptionally large high schools cannot fathom what campus of 20,000 or more might feel like. Sitting in an introductory biology course with 400 students or engaging in an upper-level recitation class with only a small handful of other students can both be wildly intimidating experiences. But how could your high school junior predict this? They may say they want to be far from home, but on the 4th hour of an 8-hour drive, it hits them exactly how far, “far” really is. They’re likely never to really know any of this, until they’ve tried it, much like Nepalese cuisine.

Students should experience what they like and what they don’t—first hand.

I’ve worked with no shortage of students who really believe they want a particular characteristic in a school, only to change their minds once they’ve experienced it.

With this in mind, the best college search might just have no real, definitive beginning. You won’t announce that today is the day you will begin to define their future. Instead, you’ll tacitly pop onto a college campus on the way to your grandparent’s house simply because you’re nearby. If you enjoy soccer, why not take in a game as a way to get a flavor of a given campus. Take advantage of concerts or art exhibits in your hometown and as you travel. You will learn about what you like and what you don’t. For some, this very exercise may well excite you about college and motivate you to work hard.

So, like Mikey from the 1970’s Life Cereal commercials, “try it, you may like it!”

How to choose a college: Other ways to help determine if the shoe fits

So you want to be an English Major (you could easily replace that with the major of your choice). According to College Raptor, there are more than 300 four-year colleges with a large English program, so how to choose a college? After isolating your geographic region of choice, size, and selectivity, you may still find the list is longer than you can manage. You can now look at some nitty-gritty to help you determine which places are best suited for you.

It’s here that you will want to begin looking at the personality of the college. Is the campus very conservative and you consider yourself pretty liberal? Is the percentage of students belonging to fraternities and sororities a number that excites you or scares you?

Look at the website

Comb through the school’s website. But, also remember that the world of college admissions is a business. They carefully craft the message that you read is an important element in that business. It’s important to look beyond that finely honed admissions message by looking at some “unofficial” information like the college newspaper. This will give you a real look into life on a given campus, good, bad, and ugly.

Remember to carefully evaluate all of the information you get and consider its source. Remember too that no place is perfect. Don’t be afraid to look for a school’s shortcomings to ensure that you can live with them.

Talk to current students

I always ask current students at a college, “If you could change one thing about this school, what would you change?” If they tell you it’s the quality of the ground beef, that’s one thing. But, if they tell you that they can’t get into the classes they need, won’t graduate on time, or find it difficult gaining access to their professors, you might feel differently.

How NOT to Choose a College


      • Ask current students about the shortcomings of the college. Every school will have strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you can live with the worst weaknesses at any college you’re considering.
      • Don’t jump at the first big-name college you can find. Consider how important a college’s prestige might actually be in relation to other factors that are also important.
      • Rankings can help you compare colleges, but be careful not to let them make your decision for you.
      • Use statistics like retention rate and graduation rate to determine if students generally stay at the college and ultimately graduate.
      • Don’t wait to reach out to a college if you’re interested. Not only can you get more information from campus staff, but demonstrating interest may actually affect your admissions chances.

Did you know that only about 10% of Fortune 500 CEO’s received undergraduate degrees from Ivy League schools? Did you know that the Ivy League was nothing more than a college of football teams at its inception? U.S. President Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College (IL) and President Chester Arthur graduated from Union College (NY). Famous Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas attended Modesto Junior College (CA) and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau went to Yale. Late-night talk show host Jay Leno attended Emerson College (MA).

The point I’m trying to make is that the name on your college diploma is not what defines your lifetime success. In fact, in his book, Harvard Schmarvard, Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews refers to a study that succinctly makes this very point. The study examined two groups of college-educated workers. The first group graduated from an Ivy League university while the other group was accepted to an Ivy League school but opted to attend a non-Ivy alternative.

The study determined that the first group did NOT make more in lifetime earnings than did their non-Ivy League graduate counterparts. The hypothesis is that it is the characteristics of the person who was accepted to these colleges that determines their success and not the name of the school on the diploma.


High school students and often the high schools themselves prize the prestige associated with admission to highly selective colleges and universities.

