The first of four steps in identifying the right college for you is determining your educational and career goals. Once you have completed this important first step, the next is to consider your strengths, weaknesses, interests, goals, skills, and talents. This self-examination will enable you to define your preferences, a process that’s necessary in narrowing down your colleges-of-interest to a manageable few.

Your preferences comprise the subjective criteria that you’ll use to evaluate colleges. Preferences often include such factors as distance from home, campus setting, physical plant, climate, size of student body, student demographics, average class size, student-to-faculty ratio, academic majors and programs, athletic facilities, intramural and interscholastic sports, campus social life, laboratory resources, fine arts studios, performing arts venues, cultural, entertainment, and recreational opportunities and any other factors that you consider relevant. Weigh your preferences in terms of their importance to you. Keep in mind that no single institution will fully satisfy all of your preferences. This is a search for the colleges that fit you best, not the ideal college.

Determining the degree of conformance of colleges to your preferences is the second step in finding the right college. The third is a consideration of the likelihood of your acceptance as an applicant. There are techniques that mitigate the risk of rejection while still enabling you to seek admission to one or more highly selective colleges. These include applying to multiple colleges that range from low to very high in the probability of your acceptance. If you put your list of target colleges together carefully, you’ll like all of the school on it and be happy to attend any of them if you’re rejected by your “dream” school.

The fourth step in finding the right college involves assessing of the affordability of colleges. Can you afford to attend accepted? This question is difficult to answer early in your college admissions campaign because the advertised price of tuition at colleges is not the actual cost for most students. In fact, your actual cost is indeterminate prior to applying. It’s only known when a college accepts you and sends you an offer letter which describes the financial aid for which you’re eligible.

This delay in knowing of the actual Cost of Attendance (COA) makes the admissions process frustrating for most students and their families. Fortunately, the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2020 authorized the U. S. Department of Education (ED) to establish new rules that every college must follow. All colleges that participate in Federal student aid programs are now required to provide information on COA and to offer a net price calculator on its website. You still won’t know your actual net COA during the application cycle, when it matters most, but you’ll have effective cost information in the spring when you must choose among the colleges that admit you.

In their effort to simplify the college admissions process,, the ED agency responsible for Federal student aid programs, has included on its website a section called “Choosing a School”. This section is summarized below.

  1. How do I find the right college or career school for me?

a. Types of Schools

There is a wide array of schools available for higher education. Options include two- and four-year colleges and universities, vocational, trade, and career schools, online schools, and graduate schools. Different schools serve different purposes. Make sure you choose the type of school that helps you achieve your goals. Remember that financial assistance programs and requirements vary from school to school. Plus, not all colleges and career schools participate in Federal student aid programs. Always check with a school to find out what financial aid is available.

b. Assess Yourself

Understanding your career goals will help you find a college that meets your needs. The ED’s career search tool, College Scorecard, will help you match your skills and interests with potential careers.

c. Use the College Search Tool

College Scorecard helps you find and compare colleges that fit your needs. It provides data on college costs, graduation rates, post-college earnings, and other useful information to help you make the best decisions in choosing the schools to which you’ll apply.

d. Check Out Schools

To help you narrow down your college options, try the following:

• Check out the school’s website. Lots of colleges and career schools offer virtual tours, so you can still “see” the campus, even if you can’t visit in person.

• Attend college fairs. College fairs give you the chance to talk to representatives from multiple colleges. For instance, you may wish to visit the National Association for College Admission Counseling college fairs.

• A great way to get a feel for a school is to contact the school and schedule an in-person campus visit, preferably while classes are in session. Be sure to bring a list of questions to ask.

• If you’re in high school, ask your guidance counselor what information he or she has about colleges that interest you.

• Visit your state higher education agency’s website to learn more about colleges and universities in your state.

Your education is a huge investment, so seek as much information as you can before you apply. Consider applying to multiple colleges. For information on preparing for college, refer to the checklist on

  1. What should I consider when comparing schools?

As you research colleges, consider cost, financial aid, admissions requirements, accreditation, and other factors noted below. To find this information for a specific college, check its website or search for it using the ED’s college search tool, College Scorecard.

a. College Costs and Net Price

• College costs are often the most important factor in choosing a college. Costs vary significantly from school to school. Learn what is included in the costs of college.

• A college that participates in Federal aid programs is required to provide information on its COA and to offer a net price calculator on its website. This calculator will give you an idea how much a program may cost after subtracting financial aid.

b. Financial Aid

• Many students worry that tuition and the other costs of continuing their education will be out of reach. Don’t let the potential costs stop you. Most students receive some kind of financial aid, and a few students even get a “free ride” with all costs covered. You should learn about Federal financial aid programs including grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans as well as financial aid available from private sources.

• Always apply for all types of aid for which you qualify.

c. Admission Requirements

• Different colleges have different admission requirements. Learn exactly what a school requires by visiting its website or checking with its admissions office.

• Many colleges require that students submit standardized test scores as part of their applications. For many undergraduate programs, you’ll have to take either the SAT or the ACT exams.

d. Accreditation

• An accredited school meets standards set by an independent organization. This process ensures that the education you receive meets required standards in a specific field. If you attend a school that isn’t accredited, you can’t receive financial aid.

• Use ED’s accreditation search page to check a school’s status or to find an accredited school in a particular field or location.

• Beware of diploma mills, which are unaccredited schools that award a degree but require little or no classwork or exams that meet college standards. Some will send a diploma without you being required to do any work if you pay their fee. Others assign classwork and conduct exams that are excessively easy. In either case, the degree is worthless.

e. Enrollment Contracts

• Read college enrollment contracts carefully before you sign. These contracts explain what the school will provide to you in exchange for your tuition and fees.

• If a school representative promises something that’s not in the contract, ask them to write that promise into the contract and have it approved. A verbal promise is not enforceable.

f. Refund Policies

• Find out the school’s tuition refund policy. If you enroll but never begin classes, you should get most of your money back. If you begin attending classes but leave before completing your courses, you might get some of your money back.

• Find out the school’s return-of-aid policy. If you receive Federal student aid (except for work-study) and you withdraw from school, some of that money might need to be given back to the source by you or your school.

• Even if you don’t finish your courses, you’ll have to repay the loan funds you received, minus any student loan funds your school has returned to the ED.

g. Past Complaints and Reputation

• Just because a school participates in the Federal student aid programs doesn’t mean that the ED endorses the quality of education that the school offers.

• To find out whether there have been any complaints about the school, contact your local Better Business Bureau, state higher education agency, or the consumer protection division of your state’s Attorney General’s Office. Check with the organization that licenses or accredits the school to see whether it meets required standards.

h. Useful Statistics

The ED provides statistics that many students find useful in comparing colleges. They can be found on the ED’s College Navigator website.