If you’re in high school, then you probably don’t realize how much the college application process has changed in recent years. You used to have to fill out, by hand (!), every piece of documentation required by your prospective college, meaning you only really had time to apply for about three or four colleges at max.
In 2016, you can apply for dozens of colleges with a couple clicks and copying and pasting the same information into the same fields on websites around the country. But this creates its own headaches, because now you must choose which of those dozens of colleges you actually want to attend, and that’s not always easy.
Today’s step-by-step guide is for any high school student who’s having trouble figuring out which college is the best fit. With our help, you should be able to determine where to spend the next four years of your life.
Step #1: Visit Campus
This really can’t be avoided. The worst move you could make is to enroll at a college sight unseen. You’d be shocked by how many college brochures and websites make an institution seem completely different than it looks in real life. You wouldn’t be the first student to be tricked by a fish-eye lens and a stock photo.
Where this gets difficult is if you’ve applied for a bunch of colleges that are out of town. My advice in these situations: wait until the decision letters come rolling in. If you’ve been accepted by a couple out-of-state colleges and you really want to go there, book a plane ticket or get in the car ASAP. It’s best to eliminate (or confirm) choices as early as possible.
Step #2: Decide What Really Matters To You
Maybe you have a specific area of study you want to get your degree in. Maybe not. Honestly, knowing that one fact won’t help you that much. Even if you want to be an accountant, that helps you narrow your search down to, oh, hundreds of schools across the country.
Believe it or not, academics are probably the least of your worries. What about distance from home? If you want to be within a three hour drive, close but not too close, you have some idea of your options. If you see yourself five states away, well, that broadens the scope, but at least you know where you don’t want to be.
What about athletics? Or apartment-style housing? City versus rural? Sorority or fraternity life? Parking options? Class size? Are your friends going there? The list goes on. Once you have an idea of what you want from a college, you can look more closely at your choices and narrow that list of 19+ down to the few where you know you’ll belong.
Step #3: Make A Grid
Okay, this part is interactive. Open up an Excel spreadsheet, and on the lefthand side of each row, type the name of the college or university you’ve applied to. Then, at the top of each column, type the name of the campus amenity that matters to you.
Go through each school you’ve applied for and put an X in the appropriate cell if that college has the things that you’ve deemed to be must-haves. Eventually, you’ll notice that a few schools have way more X’s than others. Those are your top choices when you get ready to make your decision.
Step #4: Determine Financial Aid
Cost will play a big factor as well. Some schools will no doubt be more expensive than others, but I’ll say this: don’t avoid applying for a school just because you think it will be too costly. Many schools have all sorts of financial aid packages and scholarship options to help you pay for school. Be realistic about money, but also give yourself the chance to at least explore the possibilities.
Fill out your FAFSA and then start to piece together which schools are conceivable to attend based on their tuition rates and what you think you’ll get in aid and scholarships. At the very least, you should be able to establish a baseline of what’s doable.
Honestly, you’ll probably have to wait until you receive notifications of acceptance before you really look into how much it will cost to pay for school. You can ballpark it earlier in the process if the school has upfront scholarships based on GPA or ACT score, but it’s hard to get an exact estimate before you see the piece of paper that says you’ve received x scholarship or have been approved for x loan.
Step #5: Visit Campus. Again
Once you’ve received your acceptance letters, it’s not a bad idea to visit campus again (or for the first time if you haven’t done so already) now that you have a better idea of what you want out of a college.
On this visit, see if you can set up an activity where you can speak to students and professors in your program of interest. This will really help you determine if you could see yourself going here for the next four years.
After looking at the bigger picture, now you get to look at the little things. Find out how the dining plan works. Get a general sense of the building you’d live in. Test out the bus system. Do whatever you need to determine whether or not the college and the people in it are a great fit for you in all your unique glory.
Step #6: One More Thing
Whittling 19 colleges down to a single one can be tricky, but hopefully you’ve found this helpful. If you’re getting ready to visit a campus soon, then be sure to download our College Visit Worksheet, which will help you keep track of many of the things we discussed up above. Good luck on your journey!