Decision Time: How to Choose a College


With April being decision month for most colleges and universities, high school students receiving multiple acceptance letters have to make a difficult decision weighing the pros and cons of each school to find the “right” fit.

“The first thing to realize is that you’re not trying to choose between good and evil,” says Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School ( “Especially if all of your choices are pretty good, that is what makes the decision somewhat more difficult.”

The average college hopeful is now applying to 20 to 30 schools, according to Danielle Moss Lee, president and CEO of the Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF) (, making it more difficult to be as selective with their final decision.

“You’re going to have schools that you’re really interested in that have the biggest potential to be a good fit and there are also going to be a lot of schools that they have applied to based on things like their friends, guidance counselors and others that for a variety of reasons might not be ideal,” she says.

Although students may feel torn between their choices, we talked to college experts to find out what students should focus on to make a final decision.

Don’t only focus on the exterior. Reider says students oftentimes get caught up in the surface level aspects of a university.

“Minimize, not neglect, but minimize what I call ‘the niceness things’,” he says. “It’s not just looking at the schools—this one has a better lab, it has a better library. It’s who do you want to be and what kind of person do you think you’re going to be in four years--you’re going to be a different person. How is that growth going to continue or be diverted in another direction?”

It’s also important to find a school that is not only an academic fit, but a cultural and social fit, as well as a place to make professional connections,.

Map it out.  Shannon Duff, college advisor and founder of Collegiate Compass (, recommends creating a framework table to analyze different aspects of the colleges and rating them on a scale from 1-10 based on the student’s criteria in areas such as academics, accessibility of professors, location, social life, and extracurricular offerings.

“Remember, these are your ratings -- so many of them are based on a school's fit for you in terms of, say, size or student body -- not everyone would give a school the same ratings,” she says.

Scrutinize academic aspects. The experts discourage students from choosing a school based solely on what they think they want their major to be, as the majority of students change majors at least once during college, according to The College Board (

Duff suggests that students think about two or three subjects that they are most likely to major in and then look closely at each college’s offerings in that subject to gain some perspective.

“How many classes are offered in that subject? How many professors are there in that department? Use this as one of your comparison metrics (fits under academics), or maybe it is even a separate category called ‘my major’.”

Know your budget. College is a big investment and the overall cost is something that both parents and students need to be comfortable with.

“If you’re going to school thinking that your parents are going to have to work for five years longer to pay for this and they’re putting off retirement and they’ve expressed that to you, I think you have to factor that in--that’s part of real life,” Reider says. “The fact of the matter is, you can get a great education any place, not only because you may not have gotten into the school of your dreams, but also because it’s up to you.”

Moss Lee says that she asks parents to be particularly careful about taking on parent debt, especially with multiple children who are planning on attending college. Students may get into their choice school but what the school is offering in financial aid may not match the family’s resources.

“I want them to also be thinking about what the impact of long term debt from one student in your family might be on your ability to support your kids through college and then also how that will impact your own earning potential as an adult if you haven’t finished college—what’s the impact of your family’s financial picture if you’re going in to deep debt that your salary can’t support in the long run?”

After looking at all of the components that are important in choosing a school, students should keep in mind that despite the pressure of finding the “right” fit, it is possible to find a school that makes sense with their academic, social, and financial expectations.

“Take all of those nuances about college life into consideration and at the end of the day, if you have visited both campuses and you feel good about both places, you have to trust your gut,” says Moss Lee.