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Last updated June 19, 2023

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

How to Pick a College

Key Takeaway

Choosing a college can be a challenging decision, but considering factors such as financial aid, campus visits, interactions with the community, and creating a pros and cons list can help make the process easier and more informed.

Congratulations—you got in! Now that the whirlwind of the college application process is done, you’ve got a big decision on your hands. It may even feel more difficult than applying in the first place.

But sooner or later (hello, May 1!), you’ll have to make up your mind and submit that enrollment deposit. It's time to pick a college.

Let’s go over a few ways to help you decide.

May 1

If you didn’t already know, May 1st is an important date in college admissions. Everyone has agreed that it’s National College Decision Day—the day by which soon-to-be college students must decide on a school and submit their enrollment deposits.

Needless to say, it’s a big day for students and admissions offices alike.

Ways to Make Your Decision

When it comes to making your decision, you’ve got a lot of factors to take into consideration. Hopefully by this point, you’re already familiar with your options. Have you researched everything you can about each school? Have you visited campus? Do you have any lingering questions?

Once you’re sure you have the basics down, it’s time to start narrowing.

Consider financial aid

For the majority of students, financial aid can be one of the most important factors when deciding where to go to college. As unfortunate as it may be, if you simply can’t afford it, your list might be narrowed for you. Or if you have a financial aid offer that’s too good to pass up, the decision might be an easy one.

When comparing financial aid packages between schools, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Remember to compare net costs. Net costs are the total costs you’ll pay to attend an institution. Schools with higher tuition rates often award bigger merit scholarships. A $30,000 scholarship from School A might look better than the $15,000 scholarship from School B. But if School A’s tuition is $70,000 and School B’s is only $30,000, then your net cost would be a whopping $40,000 at School A but a much smaller $15,000 at School B.
  2. Consider other added costs, like travel fares and cost of living. The cost of college isn’t just tuition. There’s also room and board, living expenses, costs for books and school supplies, and travel costs. If you go to a school far away from your home, you’ll probably be paying more in airfare, for example. Don’t forget to factor in these added costs.
  3. Negotiate. This isn’t always possible, but you may be able to negotiate your financial aid package. If you received a larger scholarship from a similar institution, you can try bringing your higher offer to negotiate with another school. It’s worth a shot!
  4. Consider the value add from things like alumni networks or major-specific opportunities. College can be really expensive. You want to make sure you’re getting the most for your money. As you’re looking through your options, be sure to think about how a school’s opportunities and resources will be valuable to you in the future, too.


If you haven’t already visited the campuses, now is the time. It’s hard to make a commitment to a school you haven’t physically been to. Traveling there may be expensive, but it might be worth it considering the investment you’re planning on making in your college education.

Try taking advantage of admitted student days or special visit programs. You’ll be able to get a sense of what the campus is like, and there are often additional activities that admissions offices plan to help you get a feel for what it’d be like to be a student.

Some admissions offices even have special vouchers or fly-in programs to help students visit campus in person, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Interact with current community members

There’s nothing like a conversation with your future professor to get you excited for college. Many admissions offices have ways to schedule meetings with faculty, current students, or even alumni. You might be able to sign up for something during your campus visit, or you might be able to schedule a meeting to video chat.

Being able to ask real campus community members your questions can make all the difference. You can start to picture yourself on campus and determine whether you mesh with the school’s personality.

College students are also no strangers to social media. Look up your prospective schools on Instagram, TikTok, Reddit—wherever you can see what real students are up to. Be a silent onlooker, or engage with them where appropriate. You might learn a whole lot more than you did from the school’s website alone.

Make a pros & cons list

Okay, this one is an oldie but a goodie. You can’t go wrong with a classic pros and cons list.

There’s so much information to take in throughout the entire college admissions process. But when you’re choosing between schools, the information can be overwhelming. You don’t want to confuse yourself or let important details slip through the cracks.

To help, write down everything that’s important to you. Make a pros and cons list for each school, and then start to weigh your options against each other.

Aren’t happy with your admissions results?

As much as we hate to say it, college admissions decisions aren’t always bright and sunny. Sometimes your results are not what you had hoped they would be. We always recommend students build a school list that only has good options, including safeties, to avoid tough situations. But sometimes things like this just happen.

So what do you do when you don’t like any of your options? Or when you seemingly have no options?

Find a transfer pathway.

First, you can consider beginning a journey now that you know you’ll transfer from later.

That might mean attending a school you aren’t in love with knowing that you’ll apply to transfer the following year. It’s not ideal, but doing so will allow you to get a start on your college experience while beginning the application process again. The tricky part about this path is that you’ll need to maintain good grades and community involvement if you want to be a strong transfer candidate.

Finding a transfer pathway might also mean signing up for a community college with the intention of applying to transfer in your sophomore or junior year. This option can be a great way to save money while working towards your degree. If your grades were on the lower side in high school, it can also be an opportunity for you to show growth and academic success, which transfer admissions officers always love to see.

Think about taking a gap year.

If you really can’t picture yourself at any of the schools you’ve been accepted to, then you also have the option to take a gap year. A gap year can help you take time to regroup, focus on a passion, or mature a little before college. In fact, some schools (like Harvard) encourage them.

But if you take a gap year, you can’t simply vibe for a year and expect to get into any school you want. You’ll need to be productive with your time. Often, successful gap year students will get a job, travel, pursue an independent research project, participate in a gap year program, or more.

If you’re considering this option, we have a whole guide to gap years for you.

The Bottom Line

Making your college decision is tough. You have to consider personal and emotional factors alongside financial and logistical ones. It’s a lot to manage, but nothing will beat the sigh of relief and excitement you feel when you finally click “accept” on your application portal.

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