In one high school, students announced the schools to which they’d been accepted in homeroom, and the volume of the applause was directly correlated to the perceived prestige of the college.

Think about how demoralizing this is for the student who is going to a less selective college or a learning disabled student who has worked his/her tail off to gain admission to college, regardless of the reputation of the school.

Consider other colleges

While elite colleges may offer a lot in terms of their programs, rigor or opportunity, they certainly aren’t the only colleges that can offer students a world-class education and a whole host of on- and off-campus opportunities. It is important that you make decisions for the right reasons, and perceived prestige is NOT the only thing that matters.

There is a very brief moment when you can relish the joy that comes from being able to tell your family and friends that you were offered admission to a highly selective college. After that, however, what really matters is your personal happiness. Don’t pursue the most selective colleges just for the name or the prestige that you think will come from attendance.

You will spend an awful lot of time and money at this place, make sure you will like it and benefit from it.

Use college rankings—but carefully!

College Raptor publishes its own College Rankings based on a host of factors including academic achievement, retention rates, graduation rate and more. While these factors can serve as a sort of proxy for education quality, rankings can ultimately only tell you so much about an institution.

How do you interpret rankings?

What makes one college better than another? Is UCLA (the University of California at Los Angeles) better than UNC (University of North Carolina)? Is Colgate University any better or worse than Rice University? College Raptor is obviously not the only place to find rankings of colleges. This in and of itself—that many different sources may provide different rankings—is a telling consideration. Each site or publication likely uses its own combination of factors, with different weights placed on each one, to come up with their own rankings.

Rankings can certainly be valuable in understanding how colleges and universities stack up against each other. But, even metrics that seem straightforward—like ACT/SAT scores—may not be quite as telling as they seem.

SAT and ACT test scores

According to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (, over 815 colleges and universities do not use the SAT I or ACT to admit substantial numbers of applicants, and that number is growing. While we’d like to think it’s because of their altruistic concern to holistically admit the best student body, there could be another reason. SAT/ACT scores are one factor in almost all rankings, so it stands to reason that schools will want to report the highest average scores to improve their rankings.

This is, perhaps, one reason that colleges will super score or choose your highest Critical Reading from one test date and Math from another. Consider the effect of making test score submissions optional in the admission process. Those with solid scores will likely submit them. Those who think their scores won’t help their cause will likely choose to leave them out of consideration. The overall effect on an institution’s average standardized test scores, then, is a likely increase which in turn may help their ranking.

Clemson University landed in the middle of a media frenzy in June 2009, when an institutional researcher presented a session at a professional conference indicating the myriad ways in which the university was attempting to raise its ranking into the top 20. Needless to say, the university denied many of the allegations leaked by one of their own but were not able to articulately refute all of the unethical charges of manipulation against them.

Class size

Class size is another interesting proxy for quality. Smaller class sizes clearly give students more opportunity for interaction with the professor and their fellow students. But, this factor, too, can be manipulated. Clemson (and to be sure, they’re not alone) allegedly manipulated class size by increasing the size of classes already over 50 students. Clemson also manipulated the number with fewer than 20 students to more closely align to standards. Another school is rumored to decrease their class size for the semester in which data is collected and then to increase it again for the alternate term.

Clemson faces further accusations for requiring administrators to rate all other schools as below average and working hard to increase the number of alumni who give even $5 so that their alumni giving rate will increase and hence help their overall rankings.

Look beyond rankings

Rankings are not evil because they can be manipulated. Rankings do a disservice to brand-conscious teens who are giving credence to schools based on someone else’s priorities. A school may employ multiple Nobel prize winners, but that’s not enough. You want to make sure they actually teach classes for undergrads. Otherwise, the simple fact that they receive a paycheck from a given institution means little to you. College counselors work tirelessly to find colleges that are a good academic and interpersonal “fit” for students. Yet, the rankings put disproportionate wait on reputation, something so subjective, it defies precise definition. How to choose a college that’s right for you should not be based solely on rankings.

