If you’re a high school junior or senior, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been inundated by emails, postcards, and perhaps even free “express” applications practically begging you to apply. Some of these schools you’ve heard of, and other you, well…haven’t. At any rate, the sheer volume of mail is pretty intense, if not downright overwhelming. And then there are the schools your guidance counselor recommended, and the ones you found in your Fiske guide, or maybe your copy of Colleges That Change Lives. How on earth do you sort through all the possibilities and winnow them down into a manageable list?

Well, before you do anything else, you need to figure out how much your family can pay.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of determining this piece of information upfront. You do not want to get accepted to your dream school, only to realize that it costs too much for you to attend.

Here are some questions to consider:

How much can your family afford for application fees? (If your family is lower-income, will you qualify for waivers?)

What is the absolute maximum your family can afford to pay?

If paying full tuition is possible but a stretch, what schools would your family would be willing to pay full freight for? What would you have to give up to attend a more expensive school?

What is the maximum you would be willing to take out in loans? (It’s probably safe to assume that you don’t want to graduate $100K in debt.)

Will you qualify for need-based, or will you need to aim for merit aid? If the latter, do you have a chance of qualifying for National Merit? A number of colleges offer automatic full-tuition scholarships to Finalists. (Note also that requiring significant need-based aid does not disqualify you from elite colleges, which have enormous financial aid budgets and may be cheaper to attend than your local state school.)

As you do begin to identify schools you are interested in, you should immediately run the net price calculator to see approximately how much they’ll cost. Again: do not skip this step!


Once you’ve figured out approximately what you can afford, here are some questions to keep in mind


1) Do you know what you want to study?

The way you go about identifying schools will inevitably be shaped by how certain (or uncertain) you are about what you want to study.

If you want to major in a field like psychology or chemistry or English, it’s pretty safe to assume that every school will offer those programs. If, on the other hand, you want to major in something a little more specialized, like environmental science or architecture or Japanese, you might find your options are somewhat more limited.

And if you want to apply to specialized programs in business, computer science, art, music, etc., you will need to focus on programs rather than universities as a whole.

Keep in mind that some of these programs can be phenomenally selective, with acceptance rates at or below Ivy level, even if the overall acceptance rate is much higher. Carnegie Mellon, for example, has a general acceptance rate around 24%, but the rates for computer science and drama are 7% and 3% respectively.

Also: do not assume that you can get into a College of Arts and Sciences and then transfer internally to a more exclusive program! If you really want a specialized degree such as a BFA (Bachelors of Fine Arts), a BBA (Bachelors of Business Administration), or a B.Sci (Bachelors of Science), you should plan to apply to schools at a range of selectivities.


2) Big school or small?

Do you want nothing more than to be one of tens of thousands of screaming fans in a university stadium? Or maybe your high school is huge and impersonal, and you want a smaller, more intimate college experience. Or perhaps something in the middle. Remember that no matter how large the college, it’s possible to find your niche – you just might have to put in a little more effort at a large school. But if you’re the sort of person who easily gets lost in the crowd, you might want to look at smaller institutions, or at least ones that provide a more structured freshman social experience.

Liberal arts colleges are smaller and generally have fewer course offerings but have smaller classes and more contact with professors. If that’s important to you, then you may want to focus on smaller liberal arts colleges, or on smaller universities known for their undergraduate focus.

Universities are larger and generally have a wider range of course offerings and research/extracurricular opportunities, but larger classes (at least at the introductory level) and less contact with professors.

Don’t forget that at most universities, many of your teachers will initially be graduate students. It doesn’t matter how many Nobel laureates a university can boast about if these professors don’t actually teach undergraduates. This is particularly important to take into account if you are planning on a STEM major: grad students in these fields are often not native English speakers, and you may find yourself faced with an organic chem TA you literally cannot understand. If you are not accustomed to advocating for yourself, you may find yourself in over your head.

You should also take into account how much flexibility you want in a curriculum. Are you intrigued by a system such as Columbia’s Core, which mandates that all Arts & Sciences students complete a specific set of classes in the arts and humanities? Or are you more attracted to a Brown-style open curriculum that does not even have distribution requirements? Knowing what appeals to you and why really comes in handy when you’re writing “why this college?” essays.


3) Are you a city person… or not?

What sort of college environment appeals to you most? Maybe you’ve always dreamed of going to college in a huge city like New York or Chicago. Or maybe you’re fine with a sleepy suburb, provided you can get off campus without too much trouble. Or maybe you love hiking and camping and want to be in a rural, outdoorsy university town.

Change can be good, as long as you know what you’re in for. Just don’t underestimate the potential for culture shock: if you’ve spent you whole life in a large city, you may feel trapped and isolated on a rural campus. Conversely, if you’re unaccustomed to being in an urban environment, a city might seem overwhelming.


4) How far away do you want (and can you afford) to go?

Have you ever spent a significant amount of time away from home? How do you feel about moving to a new area of the country? If you’ve always lived in the same place, maybe you’re looking for an adventure.

