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How to plan and select the best college for you

by Amy Rivers 5 days ago in college

A School Counselor's insight to decision making

How to plan and select the best college for you
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

If you’re reading this then you’re probably preparing to make a huge life-changing decision. This is only a small step in the person you have yet to become.

While the act of selecting the best college doesn’t fit into a one size fit’s all decision-making process, I do hope the information I share from my experience as a College Counselor will give you important areas to consider so that you can make the most informed decision possible.

Know your Major or area of interest

This might go without saying, but I’m going to say it: do the colleges you are looking into have your major? For example, if you’re planning on becoming a computer engineer, it doesn’t make sense to look into schools that don’t offer that degree.

I wouldn't recommend applying to schools solely because they are prestigious or might rank high in the Best National Universities list, unless they have your major. Important to not get caught up in going to a specific college and look at the big picture. If you stay on track, you will only be there for 4 years… your career will be much longer.

What if you don’t have a major yet?

There are many online assessments, like College Raptor, that can help recommend majors that would be a good fit with your personality, interest, and aptitude. If you are in high school, you could also utilize software that is available to you. See if your school has software like SchooLinks, Naviance, or Kuder Navigator available to you.

Know your Budget

How do you plan to fund your college education? Are your parents going to help? For most, money is a huge factor when making the final decision of where you plan to go. If this is the case for you, there is nothing wrong with living with your parents for the next four more years, if they will allow it. It saves a substantial amount of money (room and board averages about $10,000 per year X 4 years= $40,000).

Tip: Depending on the state you live in, the sooner you complete the FAFSA application for the school year you will be attending, the better chances you have of receiving state funds.

In some states, like Texas, these funds are allotted to colleges to give out on a first come, first serve bases. The FAFSA application opens October 1 for the upcoming school year. It is important that you list the colleges you are going to apply in this application so they can receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) report.

You can check to see if your state has a priority deadline on the FAFSA Deadline page.

Other than major, what else are you looking for?

Are there any non-negotiables for you? Some examples might be: to stay in state, have an intermural soccer team, be in close proximity to a shopping center, be a region with warm climate, have a campus free of cedar trees, and have apartments nearby available to freshman so you can bring your beloved furry friend.


If you are planning on going off to college then make sure you don’t skip out on the research. I highly recommend going to tour before you make your final decision. Be sure to note what the weather will be like year-round, if there are shopping locations or areas of entertainment nearby. Will this be a major adjustment to what you are used to?

Make your preliminary college list

The goal at this stage is to create a research list. You don’t have to apply to any of the colleges in this list and you can always add and remove colleges as you go. You can utilize your high school software or National Center for Educational Statistics College Navigator, or College Board's Big Future.

Research, Research, Research

This is part of making an informed decision.

Things to look for: What’s the 4-year graduation rate? What’s the dropout rate? Does the college have a support structure for incoming freshman? What’s the acceptance rate? How does your grades, college standardized test scores, and overall application compare to the accepted students?

Most of this data can be found on the college website, counseling software available at your high school, or College Board’s Big Future.

Application List

This is the list! Be sure you know what the application looks like for each one of your colleges on your list. Are there recommendation letters, essays, or an educational resume that are required? Also be aware of the major deadlines, so you don’t miss any. This helps you mentally prepare yourself for the weeks ahead.

Tip: College Board offers application fee waivers if you take the SAT using their SAT fee waiver (To be eligible, you must meet College Board’s fee waiver criteria. Being on free or reduced lunch will make you eligible. See your counselor for more details). Not all colleges will accept the SAT fee waiver, but most do!

Safety, Target, and Reach

It is highly recommended to have at least one college in each area:

Safety School is a school you should be able to get into. Your grades, test scores, and other areas are probably higher than the college acceptance average.

Target School is a school you should be able to likely get into. Your grades, test scores, and other areas are probably meeting to the college acceptance average.

Reach School is a school that you are hopeful to get into. Your grades, test scores, and other areas are probably lower than the college acceptance average.

As a side note, your list may or may not look different than your friends. Your reach school might be their target or vice versa.

But wait… can’t you apply to more?

Short answer: yes. You can technically apply to as many as you want. Would I recommend applying to an insanely high number of schools? No. If you are planning on applying to more, it’s always best to keep the number around eight.

I once had a student apply to over 40 colleges. It’s not recommended. The student lost momentum mid-year and couldn’t keep up. This is extremely costly, and takes a toll on the quality of the applications that are being submitted, and doesn’t allow for quality research to be done.


After you apply, follow-up with the college admissions and financial aid departments. Your job isn’t done until you receive both the admission decision and then the financial aid award letter... even if it’s to say they will give you $0.

A note about Community College

While there isn’t anything wrong with Community College, statistically, it has a much higher dropout rate than 4-year universities. It is great for specialized training that doesn’t require a 4-year degree. For example, it’s a great decision if you want to be a dental hygienist, radiologist, wielder, etc. It’s usually not the best option if your ultimate plan is to obtain your 4-year degree.

According to "Less than 25% of high school graduates who enroll in 2-year colleges complete a degree in three years" and "Only 5% of students in 2-year colleges graduate on time with a 2-year degree."

If you are planning to start at community college and then transfer to 4-year university, my advice is to start with the end in mind. This means know where you ultimately want to go and what your 4-year degree plan will be.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to advisors at both colleges. By doing so, you will be able to check courses off of the required list and ensure you are not taking unnecessary courses that you don’t actually need.

A word of caution

The majority of the time advisors like to that say that all of your courses can be transferred to the 4-year college without doing much research, but in reality, it still often leads to a waste of electives or courses that don’t go into your actual Bachelors degree plan (this is why you should plan ahead). While the extra courses will technically transfer to the college, they don't necessarily transfer into your specific degree plan. Believe me, I know this from personal experience.

Tip: Check your state's scholarship and grant fine print. In some cases, taking excessive courses that don’t go into your degree plan can negatively impact the amount of financial aid you will be able to receive.

Bonus Tips:

Have you completed your FAFSA for the correct school year that you are planning to go? If not, go do it now! Some colleges do not give merit-based scholarships and grants without completing this.

Early-Decision is legally binding, while Early Action is not.

You can reuse college essays.

When writing college essay’s your goal should be to show the admissions reviewer something they can’t see from the other parts of your application.

You can try to get application fee waivers by calling the admissions office and checking if they give fee waivers if you participate in a tour, attend an event such as a football game or open house, or if you are on free or reduced lunch.

This might not work, but I observed a student call an admission office and try to haggle the price. He was able to get them to come down on tuition by about $1,000.

Designate a calendar for all major college deadlines for the colleges on your application list. Clearly mark the application, financial aid, and housing deadlines. Be sure to keep the calendar in a visible place. Having a designated calendar makes it easy to not accidently overlook a major date.

Proof-read your college essay and make sure it’s the best quality possible. Have someone you trust read over your college essay before turning it in. It also helps if you listen to it in a read-aloud app to catch any errors. I can’t tell you how many essay’s I have read that were submitted with mistakes.

Optional material? Do it! If your application is comparable to others, the optional material might be the one thing that sets your application apart.

Use the rest of the current year to try and figure out how you learn best. Maybe try out studying with notecards, rewriting your notes by hand, or typing your notes and listening to it being read using a read-aloud app.


Amy Rivers
Amy Rivers
Read next: The Unconventional College Life
Amy Rivers

I'm a an educator, counselor, and amateur writer and artist. I still enjoy reading the Harry Potter series.

See all posts by Amy Rivers

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