Picking the right college for you

For many college-bound students, choosing just the right school can be even more stressful than taking the SAT exam. How do you choose, from among more than 3,500 American colleges and universities, the place where you'll live and learn for four years?

Beyond that, how do you find the school you love -- and can also afford?

Savvy students and parents should start by pinpointing what they most want and need in a college. Make your own customized list or check a few Internet sites for ideas.

Specifications for schools

Some sites, such as The Princeton Review, allow you to plug in specifications and get a computerized list of schools that match your criteria. Some factors you should consider:

School specifications
2 or 4 year schoolSurroundings
Academic strengthSpecific states or regions

Two-year or four-year school: Two-year schools, such as community colleges may offer smaller classes, professors who are better at teaching since they're not hired to do academic research and a chance for less-than-star students to wipe out a not-so-great high school record. Financially, two-year colleges can be a bargain, too. Four-year schools might be a better choice for students who want to be surrounded by mostly A- and B-grade students; want a college with great resources, like a big library and lots of cultural and athletic activities; want a school where most students live on campus; and enjoy a college with a strong sense of community.

Academic strength: Colleges usually disclose the average SAT scores and high school grades of their incoming freshmen. Families can use these statistics to decide whether the school is academically challenging enough, or perhaps too rigorous, for their student.

Price: This information can be hard to find on a college's Web site or in their admissions brochure, especially for private colleges. These institutions know that tuition prices tend to scare off incoming students and their families. So dig a little. Some Web sites, such as The College Board, let you search for colleges by their price tags. You can also find out which colleges in your price range offer need-based financial aid and outright monetary grants in areas such as academics, athletics and leadership skills.

Size: Is the school small or large, based both on number of students and acreage? If it's a large school, does it offer any living/learning programs? These are like small colleges within large universities.

Surroundings: Does the student prefer a school located in or near a big city? Or would a rural area be a better fit?

Specific states or regions: Some students might want to live reasonably close to home, so they can visit high school friends or go home to do laundry. Other students may be interested in a totally new living experience -- a warm climate if they've always lived in a snow zone or a big city if they've grown up in a small town. Keep in mind that travel costs during summer vacation and on breaks will vary significantly, depending on how far the student must travel to and from school. Be sure to work that into your annual college budget.

Majors: Does the student prefer a school that offers a wide range of fields of study or one that specializes in one or two high-profile programs?

Attitude/religion: Is the school known to be conservative/traditional; diverse; or liberal and/or unconventional? Is the college secular or does it have strong religious ties?

Early decision, early action

Some schools offer what are called "early decision" and "early action" programs that give students the chance to apply -- and get an answer -- before the regular admissions deadline.

This may be something you want to consider if you have one school that's your top choice. The problem is that with early decision you are making a commitment to attend that school if accepted. By making that commitment, you are giving up your ability to compare financial aid packages you might be offered otherwise.


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