Fit is also important

In reality, colleges have different strengths for different student populations. Some schools have produced a disproportionate number of authors, others engineers, and still others, artists or actors. The best school is one that gives you the forum to stretch your comfort zone intellectually and socially. It will challenge your thoughts and introduce you to new ways of thinking. It will prepare you to make your mark on the world. To make this determination does not mean to put like colleges on a level playing field. Instead, it means to look at them individually and to look at the quality of the output and the resources they put into getting you there.

Everyone has different needs

We cannot all use a similar ranking system because we do not have a similar set of priorities. For some students, a politically active environment is key. Others may want a Holocaust teaching and research center while still another may want Division III intercollegiate water polo. I’ve had many students who place a high priority on the “feel” and “warmth” of a campus. Others want the spirited environment of a large sports powerhouse. Your priorities are not right or wrong. Your challenge is to know what you want (or some of it, anyway), and to proudly pursue it. Be proud of who you are and what you have the potential to become. Find the place that you believe will best let you do this and enjoy it.

Meaningful Ways to Evaluate Colleges

Numbers tell stories

College admissions professionals are often adept at showing you the human and personal side of a school, no matter how big or small. They can give you an example after example of the personal interaction between student and professor that leads to research opportunities, internships, mentoring or friendships. Schools want you to know that you are part of a community–not just a number–and that is extremely important.

Numbers, however, do have a place in the college selection process because they can reveal information that tells a story about the school.

Not all numbers, however, are created equal.

Some numbers aren’t really all that important. The number of volumes housed in the library used to be a bragging point. But, thanks to the Internet and intra-library loan, this number is not significant in determining the quality of the education offered by a college. Some numbers are nice but not vital.

Still, other numbers can be deceiving. For example, many prospective students will often ask for the student-to-teacher ratio. While this number may make the environment sound intimate and personal, it simply gives you the number of students per faculty member.

Does that include teachers on sabbatical or those who do not teach lower-level coursework? You want to know how many people will be in class with you, so the average class size is a much more meaningful number.

There are still other numbers that will give you a very clear picture of what a school does well (or not), and I highly recommend that you seek out these numbers. The two big numbers that I always ask are retention rate and graduation rate.

Retention rate

The retention rate is the number of first-year students who come back for their second year. This number will never be 100%. Students and families may encounter circumstances (personal, financial, academic) that prevent them from continuing. However, a high retention rate is the sign of a school that does its job well and whose students are happy.

In 2007, the average retention rate for all four-year colleges and universities was 75% according to the NCES. If you visit a college whose retention rate is in the 80th or 90th percentile, it’s likely that these students are very happy with their decision to enroll and are likely to persist in the next year. This statistic alone should certainly not be the sole factor in making a decision. But, it is an excellent measure to include in your decision-making process.

Graduation rate

The graduation rate is the other variable that is important for you, the good consumer, to know. We tend to care a lot about who a school lets in. However, we should really care as much, if not more, about who gets out. Schools are required to report graduation rates to the federal government as a six-year graduation rate; that is, the number of students who graduate within six years. Nationally, the average is 56%.

If I were to invest my time and money in getting a college degree, I think I would want a place with better odds. But, bear in mind, that no place will be 100%. SUNY Binghamton, for example, has a retention rate of 90% and a 6-year graduation rate of 78%. Both significantly above the national average. The University of Connecticut has a 93% retention rate and a 76% graduation rate. The University of Southern Mississippi has a 72% retention rate and a 43% graduation rate. These schools may have factors that influence their retention and graduation rates (like the affluence of their student body). But, the stats do tell you something.

Where can you find these statistics? College Raptor provides College Rankings that include all of these statistics, plus a host of others.

See: Rankings by Retention Rate, Rankings by 4-Year Graduation Rate, Rankings by 6-Year Graduation Rate

Judging schools: Look beneath the surface

Society often prizes delivering life in bite-size morsels. Social media updates are all fractions of thoughts that give us a sense of a greater thought. High school students often try to categorize prospective colleges into these same info-bits: nerdy, preppy, middle of nowhere, small, etc. While it has been said that stereotypes are often rooted in the truth, they can be short-sighted. It can leave us seeing only half of a story – not a great way to choose a college.

