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Choosing the Right College Starts by Answering These Questions

Choosing a college at 18 years of age presents a daunting challenge. For most high school students, the decision represents the most difficult one they’ve ever made. With so many choices, it’s easy to lose a few hours of sleep trying to sort it all out.

choosing a collegeOur first child is beginning the college search right now. She’s not losing sleep over it, thank goodness. However, with so many options it’s easy to not know where to start.

Information from the College Board shows there are approximately 4,000 private and public, two or four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Whittling that number down to a manageable few is some task. How can a high school student narrow their list so they can select the right school?

I did it by asking questions.

The questioning process wasn’t easy and didn’t produce a quick decision. However, the answers to my questions helped reduce my list to six schools. That group was subsequently lowered to three, of which I selected Cedarville University in Ohio. In retrospect, the selection proved to be the perfect choice for me.

There are many factors and dimensions to consider when choosing a college. The following questions, focused in specific areas, will serve as a filtering mechanism to develop and narrow the list of schools based on your needs and desires. The answers you get will really make choosing a college easier.


Ask these questions when considering the physical location of the school:

1. Do I want to attend college in the United States or overseas?

2. Would I prefer college in the big city, suburbs or country?

3. In what type of climate do I want to live? (perpetually warm and sunny or a climate with discernible seasons)

4. How far away from home do I want to be?

5. Is commuting to the school an option? (Can freshman have cars?)


These questions address the organizational makeup of the school:

1. Does the school offer a 2-yr. or 4-yr. degree?

2. Would I prefer the school to be public or private? Religious or secular? Single-sex or Co-ed?

3. Does the size matter? Do I want a small (<2000), medium (2000-15,000) or large (15,000+) school?

4. Do most students live on or off campus?

Academics and Entrance Standards

The focus with these questions relates to the academic standards and the difficulty of admission:

1. Do they have the major I’m interested in?

2. Is there a large selection of majors to choose from if I’m an undeclared freshman?

3. What is the teacher to student ratio?

4. What reputation for academic excellence does the school have in the post-secondary community?

5. Are the admissions standards strict? Is it easy or hard to get in?

6. What type of SAT/ACT scores do I need to qualify for admission?

7. Can I get credit for AP exam scores, CLEP Tests or transfer of credits from another school?

8. Is there an online degree option for distance learning?

9. Are there chances for accelerated or independent study?

10. Do they offer night and evening or weekend classes for greater flexibility?


Yes, college costs money. When choosing a college, ask these questions focusing on how to pay for it:

1. How much is the yearly tuition, room and board? What other fees will I be responsible for?

2. Will I be receiving any money from my parents?

3. Will the cost of school force me into part-time work?

4. What scholarships or grants does the school offer?

5. Will I have to take on debt (student loans) to attend this school?

6. Are other forms of financial aid available?

Services and Activities

Let’s face it – college isn’t all about academics. These questions address the supplemental services and activities you will want in a school:

1. What extracurricular programs are offered (sports, theater, music, student government, service opportunities, etc.)?

2. Are there social organizations to join (fraternities, sororities, clubs)?

3. What resources or facilities are available on campus for studying and socializing (library, tutoring, student lounges, etc.)?

4. How does the career services center assist me with personal development and vocational placement?

5. What expectations does the school have for student behavior?

The answers to some of those questions will weigh more heavily on your decision than others. Taken as a whole though, they should help you figure out what three or four schools fit your criteria. At that point, you are much closer to choosing a college that works for you.

Final Suggestions on Choosing a College

There are some final steps once you’ve narrowed the list to the finalists. No more questions need to be asked. Rather there are three actions to be taken.

The first task should be to visit each campus. There is something about stepping foot on campus, seeing the buildings and meeting some people that will move the decision-making needle one way or another. I took five college visits and two of them eliminated choices. One school was too big and the other too small.

Next, seek guidance. Listen to your parents and school guidance counselor. Talk to your church youth leader or the admission officers at the schools. They have the experience and knowledge to guide you into making an informed decision.

