How to Choose the Right School for Me

You’re about to make one of your first grown-up decisions, and it’s going to be a tough one. From among the thousands of colleges in the world, you have to choose just a handful to apply to. You could take the easy way out, of course—you know how to pick a college or university randomly Or you can do the slightly harder work that will pay off for decades to come. You can take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself:

Who is this person anyway? What does she want out of college? What kind of campus will make him feel at home? If you haven’t worried too much about self-awareness before, now’s the time—before you make a huge, costly blooper and wind up unhappy.

What kinds of situations have made you feel academically and socially successful in high school? If you haven’t been successful, why not? Which kinds of classes have you gotten the most out of? What sorts of people have you enjoyed hanging out with? Which activities have really been fun? How different from high school do you want your college experience to be?

What kinds of academic programs interest me?

First, ask yourself why you want to go to college or university at all. Are you looking for a chance to dig deep into your studies, think big thoughts, and discuss them late into the night over coffee with your intellectual friends? Or are you mostly after the training that will prepare you for a specific career? Somebody who thinks of college or university as a time to burn the midnight oil exploring new lines of inquiry is apt to be happiest with a liberal arts education, which will supply the general knowledge and critical thinking skills needed in any number of jobs. A pre-professional or more practice-oriented education, one with lots of internship opportunities, for example, might suit you better if you already know that you’re headed for a career in, say, nursing, nuclear engineering, or graphic design.

But unless you have such a highly specialized career in mind, knowing what type of education you want (liberal arts or practice-oriented) isn’t the same thing as knowing exactly what you want to study—nor should it be. College counselors and admissions officers say one of the most common mistakes high school students make when figuring out where to apply is that they worry too much about finding colleges strong in whatever field they think will be their major.

How challenging do I want college or university to be?

Lots of students these days are so determined to impress their friends and families that they automatically limit their list to the most selective colleges they can get into. They don’t stop to think about how hard they want to study and how well they handle pressure. These are both important questions to ask. You can’t choose the right school unless you know the answer, so get set to take a long look inward. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I want to get out of college? Maybe you’re after an intense but broad intellectual experience. Or perhaps you want training for a career in Web design.
  • What’s my learning style? Are you the hide-in-the back- of-the-lecture-hall type? Or are you someone who thrives on being in the thick of the discussion?
  • How competitive am I? You may struggle just to stay in the middle of the pack at a college where the whole freshman class consists of former high school stars.
  • What will I want to do with my time outside of class? Volunteer at a homeless shelter? Hike in the mountains? Go shopping?
  • How important is diversity? Perhaps you’re pretty conservative but don’t mind taking the heat from liberals, or maybe you’re more relaxed when you’re one of the crowd and everyone looks like you.
  • How independent am I? Remember: A major reason students transfer is that they want to be closer to home.