Let’s take the University of Maryland, a large state school with over 25,000 undergraduates on their flagship (main) campus. Sound like a daunting number, so you cross it off your list? Well, U of Md certainly isn’t right for everyone. But, before you toss it by the wayside, consider this: beyond the introductory level, class size is very manageable. The school’s various honors programs subdivide the larger student population into smaller, cohesive communities. Dorms and clubs further dissect the originally amorphous sounding number into manageable groups. Many big schools will tout the fact that they have the resources of a big school with the feel of a small school. U of Maryland has gone to great lengths to ensure that you feel like much more than just a number.

Similarly, schools that have a student body barely larger than your high school will have some of the same advantages and opportunities as a larger university. Don’t judge the proverbial book by its cover; instead, read the pages within.

Don’t lurk: Using the internet in your college search

Thanks to the electronic superhighway, you could actually conduct an entire college search from the confines of your home. College websites, virtual campus tours, school-sponsored blogs and chats, and online college newspapers allow you to collect a tremendous amount of information without a school ever knowing who you are or that you exist. But, simply lurking on the internet can be the wrong approach when it comes time to make your decision.

Often influenced by college rankings, colleges seek to fill their first-year class by being as competitive or selective as possible. This is their “admit rate”, which they want to be as low as possible. However, they want the number of students who choose to enroll to be as high as possible. That is their “yield rate”. Statistically speaking, these colleges know that your odds of enrolling are better if you have shown some demonstrated interest in them. Register as a prospective student on the school’s website and visit the campus.

Many schools will keep track of these meaningful interactions. They take this into account when determining how sincere your interest in them really is. At schools that need ways to delineate between similar students, your demonstrated interest could potentially push you into the acceptance pool.

So, bottom line, do your homework using all of the tools available to you (including the internet). But, don’t just lurk. Let schools know you exist and that you’re interested in them!

The story told by the campus newspaper

When you visit colleges, you hear messages carefully crafted by college admissions offices intended to appeal to visitors. Tour guides, often the cream of the school’s crop, are instructed to be honest. But, they’re often the students who are genuinely happy with their school and adept at expressing their enthusiasm.

So, how to choose a college and get the real view of what goes on at a school? No college is perfect. In a visit that often only lasts a few hours, it can be hard to get the whole picture. You’re going to spend a lot of time and money at whatever school you choose. It’s important to get all of the information you can.

The campus newspaper can provide a great window into the real-life on campus…the good, the bad and the ugly. Campus newspapers are (largely) uncensored by the administration. Some examples of how the campus newspaper can give you the real scoop:

One college, trying hard to shake its image as a party school, sported a large article in the student newspaper entitled, “Best Places to Buy Booze Part 2”. Did it take two parts? What might that say about life on campus?

Another newspaper gave front-page space to the debate on gay marriage, calling The National Organization for Marriage one of the only organizations in existence that “is still fighting for discrimination in the 21st century”. This points to a politically active campus open to the idea of gay marriage.

Yet another newspaper had a large article on a series of break-ins and burglaries, while students at an urban campus worked to make the campus bicycle-friendly. You can also find out how tight budgets are affecting how schools do business.

You can’t just read a negative or controversial article and eliminate a school from consideration. Every school will have its issues and controversies. Keep these in mind and keep them in perspective. Are these issues important to you? Do they even matter? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps you should continue to follow them. But, whatever the case may be, they are a source of information and with more information, you become a better consumer.

How to choose a college – a good college – takes time, research, and patience. Try College Raptor’s FREE college match and find out how to choose a college that’s right for you!

One thought on “How to Choose a College: A Complete Guide”

  1. Alex Dean says:

    The time has come for me to go back to college, and I need help trying to decide where to go. Any advice would be considered helpful. I like how you pointed out is something that I will want to look at is the retention rate, because that will help me understand whether this is a school people want to come back to or not. That is something that will be very helpful, because why would I want to choose a school that most students don’t go back to after their first year? Thanks for all of your help!

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