Figure Out Your College Preference

Choosing the "right" college suggests that among the more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, one perfect match awaits — a single, magical campus that will meet all your needs better than any other institution. Not so. The good news is that every student who's willing to do the research can come up with several colleges that will enable them to reach their academic, personal, and social goals.

Defining your interests

Here's a way to get started in your quest for a college that suits you well. Turn off your cell phone, grab a pen and paper, write out numbers 1 through 10, and get ready to think critically about what really matters to you.

Take a look at the following factors and how each one might help you identify things you would like (or dislike) in a college or university. After reading the description of each one, determine whether the factor is unimportant to you (0), somewhat important to you (1), or very important to you (2), and write that number on your 1–10 list. Make notes on that sheet, too, as you consider your options.

Size of School       0          1          2

Do you want to be part of a small, intimate community with perhaps only a few hundred students in your college class and perhaps only a handful of students in each of your academic classes, or would you prefer to be part of a huge campus where you can study in relative anonymity, and where at least the introductory classes can contain several hundred students each?

Urban or Rural Setting       0          1          2

Do you want to study in a large city or urban center, where the city's bustling cultural offerings (concerts, sports teams, restaurants, and nightlife), as well as its downsides (crime, expense, and congestion), become part of your educational experience, or would you prefer an idyllic country setting where there is less distraction and where you can take a run almost anywhere?

Proximity to Home       0          1          2

Would you like to stay close to your family, or are you interested in getting as far away from them as humanly possible during the years you are in college?

Climate                        0          1          2

Simply put, how much do you care about climate? Are you prepared to completely exclude any school that is under a blanket of snow for four months out of the year, or would climate be a factor only in choosing between two otherwise similar schools?

Cost/Financial Aid        0          1          2

How much school can you and/or your family afford? Alternatively, are you prepared to take on whatever student loans are necessary to bridge the gap between what a school costs and what you can afford? How important is a school's price tag to you?

Academic Schedule     0          1          2

The majority of colleges employ the traditional semester system, whereby the academic year is divided into two 15- or 16-week semesters. In most schools based on the semester system, students complete their final exams and semester papers prior to leaving for winter break, and again by the end of the term in mid-May, which leaves them open to begin summer jobs or other experiences from late May through mid-August.

Other colleges and universities employ the full-year, trimester system, whereby each academic year typically comprises three 15-week sessions. Still other colleges and universities are structured on the quarter system, whereby the academic year is typically divided into four 10-week terms, each separated by a period of time off. Is there a particular structure that strikes you as more or less attractive? Scribble down some thoughts.

Curricular and Grading Philosophy      0          1          2

What about a school's emphasis on a "core" curriculum? You might be forced to take, for example, four classes in each of a designated set of curricular areas, such as the "hard" sciences (math, chemistry, physics); the "soft" sciences (economics, psychology, political science); history; and language, literature, and the arts. What about a school's insistence that you become proficient in a foreign language? Or that you spend time abroad?

What about a school's philosophy with regard to grades? Would you favor a school that lets you take a certain number of your courses pass-fail rather than for a grade, or do you want all your courses graded on a hard curve?

Housing Arrangement  0          1          2

What kind of housing arrangement would you prefer during your college years? Do you want to live on a campus dominated by the Greek system, where housing on campus is primarily centered around fraternity and sorority houses? Are you looking for theme-based dorms? Cooperatives? Do you want a single, or would you prefer to have one or more roommates? Do you even want to live on campus?

Racial, Ethnic, Religious, Cultural, and Stylistic Diversity        0          1          2

How important to you is the racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, and stylistic diversity on campus? Is this something that you want to pay special attention to? Think about the importance that campus diversity plays in your decision.

Sports and Sports-Related Scholarships          0          1          2

If you are a high school athlete, how seriously are you thinking about continuing your sport in college? How important to you are the division you will play in; the strength of the program, the coach, and the other players on the team; the training facilities; whether you are actively recruited, and the scholarship package? Do you want to zero in on specific schools based on these considerations?

What to do with your scoring sheet

Time to tally up. Take all the factors you scored as 2s and thus considered to be very important, and rank them in the order they matter most to you. Then do the same with the factors that you scored as 1s and thus considered to be important. This rank-ordered list of factors can now steer your search for schools, as you match up your preferences with the possibilities.