Choosing a College

Students have a vast number of choices for their plans after high school. This section lists the different types of colleges and degree programs, then describes how to identify colleges that are the right fit, and finally, how to narrow down the thousands of options into a meaningful list.

The first step toward choosing a college is to understand your options. There are several types of colleges and degree programs to choose from, and it's important to know the potential benefits and detriments of each:

College vs. University
The terms college and university are generally used interchangeably to describe institutions with at least four years of higher education. However, a college is often thought of as a four-year educational institution that only offers bachelor’s degrees, whereas a university generally offers bachelors, masters, and Ph.D degrees. There are over 2,500 four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

Community College vs. Junior College
Both community and junior colleges are the same type of two-year higher education institutions offering associate degrees. “Junior” college was the term commonly used through the 1970s, but the term “community” college is more common today. City colleges and military junior colleges also fall into this category. There are over 1,500 two-year colleges in the United States. Typically, two-year colleges have:


  • An open admission policy that is less rigorous than a four-year college
  • Only require a high-school transcript or General Education Degree (GED)
  • The core or basic subject credits earned at a two-year college usually will transfer to a four-year college
  • The tuition per semester is less expensive than at four-year colleges

Liberal Arts College
An undergraduate institution that is usually smaller in size (i.e.<5,000 students) with student-to-professor ratios of 10-20 students per professor. Most liberal arts colleges are private colleges (see Public vs. Private Colleges below). A liberal arts college offers traditional teaching in a wide variety of the humanities and sciences, rather than a specific vocational, technical or professional major. Liberal arts colleges award bachelor degrees following a four-year course of study, and very few offer post-graduate programs for masters or Ph.D degrees.

Public vs. Private Colleges
Public colleges and universities are largely supported by state funds and are often less expensive to attend if the student lives in the same state. Private institutions are supported by tuition and donations from alumni and friends of the college (i.e., endowments). Usually, the tuition for private colleges is more expensive than public colleges, but private colleges may offer more scholarships.

Associate vs. Bachelor Degree
An associate degree is an undergraduate degree awarded upon completion of a course of study generally lasting two years. Associate degrees are usually obtained at community colleges, junior colleges and technical colleges but may also be earned at a four-year college. Examples of careers that require an associate degree include lab technician, teacher in early-childhood programs, computer technician, draftsman, radiation therapist, paralegal and machinist. Bachelor degrees are obtained at four-year colleges and universities and are earned for an undergraduate course of study that generally requires three to five years of study (depending on institution and field of study).

Full-time vs. Part-time Enrollment
Students who commit to at least 12 hours (typically four classes) of weekly classroom attendance are considered full-time students; those who take less than 12 hours/week (e.g. 1-3 classes) are considered part-time students. Each college has its own specific definition of full-time and part-time status. Many students attend college part-time while working in a job to support themselves.

There is not just one college that is perfect for you--there are many colleges that can offer exactly what you want. The trick is to think about what you want out of the college experience and then look for schools that fit your needs and goals. The more time you can spend self-assessing and talking with others who know you (family, teachers and friends) the more likely you will be to select colleges that fit you well and provide a happy, motivating and meaningful experience. The most important factor in choosing a college is FIT.

In thinking about the questions above, you are starting to figure out what you want your college experience to be. The more you are able to know yourself--your strengths, your weaknesses, your interests, your hobbies, and your goals--the better off you will be in finding a good fit for college.

For more help on self-assessment, download and complete this Self-Assessment Worksheet. Review your worksheet with your family and guidance counselor.

Once you have identified the type of college that is likely to fit you best, the next step is to narrow down the thousands of options into a manageable list. Your preferences and priorities will help narrow the search. There are many factors to consider, and they will vary greatly from individual to individual. For some, academics are the most important, while others may focus on sports programs, location or extracurricular opportunities. Here are some specific things to consider:

What Should I Look for in a College?
You should research colleges that offer courses, majors and programs in your areas of interest and that excel in those areas. Compare programs and class offerings, professor credentials and achievements, department support and enthusiasm, websites, research grants and programs, and any publicity or reports about that department. Again, using a ratings form to compare differences will help you narrow your list. Note that it is important to check policies on changing majors and transferring from one department to another within a university; often majors are capped or have very competitive admissions processes, so a change of major is not always possible.

How easy or difficult will it be to be admitted?
Many four-year colleges have a very high acceptance rate and admit 75% or more of their applicants. For these campuses, the application process is usually fairly straight-forward, including filling out an application, sending test scores and transcripts. Many do not require letters of recommendation. Some four-year colleges have guaranteed admission for certain combinations of grades and test scores, while others do not require ACT or SAT scores at all. For more info see College Board.