Finally, if you are a person of faith, spend time in prayer about the decision. God is in the business of giving peace about decisions to those who ask Him. And on such a big decision, you will need all the wisdom you can get.

Questions for Discussion: What question(s) helped you when choosing a college? Are there other factors to consider when choosing a college? What was the final factor that pushed you towards a particular school?

Image by arek_malang at Shutterstock.com

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  1. This is one great article. Every high school student should read this. I chose my college based on location and the quality of education. Anyways, thanks for sharing this. Cheers!

  2. Ultimately the question each student should ask: Will I make enough money to pay off the loans I take. Here is a calculator which will help you figure costs AND what you will earn for a specific degree https://www.yourmoneypage.com/education/studentloan.php

  3. I grew up in a small town so I didn’t really have the choice of many colleges, if I wanted to stick around. I couldn’t really afford to pay tuition and live far away from my family in a larger city so the college I got my degree in was one of my only practical options. I can imagine that it must be so stressful at such a young age to choose the best school for you.

  4. John S @ Frugal Rules says

    Great post Brian! For a number of reasons, location was the big sticking point for me as I wanted to move. As it so happened, the in state schools cost more than many of the out of state schools, so it made it an easy decision for me. I had ended up taking my first two years at a community college though, which I think helped mature me more so I could make a wise decision.

    • That’s interesting the in state schools were more expensive than out of state. Usually it’s the other way around. I like the community school option, especially if it results in the student saving money.

  5. Student Debt Survivor says

    Location, cost and availability of majors and extracurricular activities were key factors in my decision about where to attend college. I knew I wanted to be on the East Coast and I ended up getting a few substantial scholarship offers which made the decision more easy (narrowed my choices to two). I chose my university because the other university that gave me a scholarship didn’t have a wide variety of majors and I was nervous if I changed my mind about my major I wouldnt’ be able to stay at that school and would have to transfer.

    • “…didn’t have a wide variety of majors and I was nervous if I changed my mind…” In the end, this was the thing that tipped the balance for me because I was undecided before entering school. I had narrowed my choices to two. The one I selected had the most majors to ultimately select from.

  6. Honestly, my decision was largely based on cost. I visited several nice campuses but ultimately knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it. Besides that, the type of program offered mattered as well. My major was in a growing stage and not many colleges offered it, which made things a little easier.

    • “…not many colleges offered it…” That certainly makes the process easier if your intended major is only offered by a few schools. Cost should be a bigger factor than it is. I think many students don’t
      focus on that because they know they can get a loan to cover expenses.

  7. Emily @ evolvingPF says

    The summer before my senior year of HS, I created a spreadsheet with every college in the 357 best or whatever they are called and developed criteria for ranking them to see which fit my wants the best. Geography was a big eliminator as I didn’t want to apply anywhere north of where I grew up and also only in coastal states. Two of my criteria that you didn’t mention were average SAT score (the higher the score, the more points the school received) and sex ratio (more men than women got a point, a LOT more men got two points). (In retrospect, even though I wasn’t looking to get married during college, the skewed sex ratio did help in that department because I dated several great guys and ended up marrying my college sweetheart a few years after graduation.)

    The spreadsheet was kind of fun to create, but the real answer to “where do I want to go to school?” was found when I realized I was skewing my criteria so that one particular school ended up on top. And that’s where I went! It was a great tool of self-discovery.

    • What a great summer project Emily! I think geography/location may be a bigger factor than we think. I chose my college because of its proximity (within an hour) to home…something I was already comfortable with.

  8. Holly Johnson says

    I do plan to pay for at least part of my children’s college, but I hope to steer them toward an affordable option. To me, the choice needs to be practical otherwise it doesn’t make sense. I don’t want my kids to spend their lives repaying student loans.

  9. Great post, Brian. This should be sent to every high school junior and senior! I personally choose my college based on location and their business school program.

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