But keep in mind that travel is expensive: if you decide to go to school 3,000 miles away, you may not be able to come home for every holiday; if you get sick, you cannot go home for a few days to recuperate. If you live beyond driving distance, you will also need to deal with storing your belongings during the summer.

If you’re driven to go to college far away in order to avoid seeing your classmates from high school, remember: even if you do end up at the same State U. that 50 other people from your class are attending, it’s probably large enough that you won’t have to see them unless you make an effort to do so. And living near home doesn’t mean that you have to go home. Even if you’re only 10 miles away, you might be surprised by how far it feels.


5) Is housing available all four years?

If you’re planning to live on campus, find out how easy it is to get housing as an upperclassman; some schools don’t guarantee housing after the first or second year. And if you do intend to move off campus, check into rental prices. Finding affordable off-campus housing in an already-tight rental market can be a major challenge.


6) What is the freshman retention rate?

The national average for the number of freshmen returning for their sophomore year is 77%. A number above 90% suggests that students are largely happy both academically and socially at a school; a number below 70% suggests that a college is struggling to retain students, or that it is not screening applicants well for fit with the institution.


7) What are the 4-year and 6-year graduate rates?

The national average four-year graduation rate at public colleges and universities is a dismal 33%, and at private (nonprofit) colleges and universities 53%. At six years, those numbers rise only to 57% and 65% respectively.

A high level of disparity between 4- and 6-year rates indicates that students have difficulty signing up for courses in their major and are forced to remain in school until the required classes open up. If you’re worried that this might be the case for your prospective major, try to talk to some students in the department and/or the undergraduate advisor and get a sense of how easy (or difficult) it is to fulfill major requirements.

You can also check the transfer rate, as a general measure of student satisfaction.


A few caveats: first, remember that graduation rates typically depend on the strength of the incoming student body: an elite private university that admits a highly accomplished and socioeconomically advantaged student body will generally see those students graduate at a much higher rate than an institution that serves a large percentage of first-generation college students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a result, you should consider the graduation rate in context: for example, a college with 40% students receiving Pell Grants will probably have a lower 4-year graduation rate than one where 20% of the student body comes from the top 1%. If you have strong support at home, are well prepared academically, have access to good advising, and are on solid footing financially, there’s a good chance you’ll finish on time.

Second, if you are looking at an honors program within a large public university, it may have a significantly higher graduation rate than that for the university as a whole. You should ask for separate figures.

In addition, a few schools (e.g., Northeastern and Drexel) have well-known co-op programs that commonly require 5 years to complete. If this is the case, a low four-year graduation rate should not be viewed as sign of a problem.

The bottom line is that if you are going to be spending thousands of dollars, you need to know what the chances are that you’ll actually walk away with a degree.


8) How strong is career/graduate school counseling?

With the cost of college continuing to increase, concerns about finding a job after graduation are understandably a major consideration. Regardless of what you plan to study, find out what sorts of programs each school offers to help you transition to the working world or graduate school. In addition to general employment statistics, here are some questions to consider:

-What sort of help does the school provide in terms of finding internships?

-Are there stipends available for unpaid internships?

-Will career counselors help you with your resume and cover letters? Is there a mock interview program?

-Do companies recruit on campus? How many/which ones?

-If you’re planning to attend law or medical school, what percentage of students are accepted, and does the college pre-screen to determine which applicants it will support?

-How strong is the alumni network? Does the school continue to provide career counseling for alums?


9) What kind of school culture appeals to you?

If you’re looking at large universities, you can be pretty certain that you’ll get a decent cross section of students (although keep in mind that most state schools will be dominated by people from that state). Nevertheless, school cultures can vary widely. Some lean preppy and clean-cut; some are more artsy and alternative; some have a significant international presence… Most colleges are large enough that you’ll be able to find friends pretty much wherever you go, but it’ll probably be easier at some places than at others.


10) Do you care about Greek life?  

Don’t underestimate the importance of this one. There are campuses where the Greek system exists but doesn’t dominate campus life, but there are also campuses where it plays a very significant role. If you’ve always wanted to join a fraternity or a sorority, you should probably focus on colleges where it’s easy/common to pledge. And if the Greek scene doesn’t appeal to you, you should probably focus on schools where it plays a smaller (or less stereotypical) role or even none at all.


Obviously, there are a lot of variables at play, and as you look at more schools and get a feel for what you like, you may discover that things you initially thought were important aren’t such a big deal after all, and vice versa. If you’re not sure where to start, it’s a good idea to look at a few different types of schools: a big school, a small school, an urban school, a rural school, etc. There is no substitute for actually walking around a campus and getting a sense of the vibe. You’ll figure out what appeals to you — and what doesn’t — pretty quickly.

And a note to parents: if you drive up to a school and your son or daughter instantly hates it so much that they refuse to get out of the car… it’s not worth it. When it comes to choosing a college, gut instincts count for a lot. Good fits aren’t always immediately obvious, but the really bad ones tend to reveal themselves right away.