How to Decide on a College

Posted on May 30, 2024

Posted on May 30, 2024

Some students grow up with a dream of attending a specific college, whether it’s family tradition, a specific specialty, or other considerations. But for other students, choosing a college can be a nerve-wracking and overwhelming decision. 

You can find many colleges that offer an excellent education and an opportunity to explore academic interests. However, it’s not a decision to take lightly. Here are some considerations for choosing your ideal college and reaching your personal and professional goals. 

Rank Your Priorities 

Whether you're going to college right out of high school, planning a career change, or finishing your degree as an adult learner, college is a big, and exciting, commitment that forms the foundation for your career future. Considering your priorities is crucial to begin your search for colleges, whether online or in person. 

Here are some aspects to consider: 

Geographic Location 

Location is a big factor for students. You may prefer to stay in your home state and attend a public school for in-state tuition. Some students want a change by attending college far away from their hometown, while others may prefer to be close to family, relatives, or friends. 

Colleges in big cities offer opportunities for social and cultural activities and access to major companies for internships. However, small college towns have a sense of community that you can’t get in the city. 

If you're looking into online colleges and programs, you can expand your options even further. You're not constrained by your location, schedule, or commute, giving you options at schools and programs all over the country.  

Available Majors and Classes 

If you know what major you want to pursue, it’s crucial to look for schools that meet those needs. Make sure your prospective schools offer degree options that align with your goals. 

If you’re undecided, you may want to choose a college that offers a wide variety of majors. This gives you a chance to explore some academic interests and find your passion while you’re taking gen ed courses. 

Academic Quality 

All schools are going to say they offer the best programs in every field, but that’s not realistic. Most schools have exceptional programs in just a few areas, which should align with your academic interests. 

You should also consider accreditation for the individual academic departments that are important to you. You can get a sense of a school’s overall academic quality and reputation by checking school rankings and reading reviews from past students. 

Course Format Options 

The rise of technology has enabled many degrees and courses in an online format. If taking online courses or getting an online degree is important to you, look for schools that offer these options. 

There are pros and cons to online and traditional learning, however. Consider whether you are best served in a traditional, online, or hybrid environment to help guide your decision. 

School Size 

Colleges and universities range from small and intimate liberal arts colleges with a few thousand students to big state universities with tens of thousands of students. Smaller schools typically offer specialized degrees and hands-on learning opportunities while larger schools offer more diverse programs. 

There are pros and cons to both. Small colleges have smaller class sizes, so you can often get more individual support from advisors and professors. Larger colleges may have more activities and professional resources, larger libraries, cutting-edge research facilities, and recognized sports or academic teams. It all comes down to what you’re looking to get out of the experience. 


Cost is closely tied to the size and location of the school. Choosing a public college near your hometown can save you money on tuition. In-state residents typically have lower tuition and fees. Private colleges are often more expensive. Online colleges can provide a cost effective start to your education journey, allowing you to learn remotely and with less travel.   

You also need to consider the other costs associated with college, such as student housing, off-campus housing, books and supplies, transportation, and other miscellaneous fees. In addition, your financial aid offers may differ from school to school, including grants and scholarships. 

Campus Environment and Activities 

Personal and professional growth is a big part of the college experience. Think about the campus environment and your interests. Some colleges offer excellent arts and culture scenes, avid sports fandom, or strong Greek life. 

However, if academia is your focus, you may want to look for campuses with a focus on research with opportunities for student research projects or academic clubs and organizations that help you build your resume. 

Campus Resources 

Colleges vary in the resources they offer, not just for you as a student but as a person. Most colleges offer writing guidance and course tutoring, but they don’t all have resources for mental health, wellness, or adaptive learning if you need them. 

These may not seem important, but it’s common for students to experience homesickness or other challenges in college. The support you receive can make a big difference in your success and overall experience. 

Develop a Short List 

With your priorities in mind, sit down with your parents – or partner if you’re an adult learner – your school guidance counselor, or trusted friends or colleagues and develop your list of colleges. This can include both local and out-of-state schools, public and private schools, and diverse or specialized schools. 

Consider a variety of experiences and potential academic outcomes before making your final decision. Create a list of at least 10 colleges that offer majors that align with your academic and professional goals and priorities. 

Tour College Campuses 

You can learn a lot about your prospective schools with internet research and speaking to advisors, but it doesn’t compare to seeing the campus in person. This is an opportunity to interact with the faculty, ask questions, and understand the overall environment. 

Apply to Schools 

According to The College Board, students should apply to between four and eight colleges, but some experts recommend as many as 15. Application fees can add up, not to mention the time involved, so you may want to divide schools into “target,” “reach,” and “safety” schools to get a balanced mix of colleges and universities. 

However, if you’re set on one or just a few colleges and don’t feel compelled to apply to several schools, you can keep your application pool small. That said, you may face a higher risk of rejection if you’re only applying to a few schools – especially if they have stringent acceptance criteria. 

Compare Financial Aid Offers 

Your acceptance letters and financial aid awards may take time to arrive. Along with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), there may be financial aid awards from each school. 

Depending on your financial goals, a favorable financial aid offer could be a major factor in your decision. Compare your annual costs for tuition, fees, and other expenses to understand your investment. 

Make Your Decision 

With all the information at your fingertips, consider the advantages and disadvantages of the colleges that accepted you. Think about the financial aspects, academic value, and environment according to your priorities. 

Get a Head Start with College 

Choosing the right college is a big decision with a lot of time and thought involved. If you want to get some courses completed while you wait (and save some time and money in the process), Sophia’s offers gen ed courses for transfer credit. Just be sure to check with your advisor about transferable courses. 

When you’re ready, browse our partner schools and start your free trial

Category: Higher Education

Subscribe to our blog

About once a month, we'll send you Sophia news, educational insights, and more. Only the good stuff - we promise.

*All fields are required.

Thanks for subscribing!

Start a free trial no credit card required!

Try a Sophia course for free. Your free trial work is applied toward course credit when you become a member.