Yikes! It is almost time to start sending in your college applications and you've likely narrowed down your list a lot by now. Ideally, you want to apply to six to eight schools, so if you have more than that on your list, you still have some decisions to make.
So, how do you know which school is best for you? We suggest you start by asking yourself these questions.
1. How does the school make you feel?
It is easy to get wooed by a beautiful campus and forget that the most important part of college is the education that you receive. But you also shouldn't underestimate the power of how you feel on a particular college campus. If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, that could be a sign it is not the right fit for you. Transferring schools, or simple dropping out, can be very costly and is not a good move. So, if you are just getting a bad feeling about being at a school (and we don't mean it just isn't as pretty or has as many services as your top choice!) then you may want to reconsider applying.
2. Do you know what you want to be when you "grow up"?
You are probably entirely sick of this question and there is certainly a lot of merit in the fact that it is really hard to know what you want to do for life when you are just 17 or 18 years old. To make matters more complicated, data has shown that adults may go through as many as seven careers in a lifetime. Seven! (For full details, we recommending reading this article from the Wall Street Journal). So, if you strongly want to be a doctor, or lawyer, architect, engineer, or pharmacist, your college list might be easier to narrow. If the school doesn't offer a major related to that field, then it is a no go. But if you have no clue what you want to do, or you have an idea but you want to test it out, make sure the college offers a vast variety of major choices that fit into a lot of career paths so you have an option to change tracks if you find out the path you considered taking wasn't a good fit.
3. What services does the school offer and what services do you need?
If you have a learning disability, medical problem, or need counseling, make sure the school offer services to accommodate you. Staying healthy, both physically and mentally, will help you be successful in college, and receiving the advising and tutoring you need may be vital to your college completion depending on your personal situation. If you have some particular need, make sure the school can help you or reconsider sending in your application.
4. How big is the college and where is it located?
Do you get homesick when you are away from your family? How do you feel when you roam through a big city? Nervous and tense? Energized and excited? Do you like lots of personal connections or do you prefer being lost anonymously in a crowd? Answers to these questions can determine if you should remove any colleges from your list based on how far they are from your home, how many students they have, and whether they are located in the city or rural town.
5. How much can your family afford?
Students hate this question because it's one they feel like can really spoil their dreams. But keep in mind you don't need to be narrowing down schools from your list because the sticker price is too high. For each school you are considering, seek out the "Net Price Calculator". Each college is required to have one and if are having trouble locating it online, contact the financial aid office and they will point you to it. The Net Price Calculator gives you an estimate of what a family like yours might have to pay at that particular school, based on how much aid they typically award to a family with income and assets similar to yours.
It is just an estimate, so if a school is your complete dream school and it seems like it won't be affordable based on your entries into the calculator, you may still want to apply. But apply to that school with a realistic view that if your award comes back and the school is too expensive, you will have to make a tough choice. Have an earnest discussion with your parents about what their limit is for paying for school - including borrowing - and go from there.
You can also take a look at RISLA's How much can I afford calculator to help you determine what kind of student loan payments might be reasonable for you based on the career you are planning to pursue. If you are considering many different career paths, don't borrow more than 1/4 of the lowest estimate the calculator gives you. (The borrowing estimates are for all four years!)