How to Choose a College That’s Right for You

Find out the most important factors to consider when deciding on which colleges to apply to and attend.

How to Choose a College That’s Right for You
Kenjy Cruz

Finding the right college can be stressful. There are so many choices and narrowing them down is not always easy. But with thousands of public and private schools to choose from, there is definitely a good match for you. You might even be surprised to find that looking for the perfect match can be a lot of fun. You’ll have to do a lot of homework and research to find the college that’s right for you, as well as think of key factors to consider when choosing a college. 

Our BrokeScholar guide will help explain how to choose a college that fits you best, by examining various critical factors, both personal and impersonal, that will assist in shaping what the ideal college looks like to you. Read on to find out how to pick a college that is right for you.

Table of Contents

1. Start with Why Should I Go to College

This first step may sound sappy but knowing yourself and knowing what you’re trying to accomplish by going to college is an essential first step. You need to reflect on yourself and your reasons for wanting to attend college before you can start your college search. Indeed, what should I go to college for

Ask yourself questions about your abilities, your strengths, your weaknesses, your interests, your passions, and long-term goals. If you examine yourself and all these factors and cannot come up with a compelling reason to go to college, then maybe you shouldn’t go. But be aware: According to a 2021 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workers with a bachelor's degree as their highest level of education had median weekly earnings of $1,334, which is nearly 65% more than workers with only a high school diploma, and equal to $525 more per week in dollar figures. In addition, many job descriptions require candidates to have at least a bachelor's degree to qualify.

As an individual, are you someone who is self-sufficient, both socially and educationally in terms of discipline? Or do you need close, family support to succeed? This is why it’s good to talk to your family, friends, and high school advisors when you ask yourself these questions. People who know you well can be instrumental in figuring out whether you should go to college.

2. What Should I Study in College? 

You’ve probably been asked the same question dozens of times by friends of family members. Some students have known almost their entire lives what they want to do, while some adults still have no clue. If you are set on your major, then make sure you only look at schools with a good academic program in that particular area. If you’re still undecided, then search for schools that have a broad range of accredited programs available, and that have a strong liberal arts program.

For instance, if you are interested in engineering, many smaller colleges, especially small liberal arts colleges, may not have an engineering program. Wanting to study business is another common desire, but again, many smaller liberal arts colleges do not have robust academic business programs. You’ll need to do extensive research on colleges that have the kinds of academic programs you want to enroll in. A good place to do this kind of research is the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on their College Navigator page. Here, you can search colleges by the academic programs offered, not to mention search by state and whether the college is private or public. It’s an invaluable tool in helping you figure out how to decide on a college.

3. Location of the College or University

Certainly, one of the major factors to consider when choosing a college is its location. Now that you have your focus of study narrowed down, you must consider geography. Are you set on staying close to home, or even living at home and commuting to school? Or are you planning on traveling cross country or even overseas? Whichever your choice, narrow down your options to just a few places. This will make researching schools more manageable.

Again, the NCES’s College Navigator tool is an immense help here. Since you can narrow down your college search by state, you can find a college near you (or far) that also has the kinds of academic programs you are interested in. 

4. Type of College: Public vs Private Colleges

Another method for how to choose colleges is to decide whether you should attend a public or private college. While public colleges are usually more affordable and less competitive, private colleges may offer a more personalized education and smaller class sizes, as well as higher teacher-to-student ratios. However, each school is different, and you may want to do some research before making a decision.

Public colleges and universities, because of their generally larger size, tend to have more events and activities going on. They also tend to be the schools with competitive athletic programs, making sporting events extremely fun to attend. Cost is also one of the principal factors to consider when choosing a college because the average four-year public college cost of in-state tuition is $9,349 and out-of-state tuition $27,023; compare that to the average cost of tuition at a four-year private nonprofit college of $32,769. 

5. Begin Researching Colleges

When you have made your decision about courses of study, geography, and whether you’d like to attend a public or private college, research schools with these qualities. Ask your guidance counselor for brochures and books, look online, and call schools to request more information. You should create a list of about 10 colleges you would like to research in depth, and ultimately you will be able to narrow the list down to 5 or 6 schools you will be able to visit. 

