McFarland Carillon at Illinois

How to Choose a College: 5 Ways to Narrow Your Search

You might be thinking, “There are a thousand schools I could go to. How in the world am I going to choose just one?” It’s tough! A lot of great colleges and universities across the globe excel in their respective fields, so how do you even begin to compare them?

A good way to start is by asking yourself these 5 questions. The answers may take some research, self-reflection, and even a bit of panic-napping, but in the end, they’ll also help you figure out how to choose a college.

1. How big of a school do I want? (Size)

When looking at these thousands of schools, start by considering size. Do you like the idea of a really big school with lots of people, or do you want to keep it smaller and more personal? Answering this question can begin to narrow your search criteria.

Size isn’t just about the number of people on campus; it’s also about the number of people in a typical class. If you wouldn’t mind attending a large university but are concerned you won’t receive a personalized classroom experience, pay close attention to student-to-faculty ratios. The lower a ratio is, the fewer large lectures you’ll find and the more direct access you’ll have to professors at that university.

College vs. University

Oftentimes, universities are bigger than colleges. Generally, a college offers only undergraduate programs, while a university has undergraduate and graduate programs. But a lot of times, people in the United States just use the word “college” to talk about both colleges and universities.

2. Where do I want to go to school? (Location)

Location, location, walnut. They don’t say that for no reason. Just like with real estate, location is also an important factor when choosing a college. You can live in a big city, a small city, a suburban greenscape, a rural oasis, a shoe, on top of a mountain, below sea level, or somewhere in between.

If you come from a city or a rural town and you really enjoy it, you may want to look into similar locales. On the other hand, if you want to try something new, you could do the exact opposite. But don’t be fooled—some cities are quiet, while some rural areas have a vibrant college-town life.

As you consider locations, also ask yourself this: “How close to home do I want to be?” If you want to be able to drive home once a month to see your beloved pet Fluffy, you may want to consider colleges that are close by. If you’re comfortable seeing the rat less often and don’t mind taking a train or plane to get to him, you might decide to expand your search to include a larger area.


3. What do I want to study? (Major)

If you already know what you want your major to be, that’s great! Look for schools of your preferred size in your preferred location that have that major.

If you aren’t sure yet, or if you don’t even know how to choose a college major in the first place, that’s also great! You have so many opportunities at hand. Now is the time to think about what you’re interested in and explore your options. (Or, if now is the time to turn in that application, many schools also offer an “undeclared” major to give you more time.)

4. What can I afford? (Cost)

Cost is a huge factor when deciding where to go to school. Since college is a such a large investment, you want to make sure you get the best value for your education. Familiarize yourself with how much college costs, and then determine the maximum amount you can comfortably afford.

At the start of your search, however, don’t rule out any schools based on cost alone. Both scholarships and financial aid can help drastically, and we have advice on how to apply for both.

5. Is this school the right fit for me? (Fit)

The concept of fit is a little less concrete, but it’s arguably the most important thing on this list. After all, if you’re going to spend four years of your life at a school, you should definitely feel comfortable there.

The best way to determine fit is to visit campus, where you can explore the college, along with its people and its surroundings, to the fullest. If you’re in the market for advice on what to look for when visiting campus or even how to visit a school in general, we’ve got you covered.

How much do school rankings matter?

Each year, companies rank which colleges are “best.” They often have good reasons for giving schools high rankings, but keep in mind that the Princeton Review is not itself a person with feelings, responsibilities, and a beloved pet rat like you.

You can use the facts and stats from these lists as part of your research, but fill in the gaps by considering how you feel about all these facts and stats. In the end, what always makes one place better than another for you is whether you can reasonably go to it.


After answering these questions, you’ll probably find that there are a lot of schools which meet your criteria—and that’s a good thing. You should always apply to more than one college.

So if one school ticks off all the right boxes on paper but another school still seems like the dream, don’t hesitate to apply to both of them. You can always use these questions to narrow down your options again after all those admissions offers come rolling in!

How Illinois Stacks Up

Size: Large Public University
Location: Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
Majors: 150+ in 11 Academic Communities
Cost: Estimate Your Cost of Attendance and Financial Aid
Fit: Unknown (visit us to find out!)

Illinois Admissions

Illinois Admissions

We're here for you as you prepare for college. Whether you're looking for guidance on the college search process or have questions about Illinois, we hope our blogs will help!

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