You Can Find Colleges That Are Right for You

Although there's no magic formula for choosing a college, you can start by asking yourself some questions that help most students find the right fit.

Kinds of Colleges

Most students start by thinking about the kind of college they want to attend. As you do so, keep in mind that you have lots of options. More than 1,600 colleges — mostly community colleges — accept almost all high school graduates.

Begin by considering these questions:

  • Do I want to go to a two-year or four-year college? At a two-year college, students can earn an associate degree. At a four-year college, students can earn a bachelor's degree. Many students begin at a two-year college on the path to a bachelor's degree at a four-year college.
  • Am I limiting my choices by focusing on whether a college is public or private? Many students exclude private colleges because they think they're more expensive, but that's not always the case. Financial aid can sometimes make private colleges as affordable as public colleges. And private colleges are not always more selective.


Many students begin their college search by setting a limit on how far away from home they want to be. This might be an easy way to narrow the many options out there, but it doesn’t mean you’ll find the best colleges for you. Keep your mind open and think about these questions:

  • How close to home do I want to be? Close enough for meals and laundry, to visit on weekends, or to only come home on breaks?
  • Do I want to stick to a setting I’m used to or try something new?
  • If I look just a little farther — a few more miles or another half hour away — what other opportunities open up to me?
  • Am I staying close because I think it will be less expensive? Sometimes out-of-state schools are more affordable.

Campus Setting

Many students say that campus size and feel was a big part of their college choice. Whether or not you already have a mental image of what college life should be like, visiting a college and talking to students is a great way to get to know a campus. But first, consider these questions:

  • Do I see myself at a college with lots of students or in a smaller community?
  • Do I want to be at a college where students stay on campus most of the time? Do I want to live in a dorm?
  • Do I want to be around lots of different kinds of people or people with interests similar to mine?
  • Do I want to be at a school where sports are a big deal? Or one that’s known for its activism? Or for its hard-working students?


For many families, cost is a big concern — understandably. But it doesn't have to be such a big hurdle. College is usually more affordable than you think. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Do I have the facts about what colleges will cost? Students don't usually pay the published price because of financial aid — and shouldn't rule out colleges early in their search because of cost.
  • Will I qualify for financial aid? All students should apply for aid, whether or not they think they will qualify. Most students get financial help from the government or the college itself.
  • Am I eligible for scholarships? Certain characteristics or accomplishments might qualify students for private or college scholarships that award money they do not have to pay back.


A college major is the subject area you’ll spend the most time studying. Many students think they have to know what their major will be before they start college. In fact, you have plenty of time to decide on a major, and a lot of students change their major more than once. These questions can help you think about majors that may interest you:

  • What are my favorite school subjects? What do I like doing when I’m not in class?
  • Do I want to take classes in many different subjects or focus mainly on one subject?
  • What do I want to do after college and which majors can help me get there?

Learning Environment

As you know, college is about learning! So it makes sense to imagine your ideal learning environment. Don’t get stuck on things like a college’s reputation, rank or selectivity. What’s more valuable is how well a college’s academic style fits you. Consider the following:

  • Do I learn best when I’m academically comfortable or academically challenged?
  • Do I prefer to be part of small group discussions or to listen to lectures? How much interaction do I want with my professors?
  • What sort of balance am I looking for between studying and having a social life?
  • Do I want to choose most of my classes myself, or do I prefer more structure?

Sizing Up Colleges: Big vs. Small

As you begin your college search, one of the first decisions you need to make — and one that helps narrow your list — is what size college you want to attend. U.S. colleges offer many options, from small colleges with fewer than 1,000 students to large state universities with more than 35,000 students. What's best for you depends a lot on your personality and academic goals.

The Big College Experience

Do you picture yourself at a Big Ten university that offers everything from televised sporting events to countless degree programs? Are you itching to break free of the high school fishbowl and enjoy the anonymity that comes with being one of thousands of students? Then a big college might be a good fit for you.

Here are some of the benefits associated with big colleges. Keep in mind, these may not be true of all of them:

  • Wide variety of majors and courses
  • Well-stocked libraries
  • Variety of housing opportunities
  • Well-funded sports programs
  • Wide range of academic choices and student activities
  • Distinguished or famous faculty
  • State-of-the-art research facilities

Things to Consider

To succeed at a big college, it's best to go in knowing what subjects or general areas you're interested in pursuing. Students who do best at large colleges tend to be go-getters who are not afraid to speak up and take advantage of the many opportunities available.

Introductory classes at a large college may contain hundreds of students. Some students find this environment exciting. Others feel overwhelmed.

Another point: If you're attracted to a college because of its famous faculty, find out how many classes are actually taught by the professors, and not by their teaching assistants.

Administrative red tape is also something to think about — large colleges tend to have a lot of it. For example, enrolling in a course that's not part of your major may require multiple signatures and approvals.

The Small College Experience

Do you enjoy personal attention from teachers and advisers? Then a small college may be just what you need. Some students find that a smaller setting is a better fit. Although there may be fewer facilities, there are also fewer students to compete with.

Here are some of the benefits associated with small colleges. Again, these may not be true of all of them:

  • Small class sizes
  • Hands-on learning opportunities
  • Individually designed majors
  • Strong advising system; advisers know students well
  • Strong sense of community
  • Professors, not teaching assistants, teach most courses
  • Opportunity to get to know professors well

Things to Consider

Small colleges don't offer as many majors as big colleges; however, some of them let you design your own.

Courses at small colleges are usually taught by professors, not teaching assistants. The professors may even know your name and areas of interest.

Be aware that small colleges do not have the research facilities of large universities. If you're hoping to be a research assistant, find out what kind of work and facilities are available before you apply.

Although you'll find a robust social life at most small colleges, you'll find less in terms of big sporting events and variety. However, there is often a stronger sense of community and connection.

Start Your Search

Whether you're considering a big university, a small college, or something in between, you need to carefully look at all options, and determine what's most important to you. Use College Search to research two-year and four-year colleges and find some of the size that meets your needs.

Tips on Transferring from a 2-Year to a 4-Year College

Many students use a community college or another two-year college as a stepping-stone to a four-year college and a bachelor’s degree. If you want to take this path, here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure that the credits you earn from your classes at the two-year college will count at your four-year college so you can start out there as a junior. This can save you time and money.
  • Sign up for a transfer program at a two-year college. These programs include the same kinds of courses that you’d take in your first two years at a four-year college. They’re designed specifically to help you succeed at making the transition.

Plan Ahead and Ask Questions

Since each college has its own requirements, the most important thing you can do to make the transfer process run smoothly is plan ahead.

Get help from these resources:

  • Your high school counselor
  • College websites
  • The admission or counseling office of the two-year college you’re thinking of attending
  • Transfer advisers at the admission offices of the four-year colleges you’re considering

Ask these questions:

  • Does the two-year college have a special transfer relationship — often called an articulation agreement — with any four-year colleges?
  • Will the credits I earn be accepted at the four-year colleges I’m considering?
  • What grades do I need to earn in my classes to get credit at the four-year colleges?
  • What’s the minimum GPA I need to maintain to get into the four-year colleges?

How It Works

So what happens when you transfer? Your four-year college will look at the courses you took and the grades you earned at your two-year college and decide how much credit to give you. Each course is worth a certain number of credits, often three, and students need to earn enough credits, usually 120, to graduate.

Here are more transfer facts:

  • If enough of your courses transfer, you’ll start at the four-year college as a junior.
  • If you don’t get credit for some of your courses, you may need to take them again at the four-year college.
  • When you graduate from the four-year college, only that college’s name will appear on your bachelor’s degree.


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