5 Steps to Find Your Dream College

Trying to identify the perfect school for you is often a daunting task. Especially right now when travel is difficult, it is extremely important to have a set of criteria to evaluate if a school is the right fit for you.

By: Soleil Kelly, Mathematics & Economics at Vanderbilt University, 2023


You are going to college first and foremost for an education, so it’s the most important criteria to ensure that your future alma mater is up to your standards. Maybe you would benefit from a broad liberal arts style education or maybe the specificity in programs at a research institution is more your speed. No matter there are plenty of resources (like Naviance or US News & World Report) that will allow sorting through colleges based on their style of education. Additionally, there are many programs, like accelerated degree programs, that are only available at a handful of schools. An example of one of these is the Boston University Seven-Year Liberal Arts/Medical Education Program which is an accelerated program with early admission to BU Medical School built-in. There are many other programs like this one for different professional paths as well as dual degree programs like the one offered by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Knowing what you want out of your school academically will dramatically par down your list of possible options.


Next up is culture. Do you see yourself studying with friends on a Saturday or at a frat party? Do you dream of waking up early to tailgate for the big game or could you not care less about sports?  Identifying the student culture that is best for you and your mental health and the environment that is most likely to support you during your time at the school is extremely important. Now that you have identified a few schools that are a good fit for you academically, spend some time on their websites and social media pages to see what they say they are about. Be wary of getting all of your information directly from the school though, they will want to paint themselves in the best light possible. Utilize social media to find current students at the school and reach out to learn what the students think.


Now that you have a list of schools that are a pretty solid fit for you while you are there, it’s time to think about what you will be doing after graduation. As mentioned before, there are several schools with specialized programs that have graduate/professional school built right in, but there are also schools that have very strong alumni networks in specific industries which will be extremely beneficial when it comes to finding a job after college or even an internship during. And, don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what you want to do after college, this is a good opportunity to take a look at what career coaching and development resources they have available. I know it feels like having a real job and being an adult are a lifetime away, but your college years will speed by you in a blink, your future self will be happy that you took this into account when picking a school.


College is expensive. That is the fact of the matter, but being prepared for it will alleviate a lot of stress for you and probably save you some money in the process. Most schools will offer a tuition cost or “net price” calculator on their admissions website which will allow you to estimate what the cost of attending the school will be for you based on some basic information about you and your finances. Remember that this is only an estimate and subject to change when the financial aid office officially calculates your aid package, but it’s a great place to start. Next, you want to evaluate how the school itself calculates aid. Are they committed to covering all demonstrated need? Do they offer merit-based scholarships? Is there an institutional loan program? In addition to asking these questions, take a look at your means. Will you be able to work during school to cover some of your expenses? Are there outside scholarships that you are eligible and able to apply for? Is there anyone committed to helping you pay for school? Although a lot less glamorous than the other criteria in choosing a school, it is essential that you take a moment to evaluate your financial situation and how college may affect that. For most students, it is their first big financial decision, so make sure you are doing so equipped with all the information necessary. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post about navigating the financial aid process!)


Last, but certainly not least, let’s talk about size and location. Everything from program and culture to career and cost could be perfect about a school but you could be miserable if it’s in a location that you hate. Consider things like the size of the city you are heading to (Charlotte is very different from New Your City even though they are both cities) and climate (seasonal depression is very real). Try not to glamourize a location too much and look at different places for what they have to offer you. When it comes to size, consider your high school experience. If you went to a big school, how did you enjoy it? And vice versa. If the anonymity that a very large school like the University of Arizona provides you is appealing then take a look at larger schools (usually with more than 6,000 undergraduate students). But if that sounds scary or daunting to you, maybe consider a small school like Babson College right outside of Boston where class sizes are small and you are more likely to know more about the people in your graduating class. There are pros and cons to both sides of the spectrum when it comes to size and location, so this is another place where talking to current students can be beneficial to you.

Now that you have your college list, it’s time to get going on applications. Stay tuned for more posts helping you with essays, extra-curriculars, volunteering, and much more!

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