Choosing which colleges and universities to apply to can be daunting for many high school students!

However, having a clear idea as soon as possible will greatly ease your hunt for college acceptances, as well as your search for scholarships and financial aid.

By figuring out where you want to apply before your peers (and competition), you will gain a clear-cut advantage as you formulate your application strategies.

Here are some things to consider during your search.

Do you already know what your major will be?

Most high school students aren’t sure what they plan to study in college, and even those who think they know might find themselves switching majors. If you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’d like to study, though, use that information to your advantage when conducting your college search! Rankings aren’t everything, but check out U.S. News & World Report and Forbes to see how programs have been ranked against each other. You should also do some research on the department: Who teaches there? Where did they go to school? What are their scholarly accomplishments? What notable alumni has the department produced?

College guides can help you with your search

The Fiske Guide to Colleges is pretty great, but there’s no need to limit yourself to it. Look for guides with plenty of data on academics, cost, and student experience.

In the initial phases of your search, compile a long-list of potential colleges, which you’ll then researchin greater detail. Learn all you can about eahc institution and get in touch with students in programs that interest you. Whittle the long-list down to a shortlist, which should also include a safety school. This is a school that you know will be easy to get into, in case you’re not able to attend anywhere else.

College vs. University

Both colleges and universities offer the same bachelor’s degrees. The difference between them? Colleges are private, tend to be smaller, and students get more attention from faculty. Universities are large public research institutions with graduate and doctoral programs, and students may be taught be graduate students as well as university faculty. I went to a college because I wanted more individual attention and didn’t want to be taught be graduate students. There’s no right or wrong answer when choosing between a college or university, though. Consider your needs.

Public vs. Private

Private schools tend to be smaller, more expensive, and more prestigious. Public schools are larger, often huge, and are funded by state governments. Private colleges have small classes, while public universities may have classes of hundreds of students. Public universities, though, because of their size, have a large range of programs and degree offerings to choose from. There tends to be more geographical diversity at private schools, because location doesn’t factor into the cost of attendance. At public schools, tuition is much cheaper for state residents.

Scholarships and Financial Aid

This is a hugely important factor for most students. What merit-based scholarships (academics, sports, the arts) are available? Does the college or university offer need-based financial assistance—and if so, how much? Study the financial aid websites of your prospective colleges closely. Look for an article on paying for college quite soon!

The Big Picture

Consider your goals. What factors matter to you? Cost? Scholarships and financial aid? Degree programs? Notable alumni? Specific professors? Class size? Culture? Location?

Finally, a last piece of advice: if possible, visit the colleges on your shortlist and sit in on classes at each. Not everyone is lucky enough to have this privilege—I know I wasn’t. Nothing beats experience!

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Additional Resources: “Winning College Scholarships for High Schoolers” Video Course

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