Choosing the Perfect College

Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College
Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College. Eric Behrens / Flickr

Many people feel overwhelmed by choices when trying to decide where to spend the next four (or more) years of their life. It can be tough to choose between what are considered to be the best collegesuniversitiespublic universitiesbusiness schools, and engineering schools without getting caught up in rankings. Many schools have strong reputations, plenty of resources, high graduation rates, access to networking opportunities, and other notable features.

In the end, you are the only one that can really decide what college is best for you. Rankings and research only matter as much as you want them to and your interests, personality, talents, and career goals should be the ultimate deciding factors.

Disregard college classifications when they only serve to make your choice too difficult and consider instead what is important to you and where you would feel proud to attend. If you are still feeling stuck, don't worry—start with this (non-ranked) list.

High Graduation Rate

A startlingly low graduation rate is never a good sign. The goal of college is to obtain a degree, so it makes sense that a high rate of failure and/or drop-out is a red flag. Some schools are much more successful at graduating students than others but don't settle for a path that is unlikely to lead to the degree you're paying for.

That said, be sure to put graduation rates into context and determine whether they are justified. For instance, the most selective colleges only enroll students who are already prepared to succeed and likely to graduate. Colleges with open admissions make school accessible to all and that sometimes means matriculating students that ultimately decide college isn't for them.

Keep in mind that not every degree can be completed in four years. Programs such as nursing and engineering might require an extra year or two to graduate their students and most graduation rates only take four-year careers into consideration.

Low Student to Faculty Ratio

The student to faculty ratio is an important figure to consider when looking at colleges but not something to give too much weight—just take these numbers to indicate roughly what you might expect from a school.

Low student to faculty ratios are optimal but don't discount a school with a higher number. Some universities place large research and publication expectations on their faculty, who in turn teach fewer courses. Other research universities may devote more time to supervising the research of graduates than undergraduates. It all just depends on a school's priorities.

A high rate does not automatically mean that you will be neglected by your instructors but a low rate also does not guarantee the one-on-one attention of your professors. No matter where you go, class sizes will vary along with professor attentiveness. Figure out what you're looking for in terms of class size, public vs. private, and instructor relations, taking any ratio with a grain of salt.

Financial Aid

It doesn't matter how great a college is if you can't pay for it. You won't know exactly what a school will cost you until you receive an official financial aid package but it's easy to find what percentage of students receive aid and grants to attend.

The financial aid that students receive varies greatly among public and private institutions. Private colleges cost more to attend but generally have more money to offer. Many universities publicize the average percentage of a student's total tuition that is made up of aid. In the end, though, it is the amount in loans that a student takes out to pay for college that is most important.

Colleges should try to meet you in the middle with financial aid—don't expect to have your entire tuition paid for but don't let them leave you high and dry either. Ideally, you will receive more aid than you need to take out in loans. Check out these college profiles to know whether you qualify for aid at your dream school and approximately how much you might be able to expect.

Internships and Research Opportunities

Nothing helps more when applying for jobs out of college than having hands-on, practical experience on your resume. Look for schools that have vigorous programs for experiential learning. Great colleges will give you opportunities to assist professors with funded research, secure meaningful summer internships with companies that interest you, and take advantage of a strong alumni network when you are looking for work after graduation.

Internships and research experience are principal aspects of any field. No matter what major you plan to pursue, ask the admissions officers at your desired school about experiential learning opportunities.

Travel Opportunities for Students

A good education should prepare you to go out into the world. All employers want to see that you are open-minded and aware and some even expect you to be adept at international relations. As you search for the perfect college, find out whether a school offers travel opportunities and programs for students in the best places to study abroad. Students should be able to choose from semester- or year-long study abroad experiences and shorter trips scheduled during breaks.

Ask yourself these questions when you deciding:

  • How many study abroad options are offered? You should have a wide variety of places to choose from that meet your interests and goals. Look for branch campuses in other countries that make the study abroad process smoother by handling financial and academic matters internally.
  • How is study abroad funded? Find out whether study abroad experiences offer financial aid. If not, determine whether they will cost more than staying at school.
  • What are travel course options? You shouldn't take classes that don't interest you just to be able to travel. Research all courses with travel components to find the best fit.
  • How will study abroad affect the trajectory of my college career? Make sure a semester abroad won't negatively impact your projected graduation. If course credits don't transfer, a study abroad experience can make it difficult to graduate on time.

Engaging Curriculum

A college curriculum doesn't need to be trendy or gimmicky to be engaging. As you look at colleges, be sure to spend time exploring their course catalogs. Determine whether a college has a strong first-year curriculum to support your transition into college-level coursework and whether a college offers courses that interest you.