Be sure to have at least one “safety school,” or school you are almost positive you will be accepted to, and one “reach school,” a college you will have to really impress to get into. Your top-choice school will probably fall somewhere in between these two categories. When you’re researching your small list of colleges, figure out your priorities. Set aside time to put together your own rankings, considering the pros and cons of a particular school. Reflect on your personal and educational needs when considering where you will spend the next four years of your life, or longer. But also incorporate into your ranking of priorities what you want to get out of the campus life at college. If you want nothing but pure, disciplined learning, that’s fine. Yet, if you want a good education experience plus a lively campus life, then you’ll need to identify colleges that combine both strong academic programs and eventful campus activities.

6. Career Prospects After College

Though this is looking far ahead for a high school student, you should consider the ability of a particular college to set you up for the professional world after you graduate. For instance, if you choose to study English, what are some English major jobs that you could pursue in the post-college world? Preferably, college is both a rewarding experience on its own and a launch pad for whatever you decide to do next in terms of your career. Thus, while you think over your college choices, make sure to examine how well the schools you’re interested in can help you prepare and lock down a career path.

Some factors to consider when choosing a college is asking if the school has a strong alumni network. Are current students engaging in interesting internships related to their fields of study? Does the college have degrees that align well with getting a job immediately (or nearly immediately) after graduating? It’s a good idea to visit the career center during your campus visit to learn more about what it has to offer in terms of eventual career paths and assistance in getting there.

7. Visit College and University Campuses

You can’t answer the question, what college should I go to, by only doing online research. You need to get boots on the ground, namely, by visiting the colleges you’re interested in. Visiting schools is your next and final step before evaluating options and choosing between two and four colleges you’d like to apply to. Make sure you formulate a list of questions you would like to ask on your tour, and make sure you speak to students you see on campus about their personal experiences at that college. 

While visiting campuses, other important factors to consider when choosing a college include: 


Students and teacher’s attitudes are very telling about how happy they are in their environment. Also, how clean is the campus? Is it busy and bustling, or empty and subdued? Are you in a rural or urban setting? Atmosphere is a key factor in figuring out how to decide on a college. Whether a school is the right fit for you, and whether you’ll be happy spending your time on campus are heavily dependent on the overall atmosphere of the college.

College housing

This is an aspect of college life that usually takes some getting used to, as dorm rooms are usually small and shared with at least one other person. However, some upper-classmen housing can be very nice, and some schools do not require their students to live in dorms. While living on-campus is recommended for at least your first two years of college, make sure that you’ll be comfortable living and sharing the space with others. When you’re researching schools online, such as using the NCES College Navigator, you can get a rundown on the housing situation, and even find out if a school does not provide on-campus housing at all. The college housing situation is one of the most important methods for how to choose a college that’s right for you.

Student activities

Do you like to get involved in school clubs and activities, or do you prefer to do things on your own? Do you like to go out at night, or would you rather stay home and watch a movie? No matter what your preferences, it is important that there is the right balance of student activities and nightlife for you to thrive at school. Researching student activities at colleges can be tough to do online, so it’s best to do this kind of recon while visiting the college campuses you’re interested in applying to. Sufficient student events and activities can make or break where you should go to college.

Financial aid

Let’s face it — choosing which schools to apply to may come down to how much it’s going to cost you. So be sure to speak to a financial aid officer on your campus tour and get some advice from your high school guidance counselor about financing for college. There are various forms of financial aid available. For example, financial aid in the form of loans, of course, have to be paid back, but financial aid in the form of grants do not. The largest federal grant program available to undergraduate students is the Pell Grant Program, which requires the student to demonstrate financial need in order to qualify for this federal grant. In addition, there are financial aid programs offered by state and local governments, institutions and organizations, and other private sources. Fortunately, according to the NCES, a greater percentage of students were awarded financial aid in the 2018–2019 academic year than in 2010–2011 at institutions overall (86% versus 85%), at public institutions (84% versus 83%), and at private nonprofit institutions (90% versus 89%).

The Bottom Line on What College Should I Go To

Once you’ve completed all your research, narrowed down your list of colleges, and visited the ones you’re most interested in, the last step is to send in college applications. While your college application is of central importance to getting into college, knowing how to pick a college that’s right for you is just as important. This process requires personal reflection and examination, as well as outward exploration of what kinds of academic programs are available, the type of campus life at the colleges you like, and the financials of making going to college feasible. Take all these factors into account and you’ll be well on your way to choosing the right school for you.

Andrew DePietro

Author: Andrew DePietro

Senior Researcher, and Content Strategist

Andrew DePietro is a finance writer covering topics such as entrepreneurship, investing, real estate and college for BrokeScholar, Forbes, CreditKarma, and more.