However, many 4-year colleges have become very competitive and the sheer number of students applying means that each student needs to invest more time and energy into using each part of the application to help the admission committee have a fuller picture of the student’s academics, activities, passions, goals, and interest in the campus. To determine how competitive the admissions processes will be, you will need to look at the grade point averages and SAT/ACT scores, as well as the percentage of students admitted. In the extreme, this percentage can be as low as 5-6%. These figures can usually be found on the colleges' websites or on sites like College Navigator.

What is the cost?
College costs can range from $2,000 per year (at 2-year college with transferable credits) to $60,000+ per year at the most expensive private college campuses. Ask the following questions in a discussion at home: How much can your family contribute each year to your education costs? How much can you contribute from jobs, savings or gifts? Are you eligible for financial aid? Are you or your family willing to consider loans to help pay for college? Are you willing to set aside the time to search and apply for scholarships? For more information consult the Paying for College section of this website.

What is the campus like?
Where is the campus located? What is important to you about the location of your college? What is the climate? What is the setting: rural, suburban or urban? Consider the cost of travel, proximity to airports, campus safety, and availability of local transportation and cultural events. You should visit campuses whenever possible and take advantage of virtual tours on the college website and other sites that include virtual tours.

What is the enrollment size of the campus/program? What class environment is best for the way you learn?
Sizes range from 24 to 60,000+ students! Small campuses can be more cohesive and personal and students live on campus all four years. They usually have smaller class sizes and easier access to professors. Large campuses can have more majors and diversity, and are often less expensive. They may have more research opportunities, and activities/athletic programs. College Honors Programs can provide small learning communities on large campuses.

What other features and activities are important/vital to you personally?
Clubs, sports, fine arts, jobs, types of dorms, religious affiliations, study-abroad programs, dietary requirements, facilities for special needs, local transportation, sororities and fraternities, foreign language immersion programs, internships and job placement programs are just some features to consider.

There are many resources available to help you find answers to these questions and build your list, including websites like College Board and Peterson's, reference books in the College/Career Center, college rep visits, college fairs, opportunities to visit campuses, and advice from counselors, family and friends.

You've researched your list of potential colleges and now it's time to evaluate these colleges with the critical eye of determining your chance of acceptance. By sorting each college into one of three categories--Safety, Target or Reach--you will have decided are worth your effort, time and money and you will have a surer sense that in the spring of your senior year you will have several choices to decide upon for college.


This is a college that will most likely accept you and that you can afford. (Your test scores and GPA are well above the middle 50% of admitted students, i.e., your scores are in the 75% range or above.)


A college where you have a good chance for acceptance and some merit aid. (Your test scores and GPA fall comfortably within or exceed the middle 50% of admitted students.)


A college where admission and merit aid are a stretch for you. (Your test scores and GPA fall at the lower end of the middle 50% of admitted students or <25%.



You can compare your academic compatibility (GPA, test scores and coursework rigor) with the most recent admitted student profile found on a college's website or in the most recent College Board College Handbook. You will also need to look at the acceptance rate for that school. If the acceptance rate for a college is less than 20%, put that school in the reach category.


You can determine whether or not you can attend the college without substantial financial aid. If you will need substantial financial aid to attend the school if admitted, put that school in the reach category.

Note: Be aware that the admissions process is more than grades and test scores. Most schools evaluate applicants holistically and take into consideration other aspects such as essays, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters and awards. However, exceptional or extraordinary non-academic credentials such as a special talent or ability, legacy connection and donations may increase your chances.

Quality is better than quantity! Reduce or expand your college list to a manageable combination of safe, good match and reach schools.

The number of colleges on your final application list should be manageable enough so that you are able to submit a well-considered application to each college that accurately reflects your intentions.

Re-visit your list if you are applying to more than eight to ten schools or less than two schools. Ideally, the final college list should be composed of:

  • At least 1-2 "safety" schools, or colleges to which you are very likely to get accepted.
  • At least 2-4 "likely" schools, or colleges where you have a good chance for acceptance and some merit aid.
  • At least 1-2 "reach" schools, or colleges where admission and merit aid is a stretch for you.

The significant common factor for all the schools on your list should be your conviction that you would be happy and able to attend if you are accepted. Applications can be expensive (unless you have fee waivers) and time-consuming during an already activity-packed senior fall semester. Budget your time and money well and relinquish the urge to apply to more colleges than is necessary. Your primary goal should be to have viable options when final college responses are received in April.