All colleges should have elective courses that make you feel excited but make sure that they are all justified. Some universities offer intriguing classes about monsters and zombies without providing a good reason for including them while others execute these well by explaining their benefit and how they will fit into your education.

If you think you know what you want to study, look at the requirements of your major at each college. The courses should cover subject areas that attract you and will prepare you for your desired career.

Clubs and Activities Within Your Interests

"Quantity over quality" applies when it comes to the clubs and activities present at a college. Before choosing a school, make sure they have your extracurricular interests covered.

Consider hobbies old and new. If you loved something in high school and want to continue practicing it, find ways to go after it in college before you get there. College is the time to chase new interests too, so don't close your mind to options you had not considered. You may discover lifelong passions when you try new things.

Campuses have their own personalities and priorities. For example, they may place most emphasis on anything from performing arts to Greek life. Find schools that complement you. Academics are the most important feature of your college career but you also want to ensure that your life will be stimulating and fulfilling outside of class.

Health and Wellness Facilities

Rumors of the famed "freshman 15" are often true. Many students make bad decisions for their health and gain weight when confronted with unlimited high-calorie food in cafeterias. It is inevitable that a college campus becomes like a petri dish for colds, flus, and STDs as thousands of students from around the world come together in the confined spaces of classes and residence halls. Mental health issues also thrive in university atmospheres.

While you'll find germs, fattening foods, and stress on nearly every campus, it is in your best interest to research a college's health and wellness facilities and programs before attending. As a rule, the following should be true:

  • Dining halls should offer healthy meal options daily.
  • Non-athletes should have access to good exercise facilities.
  • A health center should be available to students for basic services, preferably easily accessible from or on-campus.
  • A counseling center offering support for students struggling with mental health issues should also be available.
  • Programs should be in place to educate students about responsible drinking and sexual health.

Students of healthy body and mind are much more likely to succeed in college than those who aren't.

Campus Safety

Most colleges are extremely safe but some have lower crime rates than others and they all have different approaches to safety. Regardless of the school, bicycle theft and home invasions are not uncommon on college property and the rates of sexual assault tend to climb when adults live and party together.

On your next college tour, inquire about campus crime. Are there many incidents of crime? If so, how are they handled? Does the college have its own police or security force? Does the school have a safe escort and ride service for evenings and weekends? Are emergency call boxes located throughout campus?

To learn about the reported crime statistics for a specific campus, visit The Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool created by the U.S. Department of Education.

Academic Support Services

Everything is going to struggle at times with class material which is why looking into each college's academic support services is a good idea. Whether it is a writing center, individual tutor, or office hours session that you are looking for, you need to know that this type of help is an option. Find out how readily available support will be when you need it.

In addition to general academic help, realize that all colleges are required to comply with Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Qualifying students must be offered reasonable accommodations such as extended time on exams, separate testing locations, and whatever else may be needed to help them perform. Great colleges include plenty of robust services under and outside of Section 504.

Career Services

Most students attend college with career aspirations in mind and a school's career services can help you to achieve these. The forms of help and guidance that a school provides as its students apply for jobs, internships, and graduate studies speak highly of the quality of education you will receive there.

Some resources to look for are:

  • Job fairs on campus
  • Resume development sessions
  • Mock interviews
  • Frequent academic advising
  • Pre-tests and study sessions
  • GRE, MCAT, and LSAT preparation services
  • Networking opportunities

Colleges that provide any or all of these services are likely to be supportive of their students from the beginning to the end of their careers.

Leadership Opportunities

You'll want to be able to demonstrate strong leadership skills when applying for jobs and/or graduate school. Colleges are responsible for making these available to you.

Leadership is a broad concept that can take many forms, but consider these questions as you apply to colleges:

  • Does the college offer leadership workshops or classes in a variety of fields?
  • Does the school have a leadership center?
  • Does the college have a leadership certificate program or leadership track?
  • Are there opportunities for upper-class students to become tutors, peer mentors, or peer leaders for introductory-level classes?
  • How can I get involved with student government?
  • What is the procedure for starting new clubs or activities on campus?

Healthy Alumni Network

You immediately link yourself to every person who has ever attended a college upon your enrollment. A school's alumni network can be a powerful tool for providing mentoring, professional guidance, and employment opportunities to its students even before they graduate.

Students should be able to take advantage of their school's alumni network for internships and job opportunities, or there is no point in having one. Alumni at the best schools tend to volunteer their expertise to students in their field.

An active alumni network speaks volumes about the experience students have at a school. If alumni care enough about their alma mater to continue donating their time and money long after graduation, you can assume that their college experience was positive.