How to Decide Between Different Colleges

Oct 20, 2021

When choosing a college students should consider their own interests and how those might be met by different colleges. Some factors to consider include school size, location, focus (liberal arts vs. sciences), academics, athletics, culture, financial aid, and campus life.

Deciding Between Different Colleges

High school students should ideally begin preparing for college by their junior year. Students may work with school counselors to decide on a list of colleges that might meet their needs. Because college is a highly personal experience, a student should consider a number of factors in making a college decision. A few of these are outlined in the next several paragraphs.


Perhaps the most important thing to consider when choosing a college is the quantity and quality of academic programs offered. Are there many degree fields to pick from, or just a few? Are students allowed to design their own programs within their major by picking from elective courses, or are the degree programs structured with very little room for personalization? Another important consideration is whether the school's academic rigor matches the student's own potential. Students may want to find the average test scores and GPAs for certain schools to make sure their own academic profile aligns with the college's selectivity. They might also want to look at any national rankings earned by the college.

School Size

Large universities may offer more course offerings and a more diverse student body, but class sizes will usually be much larger than in a smaller university, which may make it difficult for students to have access to faculty. While some students may prefer the anonymity that comes from a large student body, others might prefer an intimate classroom setting offered at a smaller school. Smaller schools, however, may not have some of the amenities available at a larger campus, such as student sports or unique study programs.


Certain students may want or need to be close to their families, which should be a consideration when selecting a college. Other students may wish to live in a new city on the other side of the country. Students should also consider whether they want to live in a rural, suburban or urban area and find a college that is located in the appropriate setting. Individuals might also consider the climate of the potential college's city and access to major airports and modes of transportation.

Liberal Arts vs. Sciences

Liberal arts colleges have a curriculum based on a major and a core liberal arts education. Usually, approximately half of the coursework is in the humanities, sciences and arts. A liberal arts student can hone his or her communication, leadership, teamwork and interpersonal skills. The objective of many liberal arts colleges is to provide students with a well-rounded education that develops critical thinking and exposure to the arts outside the realm of the major.

A sciences education, on the other hand, is often more career-oriented. This can be beneficial to a student who needs to enter the job market as soon as possible. Engineers and nurses are good examples of graduates from a sciences college, though many other professionals may also pursue a science-based educational path.


Students with an athletic background may benefit from choosing schools offering scholarships through participation in sports programs. Many colleges get a large part of their academic funding as a result of their outstanding athletic programs. Often, schools with National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I sports teams are also highly ranked for their educational programs. The NCAA also has Division II and III schools but athletic scholarships are not allowed at Division III and are limited at the Division II level.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) offers students who may not have the ability or desire to play at the NCAA Division 1 or II level an opportunity to participate in collegiate sports nonetheless. Many smaller schools are part of the NAIA and offer scholarships to participate in their athletic programs.


Just like every person has a unique personality, colleges have a personality too, or more specifically a culture. Some schools, like the Ivy League schools for instance, are elitist with very rigorous admissions standards. State schools on the other hand are generally more welcoming to all students who meet admissions standards. Many private schools are affiliated with a religious denomination. Some schools are conservative in nature; others are liberal in their views. Some schools are considered party schools because of the preponderance of extracurricular activities available. It is important that students look at campus culture as it relates to their own interests and views when picking a college.

Financial Aid and Scholarships.

There is no doubt about it, college is expensive and the cost to attend is an important factor when choosing a college. But tuition should not be a deciding factor. State universities often have lower tuition rates than their private counterparts, but private universities generally offer more financial aid in terms of scholarship opportunities. The presence of on-campus or off campus employment opportunities can also help make the college experience more affordable.

Campus Life

College is all about academics and earning a degree, but students can't study all of the time. Extracurricular social activities are also important in forming a well-rounded individual. Clubs and organizations, and cultural events such as concerts, plays and other on-campus entertainment help students make friends, relieve stress and allow them to kick back and have fun. Some students may want to consider a university that offers the opportunity to join fraternities and sororities. 'The Greek Life' not only allows students to be involved in community, but sororities and fraternities also offer academic support, leadership opportunities, and career opportunities through networking with sorority/fraternity alumni.

Helpful Resources

U.S. News & World Report ranks colleges and provides relevant information for over 1,800 schools. U.S. News collects figures on each institution, which are weighed and factored into a total score for each school. The Princeton Review also provides over 60 rankings on schools, but does so with a survey-based approach that examines various aspects of college life, from academic to social issues. The Princeton Review contains several other categories, such as choosing a college, colleges for entrepreneurs and research tools for colleges and grad schools.

Asking the questions outlined above and utilizing the suggested resources will enable students to make the best college decision based upon their own individual interests and needs.

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